Monday, November 18, 2013

How I Discovered the Brain/Gut Connection

There is a news article going around from NPR called "Gut Bacteria Might Guide the Working of Our Minds." Quite a few people have contacted me about this article asking if I have seen it since they know I use diet rather than medication to manage my bipolar disorder. For me, the article is not new information. I heard about the brain/gut connection many years ago but it has not been widely accepted or talked about in main stream medicine so few people know about it. However, this information is saving my life so I wanted to let you know how I found out about it and give you some resources for your own research.

The NPR article only talks about gut bacteria and how they have found that the bacteria in our gut effects our brain. For instance, in one study with mice, they put the gut bacteria of non-anxious mice into mice with anxiety and the anxiety in those mice decreased. They then reversed it and gave non-anxious mice the gut bacteria of anxious mice and the non-anxious mice developed anxiety.

I first discovered at least a connection between what you eat and mental illness when I was a child. As early as I can remember, I would constantly overeat sugar in order to make myself feel better. I actually ate spoonfuls of sugar out of a 5lb. bag. Throughout my childhood I was anxious, scared, sad, manic, angry, and seeing things that were not there. Somehow I discovered when I ate large amounts of sugar, these things got better. Of course, at that age I had no idea what was really happening and I did not make the connection that eating large amounts of sugar only perpetuated the problem, making me more manic if I did not keep up with eating copious amounts of sugar daily. I first read about this and how sugar increases serotonin in the brain when I was in my 20's and found the book "Potatoes, Not Prozac." This started my journey of researching how food and gut bacteria effect the brain.

Brain food snack. Photo copyright Jeff Norris.
I think the hardest part about using dietary and lifestyle changes to manage an illness, any illness, is that most of the researchers never work together and they only focus on one part of the problem. For instance, "Potatoes, Not Prozac" does tell you to eliminate sugar but there is no research in there about gut bacteria and brain health. Basically, you need to do a lot of your own research and put together the information all of the scientists have discovered and find what works for you.

My next step was a psychiatrist who told me that cutting out sugar and increasing my daily amount of animal protein could help with my ADD and mania. He said he read a few papers on it but usually did not recommend it because medication was easier, "no one wants to change their diet," he said. As I did more research, it was not surprising to me that more animal protein helps with mania. There is a lot of research about using a ketogenic diet to manage epilepsy and the drugs used for epilepsy control bipolar disorder so it seems to make sense that for some reason a diet that helps epilepsy would also help bipolar disorder. But again, two fields of research working independently of each other and thus information is rarely shared.

Every time I implemented one of these dietary changes, I got better. After a few weeks of sugar withdrawal, not eating sugar made my depression better, but I was still angry all the time (mania). Increasing animal protein got rid of the anger. The biggest issue with any of this though, at least in my experience living in the midwest, is that few doctors, even if they have read the research, really ever use diet to treat mental illness so none of them can help guide you find out what works for you. I will write a full post on this issue, but this has been for me and the people I work with, the biggest reason it is so hard to stick with dietary and lifestyle choices, it is just not supported in our culture, especially by society in general. Try going to a dinner party and not eating dessert or drinking and you will find just how difficult it is to eat what is best for you. I also developed a binge eating disorder from the sugar addiction and then trying to follow Weight Watchers which got me to be militant about food rules. So for years I have gone back and forth with what I eat.

Then my husband, who has always had a iron stomach, got very sick. He could not keep any food in him and his immune system was shutting down. He had all the tests done and was told he had Irritable Bowl and there was nothing they could do for him. We could not imagine that his whole life would be like this and a friend told us to try cutting out gluten (wheat) even though my husband did not test positive for a wheat allergy. He got better right away and since I was eating the same as him, I noticed my moods evened out. From there I went back to researching the link between food and mood and then found the Paleo diet which cuts out all grains, dairy, sugar, and legumes and I felt even better.

Photo copyright Jeff Norris.
Through the Paleo community is where I found a wealth of information. Books explaining why I had Irritable Bowl since I was a child, as well as eczema and a whole host of other issues. There were many stories from people who said their moods improved on the Paleo diet and then I found all of the research on bacteria and gut health. It was amazing. All of these things completely made sense to me and just a week into a Paleo diet I start to feel remarkably better.

Over these many years, my eating disorder has gotten worse and today that is still the thing that makes it hard for me to stick to eating Paleo. Not only will people argue, shame, and pressure you not to eat this way, but any way of eating that seems to have a lot of rules can trigger your eating disorder if you have not worked through the eating disorder with a therapist. However, more people are writing about this and talking about how to ease into a Paleo diet and find the foods that work with your body and help you recover from an eating disorder. That might mean you eat some dairy or none at all. You might tolerate white rice, or not. However, no where have I found that people with mental illness do well eating wheat, sugar, or artificial sugars. Sugar and wheat easily allow detrimental bacteria to grow like wildfire in your gut.

I will not say this has been an easy path because it has not been for me. I will write more about the journey in future posts. Basically, I have been Paleo for over a year now and when I can be 100% Paleo, my moods even out within a week and I am very stable. It works better and faster than any medication I have ever tried, with none of the side effects. As I work through my eating disorder I am confident I will be able to stick to this better and better as time goes on.

I would like to link you to some resources that you might find helpful in doing your own research about the brain/gut and food/mood connections. These are just a few of the resources I have, but I think it is enough to get you started!

Rev. Katie

General Resources:
Blog: Evolutionary Psychology by Emily Deans, M.D. This is the place to go for all the real research and studies about food/mood and the brain/gut connection.  Seriously, fantastic. This is the place to start your research!

Blog: i bee free - Fantastic blog by Courtney who has been able to really stick with the Paleo diet with modifications that fit for her. From i bee free: "Under a doctor’s care for hypothyroidism, Courtney Rundell ended up in a mental hospital and was misdiagnosed bipolar. A year later, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid disease that causes both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Neither her psychiatrist or endocrinologist reconsidered her bipolar diagnosis...Improperly treated Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Adrenal Fatigue were the cause of decades of suffering. After a lot of trial-and-error, she’s found the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol, minor supplementation, a regular sleeping schedule, yoga and meditation to be much more powerful than handfuls of pharmaceuticals."

Book:  Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia. by Natasha Campbell-McBride, M.D.

Paleo Resources:
Website & Books : Balanced Bites by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, NC. Diane's website is a wealth of information but so are two of her books, Practical Paleo and The 21 Day Sugar Detox. She has information about the connection between food and your gut and all different illnesses.

Website:  Paleo Parents by Matt and Stacy. They have two cookbooks as well as chronicle living Paleo with kids. Stacy has lost over 100 pounds and talks about finding the diet that works best for you and loving your body as it is. This is a great resource for anyone with an eating disorder to start to learn how to eat even if you have health restrictions but not turn to eating disordered militant rules and body shaming.

Podcast: The Paleo View. Podcast featuring many Paleo experts covering all kinds of topics, including eating disorders, food and mood, and the brain/gut connection.

Website: The Paleo Mom by Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. Sarah is a wealth of information about using Paleo to heal autoimmune disorders and she explains the science behind the Paleo diet.

Website: Chris Kresser L.AC. Lots of science about the brain/gut connection.

Go-to Books about Paleo and all the science behind it:
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. If you want a book with all the science but that is easy to understand, this book is for you.

The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain, Ph.D. Considered the first book about Paleo that really got the movement started. There is a lot of science in this book and on his website with tons of published research papers.

Paleo and Eating Disorders Information:
Paleo and Eating Disorders from Paleo Diet Lifestyle by Sebastien Noel
Can the Paleo Diet Cure Bulimia? from Paleo Healing by Doron Dusheiko
Disordered Eating from Paleo Pepper.

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