J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

You Are Responsible For Your Own Brain Chemistry

Even cats like yogurt.

Even cats like yogurt.

Recently Kia was stressed out, and griping about some first-world-problem (I forget what it was; something along the lines of “my clients want me to do stuff,” or “the internet is too slow”). I gripe equally as much about such faux-problems, but at that moment I was feeling impatient. So I said “Go drink some kefir.”

Now why would I say that?

Most kefir contains live active cultures of lactobacillus rhamnosus, a strain of probiotic bacteria shown to reduce anxiety and increase resilient behavior in mice (and people too). Somehow, this particular bacterium communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve, stimulating GABA neurotransmitter receptors, and blunting the effects of chronic cortisol release. Which can bring a person down a notch.

Kia, who has a particular genius for neatly encapsulating complex ideas into catch phrases, drank some kefir, and came back with the following: “We’re all responsible for our own brain chemistry, aren’t we?”

I had never thought about it that way exactly.

Insisting on responsibility, I think, is different than blaming the victim. We are not all blessed with naturally buoyant mood, high motivation, or even the ability to distinguish our own thoughts from reality. Some people are less able to cope with the stressful, sometimes horrible events that make up day to day life. One person I know is prone to realistic, terrifying hallucinations if he does not take large amounts of antipsychotic medications on a daily basis.

But still, my friend is responsible for his own brain chemistry. Because who else can be?

Friends, family, and society should provide assistance and support for the mentally ill (the Mental Health Parity Act is a huge step in the right direction, and will protect thousands of middle-class families from medical bankruptcy). But in terms of personal responsibility, there is only one person involved. The person who owns the brain.

The principle is the same for serious mental illness or garden-variety blues and anxiety. The workings of the brain, factors that influence mood and motivation, are no longer mysterious. What works for most people?

  • reasonable amounts of exercise
  • adequate, regular undisturbed sleep
  • turmeric (yellow curry) [anti-inflammatory, increase BDNF]
  • probiotics that stimulate GABA
  • adequate dietary omega-3 (fish oil, wild salmon)
  • avoiding foods that wreak havoc with blood sugar, or disrupt/mimic neurotransmitter function (artificial colors, MSG, etc.)
  • limiting (or abstaining from) alcohol and recreational drug use
  • freedom from tyrants/oppressive personalities, or any situation that causes constant, chronic stress (periodic acute stress isn’t a problem)
  • slightly more social contact than you think you need
  • membership in a group that meets regularly
  • spiritual factors (clear conscience, clear life purpose, etc.)

On the other hand an austere life of strict discipline is probably unnecessary for most people (in terms of maximizing mental health). Exercising to exhaustion every day won’t make me happy if I’m socially isolated. A good night’s sleep won’t help if I have to get up and work for an evil sociopath boss (luckily I’ve never had to, but I hear they’re out there).

Chasing happiness and running away from suffering isn’t the point. But I do want to be firing on cylinders, awake and aware and relatively comfortable in my own skin, so that I can attempt to live a rich and meaningful life, with moments of joy and love and passion.

I’m sure I missed something … but you get the point. At this point we should all know what works (if not from clinical research, then from trial and error in our own lives). The trick is doing it day to day; turning knowledge into habits.

So here’s to better living through chemistry (in the healthful sense).

Update Oct. 2015:
Previously on this blog I’ve mentioned the importance of vitamin D in terms of reducing asthma symptoms and improving sleep, but I should also include it on the list of mood regulators in light of Rhonda Patrick’s research.

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25 Comments

  1. Being responsible for my own brain chemistry got me off antipsychotic medication, by changing my diet and working a lot with the stress in my life.

    I tolerate stress worse than any of my friends, and that’s something I have to deal with by doing what I can to be more resilien. Sleep, probiotics, magnesium, don’t overexercise (I have been prone to this), keep my gut happy with bone broths and no gut irritants. It might sound like a lot of work for some, but believe me, compared to living on meds it’s nothing.

  2. Linda Lancione

    Scrambled eggs with 1/8 teaspoon turmeric=delish. (Mom)

  3. mark

    I think it is obviously different for youth, but I think you are right. One of the main problems I see is that the pharmaceutical industry and doctors have helped shaped a culture where every problem you have necessitates a pill, and it is not your fault but your genetics. One of the main takeaways from 23andme that I have gleaned is that most problems I had are not genetic in origin, but due to my environment. One of the best 99 bucks ive ever spent.
    We definitely live in an era where people lack personal responsibility. I honestly think taking good care of myself and spending lots of money on things like wellnessfx and integrative medicine appointments is one of the most unselfish things I have done– otherwise I would be no good to myself, or more importantly others.
    That being said, we all need a helping hand at some point, and I’m happy to help others.

    • Totally agree that 23andMe is a great investment. And fun too. I’m 4% Neanderthal!

    • Mark Dittman

      In James Greenblatt’s (integrative doctor) book regarding depression he recommends that his patients take EFA supplements instead of straight fish oil, as a lot of his patients become deficient in Omega 6s when using fish oil, and some patients come in with omega 6 deficiencies.
      The only caveat is if you are willing to get your red blood cell Omega Score done routinely (which I do).
      LOL at the Neanderthal, I thought I was up there at 3.1%, which is 96th percentile:)

      • Mark Dittman

        I feel stupid with this recomment, I need to make sure I get email updates to the followups, as I end up repeating myself. Love your blog though, always learn something new

  4. Worth noting that not all “good” bacteria are good for everyone — this post gets into some details re: various lactobacillus strains:

    http://www.bulletproofexec.com/why-yogurt-and-probiotics-make-you-fat-and-foggy/

    Sauerkraut is a better option for many people, though I’m not aware of any research that looks at links between fermented cabbage and mental state. But sauerkraut might be a good choice for allergy sufferers; L. plantarum (3rd stage of sauerkraut fermentation) may reduce histamine levels.

  5. Sam

    I’d add walnuts (or walnut oil) to the list of Omega-3 sources. Need to have something on the list that’s vegetarian friendly.

  6. Great post. Even better comments – I’m always impressed with stories of people who are able to get off their psych. meds by altering their outlook or stepping up their diet/exercise.

  7. culturedsf

    Hi there,
    Really liking your blog. I first got here from Googling the search ” What genetic mutations am I likely to have if I am an undermethylator” With that post and this one you’ve almost got me ready to pull the trigger on the 23&me kit. I want to know but with Mthfr defects it’s such a rabbit hole of treatments and vitamins that I want to do the test when I feel I have the energy to do more than I’m already doing. Coincidentally, Coconut Keifer I picked up at Rainbow Grocery in SF has done a world of good for my mood these past few days. That and a 500mg of GABA before work will help you slide through most stuff that happens in a day. It’s magic.

    • culturedsf

      Thanks for the link. The comments on that NPR article were and interesting read on what a people currently understand about this stuff. Enjoyed it immensely.

  8. Terry

    Hello JD,
    I know that lack of omega 3’s and omega 3/6 ratio can affect your moods. You’ve recommended fish oil in an old post. I have an allergy it fish and seafood. What would be a good substitute for fish oil?

    • Hi Terry. Most allergies are reactions to proteins (not fats). You might be OK with purified fish oil even if you are allergic to seafood. Otherwise flax oil is a reasonable alternative.

  9. mark

    fyi i think its smart to supplement or ensure that you have adequate linoleic acid, a lot of people become deficient in its derivitives, such as GLA, DGLA, and arachidonic acid (if you avoid processed food, etc)

    • I’ve found GLA from evening primrose oil to be helpful for keeping inflammation in check; it’s part of my regular supplementation to prevent asthma.

      • mark

        Nice. Arachidonic Acid’s metabolite Prostaglandin D2 is very important for sleep, which is why high EPA fish oil can cause insomnia, if not taken in balance with the Omega 6s. And GLA will convert to AA as needed. I’m thinking it might help acne, I’m only taking spirulina for GLA directly though, which has about 30 mgs of GLA per 3 grams

  10. altamisal

    Proud Mom wants it known that her son Ben did the illustration and video in that NPR piece. 🙂 Ben and I are drinking a lot of kombucha these days and feeling much better for it. Our probiotic of choice! Next step is to make it myself but til then, Synergy is great.

    I know I need to pay more attention to my omega 3 intake. I do eat a lot of pesto made with walnuts (yum!) but I keep forgetting to take fish or flax oil.

  11. altamisal

    Well, his video (on the same page) is even better, check it out!

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