The Mind and Body Are One System
I was reading an article this morning about the Gut-Brain Connection in kids with ADHD, and this sentence stopped me in my tracks:
“...95% of the body’s serotonin can be found in the gut, which is why it’s often referred to as the “second brain” or “gut brain.””
Serotonin is “popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.” (Wiki). In fact, SSRIs, the most common type of antidepressant, are a chemical booster of serotonin. I’m a pretty educated woman around this stuff, but until this morning, I thought serotonin was in your brain.
95% of it is found in your gut. Ergo, if you have an unhealthy gut, it could affect how happy you are.
“An unhealthy (or leaky) gut can cause:
- joint inflammation/pain
- “brain fog”
- other autoimmunity”
(The Gut-Brain Connection in Complex Kids, by Chantell Reagan)
Last year, I was working with a client who was suffering from what she considered to be classic depression. She also reported having trouble controlling her anger. She was full of self-loathing, desperately wanted to love herself, and she was coming to me for help. She was also about to go back to her doctor to go back on SSRIs, as they’d helped her in the past. (She has given me permission to tell her story, even though I am keeping her name private.)
After a few sessions, I asked about her eating habits, and she revealed to me that she ate fast food for almost every meal, and certainly every day.
She also worked in an office, and had a long commute to work, which did not include any walking.
Along with beginning the deeper inner work that I do with my clients, my first recommendation was for her to start cooking and moving. I didn’t even care what she cooked; I just didn’t want her eating fast food.
After three months of working with me every week, we had gone through my signature program, and she had made some deep inner shifts. In addition, she was walking every day, cooking home-cooked meals, and packing her lunch most days. She was not on SSRIs, and reported: “I can look at myself in the mirror and see a pretty woman, who is happy. I'm happier now than I've been in years. I've had friends tell me I have a glow about me—that I shine.”
Had she not been willing to address and change what she was putting inside her body the work we did would have been moot. And, had she not been doing the inner work, she would have been less likely to have made healthy choices along the way.
Because the mind and body are one system.
A few years ago, I went on my own journey with depression and anxiety. I suffered what I at first thought were mild symptoms, but which, over time, increased to be pretty severe and debilitating.
My anxiety takes a physical form. It’s like a large screw being tightened in my sternum, and I find it extremely difficult to breathe past it. The depression and anger were low-level, but constant; I was in a perpetual state of swinging between anxiety and depression, or having them consume me all at once.
During this time, my best recourse was medication, which I took religiously. At the same time, as the early afternoons would move into late-afternoon, my anxiety would increase exponentially, and my next best recourse was wine. I’d pour a glass and immediately begin to feel the anxiety slip away. Then I’d have another, and sometimes just one more as I relaxed into an evening at home, binge-watching Netflix, while eating cheese and crackers, potato chips, Twizzlers and chocolate, or a big box of Flavor-Blasted Goldfish. Or a big juicy burger from the place right across the street who makes the best burgers in town.
Or I’d go out with friends and drink more wine. Lots more wine.
I’d wake up the next day, deeply, darkly depressed and angry, get through the day, creep towards the afternoon, and then more wine…
This was my pattern.
This was my habit.
I was putting on weight (20 lbs). My depression and anxiety were spiking. I was in the depths of despair, while unable to breathe most days.
And then the suicidal thoughts began.
I truly thought this life was not worth living and the one and only thing my brain latched onto that kept me alive was my son. Literally, the one and only thing.
(I talked to no one about this; not a living soul. In fact, this is the first I’m speaking about this publicly.)
I had a bit of my senses still intact, and so I hit The Google. Turned out that mixing my antidepressants with alcohol was not just making the drugs ineffective, but actually making them counter-productive, and that one side-effect of this lethal combination was suicidal thoughts.
(I’ll interject here that on the prescription bottle, there’s a sticker that says, “Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication,” or something to that effect. But I kind of took it about as seriously as the sticker on antibiotics: “It could reduce the effectiveness,” not “IT MIGHT MAKE YOU KILL YOURSELF.”)
Again, with my son my foremost thought, I made a decision to stop taking the meds.
Not stop drinking. But stop taking the meds.*
(There are a few reasons for this, but the main one was that I really did want to get off the meds. The chemicals were too harsh and I wanted to see if i could turn this all around naturally. I was fully willing to go back on should I need them, but I just wanted to see.
The other reason was simply that I didn’t want to give up my wine. I liked it. I wanted it. I chose it.)
With the help and advice of my doctor, I slowly weaned myself off the meds, while also drastically reducing my wine intake. The process took about 3 months in total, and I began to feel better.
But within a few months, I was back to drinking a lot of wine (but without the suicidal thoughts this time - YAY!), and eating like crap. My weight was down a bit, but certainly not enough for my liking. My anxiety and depression, while not debilitating, were still hanging around the block. I was in a new relationship, and we liked to drink together, and we loved to try new, fun foods. It was part of what we did together.
I was happy, but I didn’t feel right. I didn't feel good. I wanted to lose weight, and while I was an avid exerciser, I knew that what I was putting into my body was countering the effects of all my hours at the gym, calorically, and chemically. I also knew that on the days I exercised, my anxiety diminished exponentially.
Then I got a group text from a good friend: “Hey bitches, I’m going to start Whole30** on Monday. Who’s in?” I didn’t need to be asked twice. I’d researched it before, and seen I’d have to quit drinking and immediately shut the browser tab.
But this time I was ready for some drastic change, and because I work better in groups, when the circle of friends with whom I spend summer weekends at the pool drinking and eating crap band together to get healthy in July, I’m IN. I talked my (now ex-) boyfriend into it, who’s always game for a challenge and would do anything to support me, and we were off to the races.
After just one week, my skin was bright, fresh and clear, and my stomach noticeably flatter. The wine bloat vanished. The next week, I got my period with absolutely no warning. No PMS, no cramps, no psycho mood swings, no weight-gain.
When I went to the gym, I had more energy than I’d had in years. My injuries vanished—I’d had chronic inflammatory issues for a couple of years, which moved around, from my back, to my achilles...there was always something. And now, nothing.
But most importantly, my moods completely leveled off, despite this being one of the most stressful times of my life. My mother was undergoing chemotherapy, my business was failing, and my son’s ADHD was spiking in ways I could barely manage. Whereas in the past I would have numbed myself with food and alcohol, I was facing each day squarely, and cleanly.
I put my health first, and in so doing I was able to manage situations that previously would have crippled me, and support those who needed me most.
And I lost 10 pounds.
A few months later, I was selected through my gym to take part in a Bowflex infomercial challenge, where we were put through a rigorous 10-week training program, beta testing a new machine (the Max Trainer).
I lost another 10 pounds.
For the most part, this is how I live my life now. I do still drink, but stick to clean vodka + soda, or sip straight tequila over ice, just one, a couple of times a week. My body simply cannot process wine anymore. When I’ve diverted and slipped into drinking wine, eating processed foods, and not exercising regularly, the depression and anxiety come racing back. It’s noticeable, and it’s completely clear what’s happening. As soon as I clean up my act (right now, for example, some friends and I are doing a mini-Whole30—more like a Whole15, just to reset our bodies), everything comes back into alignment.
It’s magic. Except it’s not.
Because at the end of the day, it’s science.
Which brings us back to this idea that 95% of your body’s serotonin lives in your gut. The thing that makes you happy—the thing that antidepressants are designed to chemically boost—lives in your gut. What you eat is absolutely positively correlative to how you feel.
So, if you’re interested in doing the deep, inner work to get happy, try cleaning up what you’re putting into your body first.
The mind and body really are one system, and you can’t clean up one without cleaning up the other.
*I am in no way advising or advocating for anyone to stop taking their meds. Many people need medication as part of their healing plan. Consult your doctor before making any such decisions.
**This is in no way an advertisement, plug, or recommendation to do Whole30. It was the program that I did and that worked well for me. Consult your doctor before taking on any diet or exercise program.