I recently became a bit obsessed with gut flora research via a long story:
I began getting migraines again this winter after eating a lower-potassium diet to help with my electrolyte problem. Low potassium is associated with migraines. It didn’t help that I was visiting my father, who likes to cook with MSG. To help with the migraines, I took Aspirin, which is an NSAID. It worked, so I began taking Aspirin for my regular headaches, and that helped, too. However: NSAID’s are notoriously bad for your gut flora. My skin began breaking out a little bit. This could have been caused by anything (I thought: weight loss, fiber in my diet, increased progesterone, poor sleep, dirty towels… skin is complicated!), but I thought “maybe it’s the NSAIDs depleting my gut flora.”
I went to Whole Foods post haste and got kombucha on tap.
(My favorite brand available both in stores and online is THIS one)
I’m drinking a couple of jars a week.
My skin looks great – I’m not sure if its from the kombucha.
Something I did most definitely notice, however, is that my cravings for food, and particularly sweet food, have somewhat dramatically decreased. After just my first few gulps, I felt a difference. These days I walk around during the day, not even thinking about food, and I stop eating meals without needing willpower, and I wonder: is this how ‘normal’ people feel?
So I asked myself if there was a connection. Could my increased freedom from cravings be a result of kombucha’s notorius bifidobacterium?
Turns out, it most certainly can.
How it works: your gut flora
Gut flora–which are the bacteria that live in your gut and that number in the trillions–are responsible for a whole host of functions in the body. They play a role in digestive comfort, in being constipated or having diarrhea, in immune system health, in depression and anxiety, in insulin resistance, in obesity, and in inflammation. Because these critters are so significant for these issues, they are significant for just about every noncommunicable disease you can imagine.
Why are gut bugs so important? Because your gut is the barrier between you and the outside world. Good gut flora help you process nutrients and protect yourself from toxins. When good gut flora populations decrease (as mine may have with my aspirin use), and/or when bad gut flora infiltrate the gut and outnumber the good guys, health problems ensue.
How it works: gut flora and cravings theory #1
One theory for how gut flora influence your gut – and there seems to be reasonable evidence for this – is that your gut flora condition you to continue to feed their own specific populations. Carrot-loving gut bugs beget carrot-loving gut bugs, for example (if a fair bit oversimplified.)
So gut flora from particular foods may make you continue to crave those particular foods. This is great if you eat a lot of natural, healthy foods. This is less good news if you eat a lot of processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the more bad bacteria will reproduce. They will hijack your cravings, and you’ll crave even more of the same old bad food.
If you are a processed food / sugar junkie, it may be hard to switch your diet, but being sure to include good, natural, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, animal products and fermented may help you crave those more and more.
How it works: gut flora and cravings theory #2
The second theory, which is not exclusive but complementary to the first, is that good gut bacteria like bifidobacterium (these are the famous good guys) cause the body to produce satiation hormones.
Glucuagon-like-peptide-1 is one such satiation hormone. It increases in the “colonal mucus” (sexy, right?) of rats fed oligofructose, a laboratory carbohydrate that resembles the carbohydrates found in many fruits and vegetables. PYY and ghrelin, two other satiation hormones, may also increase in response to oligofructose. Rats that consume oligofructose spontaneously eat less, cease creating fat cells, increase insulin sensitivity, and improved glucose tolerance.
As for humans…we already know that probiotics help with obesity. This happens via biochemical modulation of fat metabolism. Yet it also appears to probably happen via increased satiation and spontaneously reduced food intake.
The more bifidobacteria and other good gut flora you have, the more satiation hormones they will create in response to a meal.
Moral of the story
There are a lot of different physical and psychological components of food cravings.
For one – you need to eat food. I talk way too much to women who want to reduce food cravings but are eating 1200 calories a day. So be sure you eat when you are hungry all of the time, probably at least 1800 calories a day (though this varies widely), before you address any other issues.
Second, emotional issues should be dealt with. Is food your mother? Your addiction? Your stress-relief? Your boredom? Your celebration? Or do you eat because you spend so much willpower trying not to eat that you end up overeating in the end? Psychological issues with food are also supremely important.
Third, you may consider physiological approaches. Sometimes the issue cannot be resolved psychologically because there’s an underlying problem. Amino acid therapy — boosting serotonin and dopamine levels by consuming precursors 5HTP and tyrosine — can help regulate appetite if your serotonin and dopamine levels are low.
Gut bugs can also help, as we’ve seen. (They can also boost your serotonin levels! Two birds with one stone!)
Consume fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, or grass-fed yogurt or kefir. If those are not available to you, consider a probiotic supplement that contains at least bifidobacterium, as well as other varieties.
You can also try a probiotic supplement. I prefer whole foods since they provide they provide a high degree of variability of bacterial species. Nonetheless probiotics have been shown to reduce weight loss and support mental health in studies, so if you go this route (like this option or this one) you can also benefit.
You can also support your gut flora population not only by eating the bugs themselves – which is what you do with the fermented foods – but by consuming their preferred foods. Gut flora love to eat fibrous fruits and veggies, particularly those which contain inulin. These are greens, summer squash, onions, garlic, leeks… and jerusalem artichokes are also a particularly good source. This article demonstrates just how effective this strategy is.
Kombucha (linked to my favorite brand on Amazon) is really helping me. I can’t say if it will help you. Really, I cannot. We all have different bodies and we all have our own unique cures. But I love how much more stable my blood sugar feels and my meals are. I no longer feel so much like I must eat a sweet with every meal. I love my gut bugs very, very much. For this reason, as well as for so many others.
It’s funny. Sometimes I think I spend most of my time on this blog trying to drum up ways to legitimize inappropriate topics for it rather than actually writing. Fear of rejection? World of Warcraft? The nature of human community? Why not? I can manufacture a paleo reason to talk about anything.
Today’s topic, I do think, however, has serious paleo resonances. I do a lot of talking about the paleo diet, and I even talk about the paleo lifestyle, which includes things like play and ample sleep on this blog. And we like to talk about differences between how we live today and how, presumably, many of our ancestors did. How did they think, live, eat, sleep? Beyond that, even, we get to ask: how did they relate? Love? Act? Is that important for us now?
Sometimes I think what’s most important is not figuring out what ancestors did, but rather different things that we do in different cultures today, and comparing them. This enlightens us to how incredibly conditioned we have all been. For example, we know well that beauty norms come largely from culture. Whether we like big noses or small noses or men in high heels versus women in high heels is all a matter of perspective. We can dig deeper than that, however. What about our basic fears, our basic hopes, our basic loves? Here’s one example I’ll delve into at another point in time: consider the notion that we do not have capitalism because humans are inherently selfish, but rather that we are selfish because we have capitalism, the idea being that we have to become defensive and self-aggrandizing in order to be safe and hold our own. Culture over time can make us fearful and think of ourselves as more selfish than we are, and it sits so deeply in our psyches that it’s nearly impossible to find.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to today’s topic: why are we such a mess about death in American society?
I began having panic attacks about dying when I was five years old. I laid in bed at night, shaking with a racing heart, terrified of the abyss. I imagined winking out of existence and sobbed in abject horror. This was largely, I believe, because I was not raised in a religious or openly spiritual household that talked about that kind of thing. This notion, however, presumes that there is something terrifying at all that needs to be reconciled with a spiritual viewpoint. Why was I terrified of dying before I even read my first novel?
By the time I was in first grade, I had been exposed to two things. I was exposed to media in which death is portrayed as the one thing to fear and avoid at all costs, and I was exposed to our culture response to it. In TV and in movies especially we portray death as the ultimate horrible end. People and story plots go to the most incredible length’s to preserve lives — this simplistic and dramatic trope is, in fact, the dominant plot thread in most of Western story-telling. This indicates a more broad abhorrence of and distance from death in our culture as a whole, but in the media, and as a child, I was bombarded with it and all its terrifying might without context. Worse is the aftermath. We dress in black. We weep. We sob. We storm. We conduct solemn funeral processions that last days. 100 years ago, I might wear a black dress for a whole year if my betrothed happened to past.
I was exposed to a barrage of negative images around death as a child. And I am of course similarly exposed today: the act. The event. The response. All of it terrified me for most of my life. What is this horrible thing, this non-existing thing, this thing that everyone talks about in hushed voices only and that is far away from me, far away from my life, and this horrible, gaping, looming threat? Because the worst part of it all, to me, is that we continue to portray and treat death as the most abhorrent curse without ever sharing our experiences or thoughts or doubts around it.
The roots of the Western fear of death run deep, deep, deep, deep. Fortunately for me (!?), one of my specialties in my work as an (aspiring) philosopher is existential despair and dread and nihilism in general. So I have learned a fair bit about it and have come to grips with so much of it that I feel quite at peace with all of it now. There’s too much to go into in any great detail here, though our estrangement from nature, our (waning?) investment in supernatural deities, and our Christian/Judaic/Islamic heritage play no small role.
This, however, is not how it has to be done.
Consider the funerary practices of the Maori culture in New Zealand:
At one point while living in Taiwan I became close friends with a Maori woman. She expressed to me that she was puzzled over our fear of death. She thought (and I do now, too), that a great deal of it has to do with our cultural practices. For the Maori, when a family member is nearing death, everyone related is called to their home, and they throw a day, or two-day, or week, or however-long-they-choose party for the ailing member. They have festivities and the children gallivant and play out in the fields and everyone does what they can to be present with their precious loved one in the time remaining, full of laughter and lightness. And then they bid her farewell, surrounding her on her deathbed as she dies. If she does not pass, everyone goes home and comes back to Ethel’s Goodbye Partay 2.0 the next time she looks like she might be ready.
Being closer to death, this Maori woman I knew thought that it was less of a big deal, for one. She was familiar with it. She wasn’t raised to fear it, to cloth herself in black, to be private about her feelings, and to stand in awestruck terror in front of corpses. She was, instead, encouraged to be close to death, to be present with it, and to be familiar with its processes. Psychologists know well that a large portion of our fear comes from the unknown and from things about which we perceive we have no control.
Looking at this Maori culture demonstrates that we don’t have to be as afraid of dying as we have been conditioned to be. Many other cultures around the world shed similar light on the topic. Hell, Buddhists don’t think there’s a “self” that exists to die anyway, so what’s the big fuss about? Of course holding that belief and practicing is easier said than done, but that is the goal of much of the tradition. Non-attachment is the name of the game.
One more example is something – one of my favorite belief systems – called the Religion of Nature. One of its primary tenants is that we are inherently natural beings, part of a great cycle of good and evil and death and rebirth. It’s all inevitable. It’s all a part of the process. What have we to so intensely fear? Death is as much a part of life as anything else. In fact, one thing you may want to consider is a biological fact popularized (somewhat) and interpreted by famed biologist Ursula Goodenough:
Life used to exist solely in unicellular form. This form was, more or less, immortal. It did not have to die as it regenerated itself and reproduced. But in order to utilize more cells and grow into larger organisms, life needed to burn more energy. More energy meant more oxygen. More oxygen meant burning more strongly, more brightly. It meant that life became a flame that had, necessarily, to be extinguished. Death, it turns out, is the biological price of life. Without it, no advanced lifeforms would exist. With out death, so the evolutionary story goes, none of us would be alive.
All of which is to say that there are tons of things in our culture that make death more terrifying than it needs to be. The process of death as we portray it, and the way in which we mourn it, and the incredible, terrifying distance we give it from our everyday lives (not to mention our increased ability to avoid it with medicine…leading to an even greater attachment to immortality) is a bit absurd, and it’s everywhere. It demonstrates an underlying terror in our psyche, but we cannot chip away at that terror unless we start recognizing all of it’s sources.
And the reason I bring this all up, and on a paleo blog, to boot, is three-fold.
1) Anxiety is a huge problem for the modern world. A large portion of our anxieties, I think, lie in our unresolved feelings regarding both the deaths of those around us as well as our own looming mortality.
2) Looking at the variety of cultures around the world and at the variety of ideas out there like the religion of nature demonstrates just how culturally conditioned we are in our basic fears and hopes and loves and dreams. We do not have to be any particular way. We do not have to feel a certain way. There are biological imperatives, sure. Of course we do not want to die. Of course we want to be loved. But we have choice and agency and the ability to feel any number of different things. The only thing to do with that choice is to act on it.
3) If paleo is about natural stuff, and if my writing on this blog is about being natural women, then we might have the leeway here to consider what true naturalness means.
If you are attached to immortality, if you believe in God or gods or any number of things, or you don’t, whatever, that is awesome. I give giant thumbs up to all metaphysical views.
But we should, individually and together as a community of beings, to be able to, no matter what our belief systems, consider ourselves a part of the natural world, and love ourselves for all of that. When we wrap ourselves up in fear of death, and when we distance ourselves from it and erect barriers in our lives to avoid confronting it, we distance ourselves from perhaps the most essential part of being human. And of course we cannot ever learn how to love that part of ourselves.
We cannot–or at least I now refuse to–hate or fear or resent our bodies for degenerating. We cannot live in terror. We cannot fight constantly against a natural process and expect that we will maintain positive mental health. I refuse to be upset that I live so precariously on the edge of life. I am what I am–no more, and no less. I am a body. I am a woman. I am a speck of universe-dust come alive. More importantly, perhaps is the fact that death runs on its own clock. And as it does, I can only breathe. I can only peacefully accept my place in the overturning processes of the cosmos. I accept and embrace my fragility as it is, and do my best to live a life that floats among the chaos.
The universe is rife with uncertainty, though we can still be certain of our power and serenity as natural beings in a natural world. None of us can beat death. But we can dance against and around it, and live courageously into a future that is unknown.
I had a conversation in early May of this year that sticks with me. I think of it often, like it’s stuck to the insides of my skull and I could not scrape it off even if I wanted to.
A friend of mine and I sat on a hill of grass overlooking Boston as the sun set. I wondered aloud to him — “You know that feeling of bliss, of being so in love with the world, and so passionately delighted to be alive?”
“Yeah,” he responded, a bit of wist in his voice.
“Didn’t you used to feel that way all of the time? I used to feel that way all of the time. It was my default. Now — I’m lucky if I can muster that feeling up for a few brief moments every month. What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied.
Then, at the same time, we both said, “It’s because we’re adults.”
The difference between childhood and adulthood is mostly responsibility, in my opinion. It’s about having to take care of things. It’s about having things be at stake in your decision making. And it’s not not just anything at stake in your decision making, but important things. Your health, the health of your significant other, parents, and children, your career, and your ability to keep putting food on the table are just a few examples. Your ability to pay for insurance and to have a roof over your head. Looked at from this angle, being an adult is about bearing stress. It’s about juggling all of these things and taking care of so many people. Stress is worry — it takes your brain’s resources and directs them towards managing your responsibilities.
The thing is, however — that this worry is the precise thing that separates us from the youthful joy of being alive.
So it’s not the responsibility that robs us of freedom and joy per se. But it’s the mental energy that comes along with it.
Think about the times in which you happily engage others, really enjoy yourself, and spread love. Think about the times in which it is easy to be open, to be loving, and to be joyful. Are they not the times in which you are the most unburdened and free? In which you are unafraid, and do not bear the weight of fear and stress?
Alternatively, think about times of your life in which you have had many things to worry about. Do you not feel curled into your own self? Do you not feel as though it is more difficult to positively engage the people around you? Ever have an impending deadline and snarl at every person who approaches your workstation? God forbid they disrupt your ability to get the damn thing done on time.
To be honest, all of this is okay, I think. It makes perfect sense. I see it as a matter of energy. Each of us only has a given amount of energy. This energy can be directed anywhere — toward sadness, anger, play, delight, or diligent work. But it cannot go everywhere. And it is limited. And your biological priority is taking care of yourself and your responsibilities first and foremost (or your offspring and family, but that’s just as draining.)
So when you are worried, anxious, stressed, or have any kind of mentally-demanding challenge floating arond in your brain, you direct your energy inward. You do everything you can with all of the resources at your disposal to manage your responsibility. You might overshoot and give it more energy than it needs, but you are still doing your best and you need to be understood and forgiven for that. On the flipside, when you are not anxious, stressed, or have inner-problems toward which you need to direct energy, then you are liberated to give your energy to other things. To happy things. To external things. You are free to play, free to laugh, and free to love.
The reason I bring this all up is because I think it is one of the most important factors for overall wellness.
We talk about stress a lot in the health world. But what do we mean by this, and what is its real effect? What are the different kinds of stress? How should we handle it?
Understanding stress in this way helps me navigate it better and reduce it. I know that my body directs all of its energy toward my responsibilities because it is doing its best to keep me alive. But does it have to? Can I not allocate time for certain worries, and firmly tell my brain to cool it at other times, and let the gratitude and joy of liberated living flow into that vacuated space?
Understanding stress in this way makes me forgive myself for being stressed in the first place, too. It’s okay — I understand now that my body and my brain are doing their best to help me. I understand that they demand my energy because they think they need it in order for me to be safe. Sometimes I don’t need them to do this, and I can tell them to relax and take a break for a while. On the other hand, sometimes I really do need to give 100 percent of my energy to the problem I am dealing with. When this is the case, I let myself do it.
I understand that I actually need to devote all of my energy to stressful events sometimes. This is important. In some sense, it’s an acceptance of my basic humanity and fragility where I let my need to take care of things override my desire to feel or ability to act outside of this stressful zone. I let my stress run its course through me without resistance. I give myself to the demands my situation has put upon me, and I let my brain do the mental work it wants to do. When I can accept and live through times of crisis in this way, then even the fact that my brain has demanded 100 percent of my mental energy does not make me feel as wretched at it normally does, because I know that this is the best and most efficient way to weather the storm. My stress and I in this case work together rather than against each other.
This works for me in a million different realms, particularly when it is a professional or social situation that demands thought and care. This is especially important for me as someone who’s job it is, literally, to think. Though it works in myriads of other ways, too, particularly in how I relate to myself and manage my relationship with myself.
Many of us worry about our health. Or we worry about how loved we are. Or how beautiful we are. Or something. But how much energy do we need to give that? What does your brain need in order to efficiently achieve a level of safety and love? Do you let your stress have the time that it needs? Do you let yourself think and research health issues the appropriate amount of time? You can do it too much, and you can do it too little. What is right for you? What is the best way to work with your stress and the mental energy it is demanding, rather than against it?
All decent food for thought, in my opinion. What do you think? Do you experience a limited amount of energy that can either go inward or outward? What helps you feel positive and share your positivity rather than being curled inside of yourself?
What helps you feel the grand joy and excitement of being alive?
What are your strategies for keeping stress from getting in the way?
Obviously, when we’re talking about how long we are ever going to live, the “diet hypothesis” holds. Poor food choices make us ill, and these illnesses make us die sooner. They also generally degrade our physical functions, and as our telomeres and organs deteriorate increasingly into shreds, we become weaker and weaker. Just about everybody who has ever written about longevity and food has the general idea right: food matters.
On the other hand, I am now coming to believe that so long as no drastic health issues are at stake, the perfect diet is not necessarily the path to a long life (or at least definitely not the sole path). If you look at studies done on centarians the world over, what we find over and over again is not necessarily that they eat a certain diet. Some eat lots of pork, others a fair bit of rice, others tons of home-made yogurt, for example. I know one woman who eats frozen dinners. Doctors and health theorists argue over what the perfect longevity diet might be all of the time. But there really never has been shown to be a bulletproof, universal, centenarian-begetting diet, so far as I can tell. Usually they stick to whole foods. That seems to work quite well.
From my perspective, the real common variable is that centenarians (and especially the springy ones, not the bedridden) tend to live simple and happy lifestyles. Relatively healthful food, very little stress, some sleep, some walking. There’s actually a fair bit of data that demonstrates the benefits of walking. And personally, what I have found in my observation is that those people I know and read about whom are both elderly but still enormously youthful… they exist in existential satisfaction. Whether at peace because of their communities and family, or because they have faith, or are committed to charity, or because they are immersed in passionate pursuits, their degree of satisfaction with existence stands out as their primary characteristic. In my opinion.
Plenty data show that stress weakens the immune system and decreases lifespan. Here, here, and here, for example. And many show how crucial both metabolic and psychological stress are for cellular decay, for example, here.
But what about the converse? Why not think about it in terms of the opposite of stress? Of peace, of contentment, of authentic happiness?
Which brings me to my favorite study this week: Smile Intensity Predicts Longevity.
The study, found here, was conducted on 196 Major League Baseball players from the 20th century. MLB players were chosen because fairly good data about their lives already exist. The researchers did their best to control for factors that have already been found to influence longevity:
“The Baseball Register (1952) and Lahman (2006) allowed us to control for numerous factors related to longevity, such as year of birth, body mass index (BMI), career length (a reflection of continued physical fitness and performance), career precocity (Abel & Kruger, 2005, 2006, 2007), marital status (Lillard & Panis, 1996), and college attendance (Kalist & Peng, 2007).”
They didn’t look at diet at all.
What they did was study the intensity of the smiles on each of the MLB player’s official baseball cards. What they found was striking:
Controlling for the above variables, the degree of smile authenticity in each photograph taken decades ago remained significantly correlated with longevity. The more authentic the smile, the longer the player lived.
How do you know what an authentic smile is, you ask? It’s called the Duchenne smile (wikipedia it, here), and it’s a pretty well-known and well-regarded marker of happiness in psychological studies. It is the smile that pulls at muslces around the mouth and particularly the eyes… the smile that you feel when you’re laughing, or hugging someone you love. Try comparing it to the smile you muster up for strangers you pass in the hallway on a bad day. There is a world of difference.
We can see that difference in photographs, and calculate it precisely. And from that, we have found that authentic happiness predicts longevity.
Players who had Duchenne smiles were half as likely in any given year to die than non-smilers.
Players who had Duchenne smiles had greater longevity predictions than those who wore partial smiles, but not in a statistically significant way, who in turn did not differ significantly from non-smilers. ( “Adding smile ratings led to a significant improvement in predicting mortality, χ2(2, N = 162) = 8.2, p < .017.”) This seems to indicate that partial smiles sat somewhere in the middle, whereas non-smilers experienced reduced longevity and Duchenne smilers experienced increased longevity relative to them.
The study concludes with two interesting notes: 1) that physical attractiveness was not a significant correlate with longevity, and 2) that teaching ourselves to smile can actually influence our emotions (more in which in subsequent posts).
In other studies, individuals instructed on how to make Duchenne smiles generated patterns of regional brain activity associated with subjective enjoyment (Ekman, Davidson, & Friesen, 1990). If the phenomenology and expressions of emotion are hardwired (Ekman, 2007), individuals whose underlying emotional disposition is reflected in voluntary or involuntary Duchenne smiles may be basically happier than those with less intense smiles, and hence more predisposed to benefit from the effects of positive emotionality. Attractiveness did not influence longevity.
And, again, they didn’t even look at diet. We might argue that each of these players was born into a more traditional diet, and perhaps a fairly homogenous one– and therefore the variable would not have been as significant for this group, but these men still probably ate things such as carbohydrates, nuts, nightshades, rice, and lots of other ~paleo/non-paleo foods we are worrying about these days. I’d bet they ate dairy and wheat products, too. Which isn’t to say, of course, that a better diet would not have helped them live even longer. I certainly think that it would. But this goes to show that the amount of authentic joy in your life really is a major player in your lifespan.
More on happiness, longevity, and how to make it all happen forthcoming.Read More
While the title of this post may sound hyperbolic, it nonetheless is grounded in truth. There are a wide variety of dietary and lifestyle factors that affect reproduction. Stress may be one of the greatest of all.
Dozens of studies performed on cynomolgus monkeys, bonobos, chimps, and baboons have demonstrated that having low social status–even while maintaining the exact same diet at high social status individuals–induces impaired fertility in primates. Human models, while approximations, do not differ. In some, a simple progesterone-dampening effect occurs, in others the levels decrease precipitously, in most cortisol levels skyrocket, but in general a wide spectrum of reproductive disorders- from hormone deficiency to full-blown long-term amenorrheic infertility- follow from psychological stress. This is something about which I have written before, and it’s a serious problem, causing not just outright and obvious infertility but also sneakily impaired and sub-optimal fertility all across the country.
Pysychological stress wreaks all sorts of havoc on the body. Most importantly, cortisol levels rise, and the body’s inflammatory and immune responses become impaired. Blood sugar levels rise, and insulin levels rise, too. When these things happen, healing cannot occur, and tissues become progressively damaged with time. This applies to reproductive tissues as much as it does to the rest of them. Hypercortisolemia is good for nobody.
Several hormone responses also occur. Three of the primary ones are as follows:
1) As I mentioned, due to elevated cortisol levels, insulin levels may rise, and testosterone levels rise right alongside it. This is because insulin directly stimulates testosterone production in the ovaries. This is bad for reproduction because a proper balance between testosterone and female balance needs to be maintained in order for proper reproductive signalling and tissue development to occur. One particularly potent way in which this imbalance often hurts women is in the hormone condition Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome. It is not the only thing that contributes to PCOS– definitely not– but it can play a big time role in it.
2) Moreover, another effect that may occur as a result of stress is an increase in production of DHEA-S, a hormone produced in the stress glands. DHEA-S is, like all other hormones, an important and very healthful hormone in proper balance. But if the stress glands are in overdrive, they might over-produce everything, including DHEA-S. This is detrimental, because DHEA-S is also a classically male sex hormone, and it plays a role similar to testosterone in PCOS. DHEA-S in excess blocks estrogen signaling, interferes with LH and FSH signaling, and also increases hormonal acne. DHEA-S can play a role in both type I and type II PCOS.
3) Finally, the brain, via the hypothalamus, sometimes turns off pituitary activity in response to stress. This often leads to a cessation of LH and FSH signaling–the two primary pituitary signalling molecules–which in turn decreases levels of estrogen and progesterone in the blood. Recall that reduced progesterone levels are one of the primary markers of reproductive distress in primate studies. Prolactin levels may also decrease. These facts make it impossible both to ovulate and to menstruate.
*Graphic extracted from PCOS Unlocked: The Manual.
These three categories– testosterone elevation, DHEA-S elevation, and pituitary decreases may occur differently in all women. And there are a wide variety of other, more subtle, hormonal responses that also occur, especially when considered in conjunction with all of the other bodily stress that follows from psychological woes.
All that being said, STRESS IS BAD. We know some of the reasons why, as I’ve explained above. Others likely exist. Even if you don’t have infertility problems, you may have hormone imbalances or deficiencies, and those can be just as insidious. Eat right, sleep right, live well, breath deeply. Repeat.
Stress is a significant problem for women’s health, and particularly women’s hormonal health. This is manifested in a wide array of problems, but also most predominantly these days in the condition PCOS, or Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome.
You can read more about stress and it’s interplay with cysts, as well as how to overcome it all, in my forthcoming guide, PCOS Unlocked: The Manual. Coming to this website on 10.17.12, ONE WEEK FROM TODAY.
Protein, composed of amino acids, is the building block molecule. For this reason, we usually think of it as constructing our bones, our skin, and our muscles. A lesser-known fact of amino acids, however, is that they are also the building blocks of neurotransmitters. This means that when certain amino acids break down from proteins during digestion, we can experience mood changes and anxiety. Other amino acids can help relieve anxiety, depending on what foods are consumed. Tyrosine uniquely increases dopamine concentrations in the brain, for example. This can have positive effects for people with dopamine deficiencies, but it can hurt people who are already excitable. Another example is Leucine. Leucine increases m-Tor signalling, which is somewhat inflammatory and has been shown in many cases to be associated with aging and poor immune response.
High Protein Diets, Stress and Anxiety in the Short Term
Regardless of the differences in amino acids, higher protein diets correlate with anxiety in both animal and human studies. Here, in one study, researchers set out to show that a high carbohydrate diet would induce more stress than a high protein diet, yet their finding ended up being the opposite: a high protein meal created a greater cortisol response than a high carbohydrate meal in women. Here, high protein diets are shown to decrease testosterone and increase cortisol in men. These studies demonstrate that high protein meals increase stress responses. Moreover, MDs anecdotally report acute anxiety in patients once they start high protein diets. Finally, protein can raise norepinephrine and dopamine levels, both of which are usually high in anxious individuals, and both of which stimulate arousal.
Protein and the neurobiology of GABA
So on the surface the literature on protein intake and mental health is present, but its actually pretty sparse. Certainly, it seems as though cortisol is associated with high protein consumption, especially in the short term. But the amount of data out there is not all that much compared to how much research has been done on fat and carbohydrates. For example: nearly everyone agrees that fluctuating blood sugar is bad for mental health; they also know that tryptophan, a result of carbohydrate metabolism, helps induce feelings of calm and well-being. So these are ways in which carbohydrates have been thoroughly studied. Furthermore, nearly everyone also agrees that fat is excellent for mental health. High fat diets, but not higher protein, nor high carbohydrate, decrease anxiety in rats. So we know a lot about fat, too. What about protein? What we might be able to assert about protein comes not, then, from any epidemiological data, but from neurobiology. What does looking at amino acid chemistry and neurobiology tell us might be going on with protein metabolism?
It all has to do with GABA. For more on GABA neurons in general, refer to this post. In sum: GABA neurons are inhibitory neurons. They tell the brain to be quiet. For people who are depressed and fatigued, therefore, GABA might seem like a problematic molecule, but that’s inaccurate. GABA malfunctioning has been shown to play a role in almost all mood disorders, and in insomnia, and really any kind of imbalance in the brain that might lead to disordered behavior. GABA is strongly associated with well-being, calmness, proper memory function, proper circadian rhythms, and good sleep. GABA, because it inhibits the amygdala, also has been shown to inhibit pain and fear.
Low protein diets enhance GABA production.
One particularly powerful animal study showed the complex relationship between protein restriction and GABA. The researchers were interested in longevity, which is a topic for a whole other slew of posts, but the high GABA activity that manifests as a result of protein restriction applies equally well to mental health. Aging rats, when eating a lower protein diet, saw a long-term elevation of GABA activity. This increased the functioning of the rats’ immune systems as well as prolonged their lives. A high protein diet had the exact opposite effect. Another study found the same effect, except that both young and old rats saw the highest GABA activity on a low protein diet. These studies are conducted over weeks and months and years. What this means is that over time, a lower protein diet is optimal for GABA activity in the brain. This helps with aging, with immune function, and presumably with mood disorders.
The fact of increased GABA activity, along with having the lowest cortisol response to a meal, means that a lower protein diet may be optimal for some people’s mental health. The cortisol response is immediate; the GABA activity, also immediate, but it’s also more important on long time scales. The best way to move forward with this information is to just be cognizant of mood throughout the day. Is heart-rate spiking, or the mind racing, after a high protein meal? On a day with a particularly high protein intake? Try mitigating this by spreading protein intake out throughout the day, instead of eating it all at once. Or try keeping the absolute total to a minimum. Most people recommend .5 g of protein per lean pound of body weight, and I stand by that as well. It’s important both in the hour-by-hour day-to-day, as well as for long term mental health.
Of course, protein is also essential for mental health. I mentioned above that amino acids make up and heavily influence neurotransmitters. This is true. It is only an imbalance that can do real harm. For this reason, the best bet is to eat a sufficient amount of protein, and feel the way forward cautiously, respecting the individuality of each person’s needs.
Neurotransmitters: Exciting and Inhibiting
Gamma-Amino-Butyric-Acid, or GABA, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. Along with serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, glycine, histamine, and norepinephrine, among dozens of other neurotransmitters, GABA regulates brain function. Different neurotransmitters are in relationship with different types of receptors, and these receptors signal excitation or inhibition. For this reason, neurotransmitters are commonly classified by their excitatory or inhibitory activity. Some neurotransmitters signal to both kinds of receptors and play both excitatory and inhibitory roles. Others are just one or the other. GABA is one of these. It is powerfully inhibitory.
GABA: Calm, Resilience, and Sleep
The GABA neurotransmitter tells the brain to be quiet. The vast majority of inhibitory synapses in the brain employ GABA. For people who are depressed and fatigued, therefore, GABA might seem like a problematic molecule. But that ends up not being the case. GABA malfunctioning has been shown to play a role in almost all mood disorders, including depression. GABA is strongly associated with well-being, calmness, proper memory function, proper circadian rhythms, and good sleep. GABA inhibits amygdala activity, too, so it has also been shown to inhibit pain and fear. For this reason, people have talked about GABA as being a molecule that promotes resilience and personal strength.
GABA is well known to be a prominent factor in mental well-being and feelings of calm. Officially it results in “sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anxiety reducing!), anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant and amnesic” effects. For this reason, a whole host of drugs that mimic GABA, called benzodiazepines, have been designed and proscribed prolifically. Valium is one of them. The long-term effects of these drugs are unpleasant, as they almost always result in withdrawal. The symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal parallel GABA deficiency. These iclude anxiety, tension, high blood pressure, insomnia, agitation, seizures, muscle spasms, and panic disorders. For example, GABA-inhibited mice tested for anxiety demonstrate “a model of anxiety characterized by harm avoidance behavior and an explicit memory bias for threat cues, resulting in heightened sensitivity to negative associations.”
GABA is also one of the prominent molecules involved in sleep. During sleep, many parts of the brain need to be quieted, and they need to do it all at once. This is, in part, GABA’s job. Without GABA, excitatory neurotransmitters continually keep different parts of the brain and the body firing, such that it can never shut down fully enough for deep sleep. Valerian root, a natural herb and supplement, “encourages” the production of GABA. It’s one of the most successful sleep aids one can use. Melatonin is also powerful and is bio-identical, but it’s effects wane more markedly over time as the body becomes more and more used to higher levels of melatonin. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs, while knocking people out, also inhibit the deep restfulness of REM sleep. Valerian does not replace, but instead stimulates GABA production. This is why it is so naturally (and without causing addiction) effective in promoting deep sleep.
GABA and The Pituitary
GABA, even while it inhibits frenetic activity in the brain, also stimulates activity in the anterior pituitary. The anterior pituitary is where most of an individual’s hormone production takes place. GABA, therefore, is crucial for people who would like to boost hormone production. ACTH, TSH, FSH, LH, prolactin, and Human Growth Hormone are all secreted from the anterior pituitary. Low TSH is profoundly implicated in hypothyroidism; having low FSH, LH, and prolactin levels is the root biological cause of hypothalamic amenorrhea; and growth hormone is one of the primary molecules responsible for healthy metabolism. It’s activities include up-regulating fat utilization, protein sparing, and glucose-insulin sensitivity. One study at the University of Milan found that 90 minutes after 5 grams of GABA supplementation, HGH levels increased 5-fold.
Increasing GABA with diet
-GABA itself is not present in foods, but one of its key constituents — glutamic acid/glutamate — is available in a wide array of readily available foods. Glutamate-containing foods are plants and vegetables. Examples include: broccoli, spinach, lentils, walnuts, citrus, tomatoes, cheese, corn, and mushrooms. There are other foods in this category, such as wheat, wheat bran, soy, and cottonseed flour, and peanuts, but I do not recommend eating them. High glutamic acid containg foods are generally animal products. they include eggs, particularly the whites, many varieties of cheese, cod, gelatin, whitefish, and chicken, beef, and scallops.
-L-theanine also increases GABA activity. This amino acid is found in high doses in green tea.
-Foods rich in B-complex vitamins, particularly inositol, also prompt GABA production. In fact, B-vitamins are necessary for the functioning of nearly all brain processes and chemicals. Foods containing B-vitamins comprise a rich and varied list. They include: fruits such as bananas, figs, cantaloupe oranges and figs, and vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables, such as beets, broccoli, kale, and spinach, and nuts, and seafood, and beef and beef liver, chicken liver, all organ meats, and all game/ruminant meats.
-A lower protein diet in general is associated with increased GABA activity.
-Finally, exercise and meditation can enhance GABA activity. GABA is a lot like other body systems and muscles in that it has positive feedback effects. The calmer someone is, the more likely it is that he will be able to produce proper amounts of GABA. Some physical activities allow the mind and body to enter into calmed and relaxed state. For this reason, many natural health practitioners recommend yoga as a means of increasing GABA. Meditation and light forms of exercise such as walking also fit into that recommendation.Read More