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.