In my last post, I discussed the neurotransmitters in your gut, making the connection between what you eat and your brain health. I addressed the gut's role in the immune system and allergic reactions in the brain. I shared that I've been on what I call a “reset diet.” I want to expand on all this, mostly from the perspective of the food we eat. I ended up with a post that was almost 2,300 words, so I moved the final part to a new post. Still, this is a long one because there are a lot of related concepts.
“Let food be thy medicine.”
Food can help us, or food can harm us. No two people are affected the same way. We have different food sensitivities and allergies. Some we're born with, some develop later in life.
What is an allergy?
Simply put, an allergy is a damaging immune response by the body to a substance.
According to The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, “An allergy is a chronic condition involving an abnormal reaction to an ordinarily harmless substance called an allergen.”
If you have an allergy, your immune system views the allergen as an invader, and a chain reaction initiates. White blood cells of the immune system produce IgE antibodies. These antibodies attach themselves to a specific kind of cell, causing a release of potent chemicals such as histamine.
Although allergies can develop at any age, the risk of developing allergies is genetic.
Understanding the immune system
The immune system is a host defense system. It’s made up of a complex network of cells, tissues, organs, and the substances they make that helps the body fight infections and other diseases. The immune system includes white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system, such as the thymus, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and bone marrow.
To function correctly, the immune system must detect a wide variety of microorganisms called pathogens that can cause disease and distinguish them from healthy tissue.
Immune system disorders can result in autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, and cancer. Immunodeficiency occurs when the immune system is less active than normal, resulting in recurring and life-threatening infections.
As indicated above, the immune system is involved in allergy responses.
There are two system analogies that I tend to use:
- The immune system is like a computer firewall, keeping viruses out.
- The immune system can be seen as an army with a limited number of soldiers and ammunition.
I think that the immune system can only focus its energy on so many things at a time so if there’s a cold or flu going around and you're not taking care of your immune system, there’s a higher likelihood that it will slip in. Everyone has different conditions under which they tend to get sick. For some, it's stress. For others, childhood trauma could keep their immune system chronically weak. For me, sleep is critical. I know that if everyone around me is sick, I need to get enough sleep to keep my defenses up. Some people seem to get sick every time there's “something going around.”
It's not just about getting sick, or allergies. Every time we bang our knee or stub our toe, our immune system goes to work. We bruise, we swell. When we get food poisoning, we vomit and/or have diarrhea. Our body reacts to keep foreign invaders out.
Skin reactions such as cold sores, pustules, and acne are all immune related. Acne has many causes – most notably hormonal – but the immune system also plays a part.
Studies have found a correlation between the bacteria Propionibacterium, acne and the immune system. (Source: Gabby Bernstein's interview with dermatologist Bobby Buka, MD.) Propionibacterium lives in and around the sweat glands, sebaceous glands, and other areas of the skin. One study found that Propionibacterium was the most prevalent human skin-associated genus of microorganisms.
The immune system and what we eat
In addition to allergies, there are other reasons foods might not be suitable for us and yet tolerated by others. Sometimes foods will always harm us, sometimes it's only at certain times.
We all have different needs to thrive. Some people thrive eating high-fat diets (everyone needs fat, but some need more than others). Some do well on a high carb diet. Some stay healthy eating vegan, some can’t eat vegan at all. Some people can’t eat raw vegetables without digestive distress. Some people get kidney stones if they eat too many vegetables. The list of examples goes on.
The point: There is no one-size-fits-all eating lifestyle. However, there are foods that in general, we should all eat more of, and some we should eat less of.
The Candida Connection
You might have a yeast overgrowth and not know it because you don’t know the symptoms or what it looks like, or you hear “yeast infection,” and your only association is TV commercials for vaginal yeast infection treatments.
Candida Albicans is the most common type of yeast infection found in the mouth, intestinal tract and vagina, and it may affect the skin and other mucous membranes. If the immune system is functioning optimally (your soldiers are fully armed), this type of yeast infection is rarely serious. It's usually harmless. However, if the immune system is not functioning correctly, the candida infection can migrate to other areas of the body, including the blood and membranes around the heart or brain. (Source: WebMD)
Candida is a fungus. At proper levels in the body it helps with nutrient absorption and digestion. When there's too much of it, symptoms may appear. That’s when you get Candida Overgrowth Syndrome, a chronic condition that flares up in connection with food sensitivities and a disruption in the gut and skin microbiomes.
Candida can grow out of control when your body's natural pH balance is disturbed.
Your body has two brains
Yep. I just said that. Did you know that the gut is often referred to as the “second brain”?
Not specifically the gut, though you’ll hear it called that, the enteric nervous system (ENS). The “gut” is generally the “gastrointestinal tract.” The enteric nervous system is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, beginning in the esophagus and extending down to the anus.
The ENS consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut.
Simply put: Neurons line the gut. The gut contains neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters affect our brain health. Balancing neurotransmitters is a brain and body job.
The second brain contains some 500 million neurons, one two-hundredth of the number of neurons in the brain and 5x as many as the one hundred million neurons in the human spinal cord.
Emotions and the gut
About 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus nerve, carry information from the gut to the brain. This has huge implications.
For one thing, people tend to associate neurotransmitters with the brain. When people talk about mental health issues such as depression, they often speak of neurotransmitters. For example, we talk about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI medication) such as Paxil, Lexapro, Prozac, and Zoloft to treat depression.
But read this:
95% of the body's serotonin is produced by the gut nerve cells, and every class of neurotransmitters found in the brain is also found in the gut.
It’s a complex relationship.
Given the physical connection between the gut and the brain, it might not surprise you that our emotions are influenced by the nerves in our gut. Think “butterflies in your stomach” or that kind of anxiety, fear, or excitement (bad or good) that makes you want to vomit even if you might not be nauseated. Panic attacks. Stress diarrhea. The feeling you get when you first fall in love or when you have a crush. Antiici…..pation.
When we’re thinking about depression and other mental wellness issues, we need to look at what I call our Intake.
Food and mood
Our gut plays a prominent role. That means digestion plays a prominent role. That means that what we eat, how we eat, the combinations of foods, and eating what is right for us, affect our mental health.
Hippocrates, often referred to as “The Father of Medicine” and the author of the Hippocratic Oath that all medical practitioners take is famous for saying “All disease starts in the gut.” He also said, “Let food be thy medicine.”
Those two Hippocrates quotations alone are very telling. Disease starts in the gut, and food as medicine. What we put in our mouths can help us or harm us.
Some researchers say that up to 90 percent of all diseases can be traced in some way back to the gut and health of the microbiome (others say closer to 80%).
An aside: Bill and Ted might have invited Hippocrates back to their classroom if their project was in health class! They'd have called him “Hippo-crates,” like “So-crates” below:
(RIP, George Carlin.)
Little proteins and mood
There are two types of peptides (little proteins), specifically opioid peptides, that affect the morphine or opium receptors in the brain: Casomorphins, from the digestion of milk protein casein, and gluteomorphins derived from gliadin, one of the primary proteins found in gluten grains.
These peptides are absorbed from the gut and find their way to the brain, causing mood and behavioral problems. Gluteomorphins could also lead to the malabsorption of vitamins and minerals.
There are two ways that peptides cause problems in the brain:
- They look foreign, so the immune system reacts. This leads to overall inflammation which can show up as autoimmunity, autism, ADHD, depression or psychosis. The brain gets inflamed as an immune response, just as when you bump another body part, it swells.
- Peptides leak into the body and brain and mess up brain function like heroin or a psychedelic drug would.
Source: Mark Hyman, MD, The Ultramind Solution.
(After I learned that, I wanted to have my peptide levels tested. It’s a urine test.)
The microbiome is a complex internal ecosystem of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi and other) located within our bodies. In adults, microorganisms make up about 1 to 3 percent of the body's mass. That's 1.5-4.5 pounds of bacteria in a 150-pound adult or 2-6 pounds in a 200-pound adult. (Source: National Institute of Health)
The vast majority of the bacterial species that make up our microbiome live in our digestive system/gut/ENS. Adults have over 100 TRILLION microorganisms living in their gut.
A loss of microbial diversity is called “dysbiosis” – which translates to “life in distress.” As it’s understood, dysbiosis is the loss of beneficial microbes and pathogenic (bad) ones encroach. Of course, we want more good bugs than bad. When bacteria are out of balance, so are we.
It’s a global health crisis.
In The Ultramind Solution, Dr. Mark Hyman wrote that when antibiotics are used to treat harmful bacteria, depression often lifts.
Dysbiosis is related to the food we eat – not just junk food vs. health food, but quality. It’s related to the water we drink. The air we breathe. Soil contamination. Pesticides. Pollution. Chemicals. Viruses, which lead to antibiotics, which lead to superbugs and so forth.
The gut microbiome and the immune system
Most of the immune system resides in your gut. The gut microbiome and the immune system influence each other and rely on each other.
I’m often telling my partner to lay off the jujubes because they (the sugar) suppress the immune system. You know what? He’s getting over a cold that made him feel dreadful. One day he suspected that he had the flu. Another day he proclaimed pneumonia. He subsequently had a temperature of 101°F. After about 4 days of uncomfortable sickness, he was on the mend. He gave me that cold and it barely registers. Sure, I've had a couple of excruciating headaches, including one that woke me up in the middle of the night with its stabbing, searing pain, and I’m coughing up a bit of mucus, but it’s nothing compared to his experience.
Until 2 days ago I’d gone without sugar, yeast or grains for a couple of weeks. I gave up beer and ate light proteins (more on that to follow in another post). I’ve been calling it my reset diet. Then there was birthday cake. My birthday cake. I chose to allow myself a slice or two of birthday cake.
I've also been taking Vitamin D, cod liver oil and probiotics regularly.
Microbiome, microbial diversity, and allergies
Some allergic reactions happen in the brain. It’s like a runny nose but in the brain. Therefore, food allergies can cause mental symptoms, such as brain fog, anxiety or depression.
Microbial diversity in poop samples in babies can indicate allergies later on.
I've tried to keep this concise and straightforward with little jargon. I have some related posts planned that might add more relatable context to it. This piece of writing and those related ones that haven't been written yet have been rolling around in my head for almost two weeks. When I started to draft this one a few days ago, I had too many ideas to untangle. It wasn't until I started typing this one that I got into the flow and it practically wrote itself. A lesson here: Sometimes procrastination is useful.
This post about neurodiversity, neurodivergent, and other related terms is sort of an addendum to the post I wrote called “I am not neurotypical“, in which I explained why I don't like the terms neurotypical and atypical. The idea for that post first came to me at least five months ago, after I watched the show Atypical. I wrote the post in my head and then forgot about it until I sat down to write the piece that I intended to publish this week. That one will be up next.
My usual approach to blogging is to write to educate. This mission has been my approach for well over a decade, through every blog. Even if I'm ranting, I want you to get something out of it that's not just about me.
I didn't do any research for my Neurotypical post at all, I just let my fingers type, so forgive me if you read it and thought I was talking out of my ass. Often, I do a ton of research for my posts.
After I'd finished that post, and while I was in the process of grabbing images for it, I came across two other terms, closely related to one another:
According to Autistic author Nick Walker, who knows way more about the terminology than I do, Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds. He called neurodiversity a biological fact. People are neurologically diverse.
I like this. It doesn't imply normal/abnormal, right or wrong; it says that we're all different, and we are. I know I said in my previous post that I don't like to classify people in ways that marginalize them, but this at least makes sense to me.
I like this one less.
Neurodivergent means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.”
Yes, some brains do.
After some examples he says,
…neurodivergence is not intrinsically positive or negative, desirable or undesirable – it all depends on what sort of neurodivergence one is talking about.
I think my issue is with the word “normal”, like “typical”.
Note, I do not disagree with Walker, at all. I'm expressing how I feel about the words. Words don't just have meaning; we have emotional connections to the words themselves. We also have reactions to the way words sound out loud. (You know what I'm talking about.)
Maybe it's my baggage from being bullied as a child or not feeling normal as a kid with undiagnosed ADD/ADHD (I got the diagnosis when I was in my 20s). Maybe it's that feeling of being marginalized that has stayed with me. We interpret the world and situations based on our experiences so far and so it makes sense that my experience up until now affects my current perception of words and concepts. I have experienced the world for 42 years as of next week.
Also, see this post from Un-boxed Brain. I found this one first, and it took me to Walker.
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Seasonal Affective Disorder.
It's February. Are you feeling it?
Last week I talked about self-care and the routines that help keep me mentally healthy. Let's call today Mental Health Monday.
I've been keenly aware of mental health for a long time and in addition to the routines, the yoga, the meditation etc. that I discussed last week, there are some other key elements to mental health. I'll discuss some of them briefly, departing from my usual verbose style. Note, none of this is a replacement for advice from a healthcare practitioner:
Light Therapy consists of exposure to daylight or to specific wavelengths of light. Basically, it simulates day light. Some studies show that it's as effective as antidepressants at treating SAD. Light therapy makes up for lost sunlight exposure and resets the body's internal clock. Also, sunlight generally improves mood.
Light therapy lamp Philips HF3319/01 Energy Light. Light intensity compared to daylight (circa 11.00 a.m.). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here's some information that might be new to you: Known as the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D isn't really a vitamin, it's a hormone. It's made on the skin when UVB from sunshine hits the skin. Only the UVB wavelength of light makes vitamin D. So now it will make sense when I tell you that pork from pastured pigs – pigs that spend a lot of time outside in the sunshine – has the highest amount of Vitamin D of any land animal. If you're a pork eater, eat lots of pastured pork in the winter.
Staying active increases the production of feel-good chemicals. Even a walk outside. Try a walk around the block, then see if you can keep going. Or walk to where you need to run errands, because you have to go anyway (unless you have a lot to carry or the errand is filling the gas tank). A walk to pick up a few groceries or to the laundromat is a good kind of multitasking.
Borrow a dog if you don't have one
This one is part exercise (dog walk), part pet therapy. My dog sometimes gets borrowed. Cuddling and playing with a dog is highly therapeutic.
Borrow a baby or child if you don't have one.
Same idea. One of my favourite things about babies: When you smile at them, they smile back. It's hard not to feel something. Also, children are inspiring. They're full of wonder and innocence.
St. John's Wort
According to this book, it's Nature's Blues Buster. The fact that the author is one of my family members is tremendously helpful. St. John's Wort is one of those subjects with conflicting study results – some studies say it doesn't work at all, that it's a placebo, some say that it works on mild-to-moderate depression. It works on mine, so whenever people claim that it, or anything else, is a placebo I say, “That's fine with me!” I'm all for a placebo that will keep me from feeling like shit.
St John's Wort
Ashwaganda, Astragalus, Rhodiola, Schisandra
I'm lumping these together because they're part of a class of herbs called “adaptogens”. Adaptogens help balance, restore and protect the body and modulate your response to stress. They go to work where you need it. Dr. Frank Lipman provide one of the best descriptions I've ever read:
Adaptogens work a bit like a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high it brings it down; when the temperature is too low it brings it up. Adaptogens can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time without over stimulating. They can normalize body imbalances. By supporting adrenal function, they counteract the adverse effects of stress. They enable the body’s cells to access more energy; help cells eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process and help the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently.
I use them when I'm starting to feel symptoms of adrenal fatigue. One of the symptoms that I tend to notice most (as opposed to those I don't notice) is physical anxiety without mental stress. Not all adaptogens are listed here, only a few.
Even the word makes me feel better. I really enjoy saying “ashwaganda”. To me, it sounds like the name of a place inhabited by natives, referred to as “ashwagandans”. Ashwaganda is considered one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic healing. As an adaptogen, it helps the body adapt to stress. Furthermore, ashwaganda is anti-inflammatory, it protects the immune system and the brain and nervous system, and it improves learning, memory, and reaction time.
Say it: Ashwaganda.
Astragalus, also fun to say, is used in Chinese medicine to boost immunity. It helps reduce stress and aging by protecting cells and DNA. Astragalus is found in some adrenal support formulas.
Also known as roseroot, Arctic root or golden root. It's long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, in Scandinavia and in Russia. Like the others, it enhances the immune system. A study published in 2007 in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, showed that patients with mild-to-moderate depression who took rhodiola extract reported fewer symptoms of depression than those who took a placebo. It's long been used to treat anxiety. A small human trial of rhodiola at UCLA published in 2008, reported significant improvement in 10 people with generalized anxiety who took the herb for 10 weeks. Rhodiola appears to work faster than conventional antidepressants. (Source: Dr. Weil) Some studies have concluded that rhodiola is neuroprotective against toxins. It's also used to reduce the effects of prolonged and physical exhaustion that leads to fatigue.
Schisandra is a berry used in Traditional Chinese medicine. It helps balance hormones and improves the ability to deal with physical and psychological stress. It also reduces inflammation, improves cognitive function and is neuroprotective.
There are 2 adrenal formulas that I've used and like:
- AdrenaSense by Preferred Nutrition
- Adrenal-Pro by Can Prev
Finally, Take advantage of the sunny days! Don't let yourself stay inside because it's cold, bundle up and go get your face in the sun. Take a brisk walk, maybe with a borrowed dog. Go sledding or skating, and follow that up with a hot beverage of your choice such as a hot chocolate with milk or golden milk. You might feel better.