I'm a research junkie. I admit it. I own it. I'm okay with it.
I'm okay with it because it is the reason why I have found wonderful answers to my personal health issues. As I've taken the facts I've gleaned from various sources and put them all together into one whole just for me, I've found a great deal of relief from the maladies that biology has left me to face.
One such issue is my struggle with anxiety and depression combined (the official diagnosis from the doc was "OCD depression"). It seems to run in our family because as I've compared notes with relatives, we all manifest our issues in similar ways, and our genetic predecessors did as well for at least two generations back. The genetic cards I've been dealt haven't been an easy hand to play during life. But the bottom line seems to be a lack of serotonin in my system.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is the wonderful chemical that the brain uses to make electrical connections between brain cells so they can talk to one another. The serotonin serves like "wires"or "electrical conduits" for the electrical impulses to travel on. Called a neurotransmitter, serotonin is used to regulate lots of stuff in the body. It helps your brain to tell your heart to beat, to remind you to breathe, to tell your stomach and intestines to digest food. It's also used to regulate your mood.
The Limbic Center
About the size of a walnut, the limbic center of the brain is right in the core of the brain and is where all the "warm-fuzzies" get processed. It's where emotional attachments are processed. Women have a slightly bigger limbic than men which accounts for their ability to bond and for that in-born "mothering instinct". The limbic is where mood is handled and processed. Brain scans (pioneered by Dr. Daniel Amen) have shown that someone in a sad or depressed mood has a limbic that looks bright and "lit up" on a brain-activity scan, while someone that is in a fairly good mood has a limbic that doesn't light up nearly as much. The "hotter" the limbic runs the worse the person's mood usually is at the time of the scan. Just like a car radiator, the limbic can't run hot all the time without having adverse effects on every other function around it and connected to it. Just as a car radiator that overheats for too long eventually will result in a warped engine head, so too a limbic that overheats too long and too often will result in a "warped head".
Shortage of Serotonin
My body has a shortage of serotonin on a regular basis. For whatever reason, my body doesn't produce enough. Because my brain has a shortage of it, it uses the serotonin it does have for the critical functions first (i.e., keeping my heart beating). It then parses out the rest to other functions putting mood-regulation lowest on the priority list. So my brain has a tendency to run "hot" all the time because there's a lack of the "coolant" serotonin.
Getting More Serotonin into My Brain
The body is just amazing! It can take a complex carbohydrate food like whole wheat bread and in only a few digestive steps convert it into serotonin! Amazing! So for me, if I'm having an issue with anxiety I can eat a piece of whole wheat bread, a few Triscuits, or a yummy plate of whole grain nachos (pictured at right--see recipe at bottom). In about 20-30 minutes my mood feels more calm. If I remember to consume complex carbs throughout my day at regular intervals, I am able to regulate my anxiety much better. Conversely, if I eat a low-carb diet, I'm a bear to live with!
The work of both Dr. Christiane Northrup and Dr. Daniel Amen have been key for me to manage my serotonin imbalance issues as well. I take a multi-vitamin daily as well as a the following additional "supplements":
- Vitamin C
- Folic Acid
- Vitamin D
- 30 min. daily of natural sunlight or light from a full-spectrum light bulb
- Consciously and frequently think about something that makes my insides say "ahhhh" like baby kittens
- Sing to myself and let myself dance
- Give myself permission to take a nap when I need to nap
- I don't consume foods that have anything "hydrogenated" in the ingredient list
I won't go into the reasons why all the above "supplements" are biologically necessary, but they all assist important functions in my body to help me feel better emotionally (and physically).
I have a fairly severe issue with serotonin imbalance, so I also take a prescription medication that falls into the class of serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This class of meds works like a dam in a river. It prevents my body from reabsorbing the little serotonin that it does produce and creates a reservoir for my body to utilize for the lower priority functions that it would otherwise short-change if I didn't take the SSRI. There are number of SSRIs in this class of medications. I've been on 3 different ones over the past 12+ years. Each has it's benefits. Eventually, I found the right fit for my particular brain chemistry which allows me to take a small dose and still get all the benefits of the additional seratonin available to my brain.
The Bottom line
For me, tackling anxiety and depression required a multi-faceted approach--counseling, medication, and nutrition. Nutrition is a major facet of the three. It is easy to slack off on nutrition, but if I do I feel it. I've found that if I "feed" my body and my brain with the right nutrition (including exposure to sunlight), my issues are very manageable and my life is much more fulfilling and rewarding.
Healthy Nachos (6 points)
15 whole grain tortilla chips from Trader Joe's (Salsa Fresca flavor is great!)
1/2 can of fat-free refried beans
1 oz. sharp cheddar cheese
optional carmelized white vidalia onions (I use leftovers from other dishes)
Lay out the tortilla chips in one layer with edges slightly overlapping onto a microwave-safe plate. Put spoonfuls of refried beans evenly spaced over layer of chips. Hand-grate cheddar cheese over top. To regulate the amount, I put the entire plate onto my kitchen scale before putting the cheese on, zero out the weight, and then grate the cheese on until the scale reads 1 oz. Place optional onions over the top. Microwave the plate of nachos for 60-90 seconds on high. Enjoy with a cool glass of water!