Mental Health in Tough Times – Part I

The following post on mental health concerns is contributed by Pete Farmer,  who holds advanced degrees in research biology and history, and is also an RN and EMT.

* * *

My mother told me
‘Fore she passed away
Said son when I’m gone
Don’t forget to pray
‘Cause there’ll be hard times
Lord those hard times
Who knows better than I?

– Ray Charles, “Genius Sings the Blues, 1961

Over the last sixty years, the historically unprecedented economic prosperity of the western world has lifted millions out of poverty and allowed vast numbers of people to enjoy material comforts and conveniences unimaginable to our ancestors. Such prosperity, however, sometimes obscures an important basic truth – that suffering is an inescapable part of our existence. Numerous religious and moral traditions affirm this truth. A well-known Biblical example concerns the struggles of Job. Greek mythology speaks of the trials of Prometheus. Traditional hymns and folk songs are filled with tales of hardship and suffering, and humans struggling to overcome them. Any survivor of the Great Depression or of the Second World War will confirm that if one is lucky-enough to live through such an experience, one is still permanently scarred and unalterably changed for the rest of one’s life. Today, the times in which we live are difficult and uncertain, and the optimism for which Americans have long been famous has often been replaced by doubt and pessimism. As the 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami in Japan have shown, reality can be very grim at times.

How are we to cope with such things? What can you and your loved ones do to protect yourself against the hardships of daily life, but also for those disastrous “black swan” events? There are many answers to that question, but one of the most important is staying strong mentally and emotionally. Let’s review some of the ways available to us for attaining that goal.

A growing body of research shows the link between physical health and mental health.  The old idea that the health of your brain and the rest of your body were separate issues is rapidly being disproven by the latest science.  Body and brain and their many systems are inextricably linked. Example: The lumen (tubular space) of the GI tract is outside of the body, and thus may contain numerous actual/potential pathogens from ingested food, as well as in the intestinal microflora – the microbes normally found within the human digestive tract. Since the GI tract has enormous surface area, it represents a large area of contact with the immune system. This is especially true when pro-inflammatory substances are present in the digestive tract, such as food allergens, harmful (as opposed to beneficial) bacteria or viruses, which increase intestinal wall permeability, allowing pro-inflammatory substances to enter the bloodstream. From there, cytokines, bacteria exotoxins, debris and antigens are transported elsewhere – including to the brain (if they can cross the blood-brain barrier). These substances cause the immune system to “heat up,” triggering the inflammatory response. Over time, chronic inflammation adversely affects brain function and thus mental health and functionality. What measures can be taken to counteract these and other systemic problems that affect mental health?

1.  Diet is extremely important not only to overall health, but to optimal mental functioning. The view of traditional Chinese healers that “food is medicine” is not far off the mark. Consider eliminating or lessening your intake of refined foods, especially simple carbohydrates and sugars, in favor of healthy sources of lean protein, fresh vegetables and fruits, and fats. If you have trouble eliminating processed and refined foods entirely, consider adopting the 85/15 plan. Strive to eat a strictly healthful diet 85% of the time, and the other 15% of the time, allow yourself to indulge in moderation.

2.  If you plan to be physically active, you can adjust your intake of carbohydrates upward as necessary; similarly if you will be sedentary, adjust downward accordingly. When consuming simple carbs or sugars, try to take in a portion of healthy fat or protein to moderate the spike in your blood sugar.

3.  Ideally, meals and snacks alike should have a balanced intake of protein, carbs and fats. Upon presentation of sugar in the bloodstream, your pancreas secretes insulin, which is necessary to transport nutrients into your cells. However, too-large a bolus (presented dose or amount) of sugar quickly elevates your blood sugar dramatically, resulting in a quick surge of energy followed by a “crash” as blood sugar plunges in response to pancreatic insulin. Over the long-term, enough repetitions of this pattern result in pre-diabetic metabolic syndrome and then full-blown diabetes type II. A diet too high in refined sugar and simple carbohydrates is also deleterious to mental health.

4.  If you do not already do so, consider taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement derived from cod, mackerel, sardine, or similar small, cold water fish. Swordfish, tuna, and large “game” fish are also good sources, but bio-concentrate mercury and other environmental toxins since they are apex predators – and thus should be avoided. Sufficient omega-3 fatty acid consumption is correlated with numerous systemic benefits, including healthier hair and skin, optimal cardiac function, reduction of inflammation, improved wound healing, optimal nerve and muscle function, as well as enhanced mood and lessening of mental illness symptoms. Omega-3s are not a panacea, but they are a very powerful nutritional tool… safe, and no prescription required.

5.  If you suffer from elevated stress levels, depression, insomnia, or any other mental health-related condition unresponsive to traditional first-line therapies, consider asking your physician to order an enhanced panel of diagnostic blood tests for toxicology, presence of bacterial or yeast endotoxins (Candida infestation), hormone levels, and a detailed panel measuring the presence and levels of common macro- and micronutrients.  Although you may have to pay out-of-pocket, consider getting testing for food allergies and sensitivities; typically such a test is done using a stool sample which is sent to a pathology lab. Such a test will allow you to screen out foods to which you are sensitive, but not have full-blown allergies.  All of these can affect mood and mental performance adversely.

6.  If a food sensitivity laboratory test is too expensive, consider doing a challenge-and-withdrawal diet.  Your primary care provider will be able to explain the technique. In short, different types of foods are included or omitted in one’s diet in a systemic manner, while the subject tracks a number of health parameters in a log or diary (mood, weight, constipation, sleep patterns, energy levels, etc.)

(Items 7 through 25 will be continued in the next week’s article . . . stay tuned, and thanks, Pete.)

Reference:  “The Ultramind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First” by Mark Hyman, M.D. Scribner, NY City, 2009.

Copyright © 2011 Peter Farmer

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About Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

CYNTHIA J KOELKER , MD is a board-certified family physician with over twenty years of clinical experience. A member of American Mensa, Dr. Koelker holds degrees in biology, humanities, medicine, and music from M.I.T., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She served in the National Health Service Corps to finance her medical education.
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