An Epidemic of Broken Brains
We’ve been focusing on health issues related to the brain and mood over the past few weeks, and for good reason. There are an estimated 1.1 billion people on the planet with cognitive or mood problems. 1 in 10 Americans are on antidepressants and 1 in 10 children are on stimulant medications. Estimates are that 1 in 4 of us will experience at least 1 major depressive episode in our lifetime. Those numbers are staggering! We are clearly missing something really big here. We need a fundamental shift in how we think about our brain, our mind and our health in general.
For the past century or so, medical science and “big pharma” has been on the hunt for a single cause of each disease and that has led us to very little in the way of health. Instead we have an ever increasing cocktail of drugs for each of these diseases and more people who are sick and suffering. Nowhere has that approach been more tragic than in the area of mental health. The ever expanding list of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and opiate pain killers is literally and figuratively mind numbing.
What if there was a different way to think about the problem? What if instead of focusing on a synthetic drug to force the body into a temporary state of function, we focused on the key underlying factors that they all had in common and then layered targeted nutritional support on top of that? Well that is exactly what the emerging Functional Medicine model is doing and the results are already showing that there is real hope for millions who are suffering.
Let’s Reconnect the Brain and the Body
The first step seems simple. We just need to think through the lens that whatever is happening in the brain is happening elsewhere in the body. Brain changes are a reflection of physical, chemical and emotional stress and their impact on the nervous system, hormone system, digestive system, detoxification system and structural system. These health of these 5 Key systems will determine how well your brain is functioning and whether you are in the process of losing brain health or healing your brain.
Each aspect of the 7 Pillars Lifestyle plays a significant role in balancing the brain and body in optimal health. The scientific research available about the profound effect of sleep, hydration, exercise, stress management, social connection, and creative play on mood, memory and overall brain health is overwhelming. As powerful as these habits are, there may not be a more critical habit for maximizing brain health than proper nutrition.
The standard American Diet is overly laden with simple carbohydrates, damaged fats and low in healthy phytonutrients from plants, essential fatty acids and adequate protein. Riding the ups and downs of a nutrient-depleted, carbohydrate-driven diet is a sure-fire way to have brain fog, fatigue and mood swings.
If we want to have a fighting chance for a healthy brain we need to focus on a Healing Diet that emphasizes 1) blood sugar stability, 2) avoidance of inflammatory foods, 3) increased levels of healthy fats, and 4) nutrient dense whole food choices whenever possible.
Once we’ve started building the foundation of a healthy “reset” diet, we can add critical targeted nutrients like higher doses of Omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil) and specific amino acids that our bodies can turn in to the critical neurotransmitters that control how we feel emotionally.
Restoring Neurotransmitter Balance
When it comes down to it, every mental illness is at some level an imbalance in the chemicals that stimulate our brain cells to send signals to one another. This imbalance is caused by 3 main factors – 1) Genetics, 2) Deficiency of nutrients, or 3) Damage to brain cells by toxins or physical trauma. Luckily, the initial stage of restoring balance to the system in each of these cases is similar – we have to increase the production of the depleted neurotransmitter(s)!
All of our neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, GABA, etc.) are made from essential protein building blocks called amino acids. We get a base line level of these amino acids from the quality and quantity of protein in our diet but if we are already depleted, we can also use these same amino acids in a therapeutic manner to increase levels of specific neurotransmitters to treat specific symptoms. For example, increasing the amino acid L-tryptophan will increase the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the amino acid L-tyrosine will raise dopamine, the amino acid L-theanine will increase GABA and the amino acid L-phenylalanine raises our levels of endorphins.
Symptoms of low serotonin include: afternoon or evening cravings, negativity, depression, worry, anxiety, low self-esteem, social anxiety, obsessive thoughts or behaviors, hyperactivity, perfectionism, winter blues, irritability, rage, panic attacks, phobias, fibromyalgia, TMJ or other pain, suicidal thoughts.
Symptoms of low dopamine include: cravings for stimulants (sugar, chocolate, caffeine, cocaine, or meth), depression, apathy, lack of energy, lack of drive and motivation, feeling bored, lack of focus and concentration)
Symptoms of low GABA include: crave carbohydrates, alcohol and relaxant drugs, feeling stressed and burned out, unable to relax/loosen up, stiff or tense muscles, often feeling overwhelmed.
Symptoms of low endorphins include: craving comfort, reward or numbing treats, sensitive to emotional or physical pain, cry (tear up) easily, suffer from chronic pain.
What’s Wrong with the Drug Approach?
While pharmaceutical intervention can sometimes be life-saving, it does come at a cost. Virtually every drug that is used to address the symptoms above works in a way that eventually further depletes the neurotransmitters that they are trying to influence. None of them work by actually assisting the body to make more of what was deficient. That means that over time, these drugs tend to be less and less effective, requiring increasing doses or the addition of other drugs to maintain the original benefit. Patients often end up on cocktails of drugs, many of which are trying to manage side effects of each other. This approach makes trying to get off of them nearly impossible to do without help from someone trained in tapering these drugs while building up the production with amino acids.
This is a Universal Problem
We each face trauma, injury, stress, abuse, disappointment, and discouragement. We are all exposed to dangerous chemicals in our environment that have toxic effects on our brains. None of us are going to escape the risk factors for cognitive decline. While we may not all suffer from recognizable mental illness, because we are all exposed to the underlying causes, there is a high likelihood that we will be close to someone who does. This is important for all of us to know.
Wouldn’t it be so much better to try to address these challenges from a functional approach first? Imagine the cost savings, both personally and to society, if we were able to treat these things in their early stages with simple and affordable nutrients and lifestyle. What if we were able to help people become free from their prescriptions and the recreational drugs that they use to self-medicate?
When I watch the news and I see that so many people are suffering from these conditions it is easy to get discouraged and think that there is no way to make a difference. We all can get that feeling of powerlessness in the face of big challenges. It is natural I guess. But we have to remember that even though we can think globally, our power usually lies in working one-on-one with individuals and I’ve seen time and time again that these principles work in the lives of my patients.