The Gut-Brain Connection and What You Can Do About It

We are in the middle of a mental illness epidemic. According to a report done by the CDC in June, 25% of people between the ages of 18-24 seriously have considered suicide since March. The percentage was 16% for adults 25-44. 31% of all age groups reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorder, and over 40% experienced adverse or behavioral health symptoms. “The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%) (2).” See full report here.  

These numbers affect me on a very personal level.

I was diagnosed with PTSD at a young age, followed by depression, followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder by the time I was 18. I was on many different medications to attempt to treat my mental disconnect, and while some of the worked, some did more harm than good. I understand what it is like to experience the deepest of lows and the highest of highs. I know what it feels like to have a brain that you can’t control, a mind that races and thoughts that spin around and threaten any kind of peace or stability.

One thing I have learned, in my last decade of mental stability, is that our mental health symptoms are always responses to an imbalance in our internal or external environment. External triggers could be grief, stress, or lifestyle disruption. Internal triggers could be something like blood sugar issues, thyroid dysfunction, nutrient deficiencies… or poor gut health. Learning about the gut/brain connection and addressing key areas in my physical health made a huge impact on my mental health.

Now, there is no one size fits all. What worked for me is not going to work exactly the same in someone else. But I do believe everyone can benefit from improving gut health.

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In a perfect world, the lining of the intestine allows entry to nutrients from our food to be absorbed and go where they’re needed. This lining is supposed to prevent toxins, bacterial overgrowth, and food products from exiting the gut lining. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. When you have poor gut health, thanks to stress, toxins in the environment, overconsumption of sugar and processed foods, overuse of antibiotics or other common medications, and a whole lot of other triggers, the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, and endotoxins leak out. This is what the phrase “leaky gut” refers to. The inflammation that results leads to a myriad of health issues, but what is being studied a lot right now is the effect on the brain and mental health. Many psychiatrists are suggesting that poor gut health is at the root of many of our mental illnesses.

To further that point, it’s important to note that over 90% of our serotonin (the “happy” neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut, and serotonin cannot be produced without the assistance of amino acids. So if what we eat impacts the way our neurotransmitters are produced, it stands to reason that what we eat impacts the way our brains receive neurotransmitters and find mental wealth.

There are many lifestyle interventions that are FREE, that can benefit our brain function as well as our gut. To break it down in the most simple form possible, here’s the acronym LIVE to help you get started and give you some practical ways to start taking nourishing your gut and brain together!

Continue reading “The Gut-Brain Connection and What You Can Do About It”

My Top 3 Brain Health Books in the Last 3 Months

A survey from the CDC in June reported that since March, 25% of young adults ages 18-25 had seriously considered suicide since the start of the pandemic. The number for adults ages 26-44 was was 16%. This is NOT okay. We have a problem. Correction: we have HAD a problem with mental health concerns, but it seems as if the stress and isolation and fear from this pandemic have just exacerbated all of them!

I am on a continual quest to discover why. I want to know why our brains are suffering and why mental health issues are rising and why we have all the meds in the world – but we still have an epidemic of mental illness.

I don’t typically do book reviews, but these three books have been so helpful for me the last few months as I dig into all my why questions and seek to understand the root of mental health concerns. These issues will not be going away anytime soon. But we can support our bodies and brains through a variety of tools in the toolkit.

Book #1: This is Your Brain On Food by Dr. Uma Naidoo

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Naidoo and discussing her new book. Listen to the interview here. What sets this book apart, and the reason I list it number one, is that Dr. Uma is a psychiatrist AND a nutrition specialist AND a professional chef. She understands food on multiple levels, from food as medicine to food as an art to food as comfort. In her book, she details the gut/brain connection and why our food choices matter so much. Then she divides each chapter up by specific issue (depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc), and she explains a bit about the diagnosis, what foods improve that condition, what foods hinder it, along with what supplements to include. The recipes in the back of the book are simple and delicious, and I’m always a fan of adding new recipes to my repertoire!

Book #2: Brain Wash by David Perlmutter, MD and Austin Perlmutter, MD

Lately social media has been annoying me. I mean, this isn’t a new thing. There are periods of time (like election years) where it seems like comments get more heated than usual. So take an election year, add in a pandemic and a whole lot of confusion and it’s a recipe for a social media disaster! What I love about this book, Brain Wash, is that it breaks down how our brains work and why we respond the way we do under stressful circumstances. It ends with a 10 day brain detox program, incorporating all of the suggestions made in the book. I’ll be honest – I read the first half of the book twice, because it was so helpful for me. The difficult concepts are explained in a way that everyone can understand.

Book #3: The End of Mental Illness by Dr. Daniel Amen

Dr. Daniel Amen is someone I follow religiously on social media, and I admire his approach to psychiatry. Unlike most psychiatrists, he performs brain scans on his patients. He seeks to address root causes to the brain dysfunction being presented. He doesn’t diagnose and slap a prescription in someone’s hand, he looks at other tools that are helpful. In this book, he outlines all the principles he adopts with his patients and all the factors that impact our brain wellness – from blood flow to toxins to inflammation to genetics to head trauma and so much more. This book gives a lot of practical guidance on suggested supplements and changes to make to have a clear, healthy brain.

All books are available on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Because we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic, we have a battle to fight with our brain health. There are so many tools available to support a healthy brain. These three books are excellent resources for anyone seeking to get to the root of their mental health issues.

How to Create Natural Neurotransmitter Balance for Mental Wellness

Are there alternatives to medication for mental illness? Is there a way to avoid all the long-term side effects? What other tools can we utilize to help balance our neurotransmitters naturally?

In this interview with Dr. Josh Friedman, we take a deep dive into neurotransmitters and how to optimize them for mental wellness, via food as well as amino acid supplementation.

Dr. Friedman has a doctorate in Psychology from New York University and did post-doctoral training in Psychoanalysis from the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology (TRISP) in New York City. He also is certified as a Holistic Health Counselor from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York and earned a Diploma of Comprehensive Nutrition (Dip.CN) from Huntington College of Health Sciences.

Download this episode wherever you get podcasts!

Key Topics include:

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– The importance of digesting protein to create the right neurotransmitters

– The struggle with treatment-resistant depression

– Why B12 is essential for mental health

– How enzymes aid in digesting protein in order to benefit our mental health

– Amino acid suggestions for low serotonin, low dopamine, and low endorphins

– And so much more!

Find more info on Dr. Friedman’s work click here.

Books mentioned in episode:

The Mood Cure by Julia Ross

The Anti-Anxiety Solution by Trudy Scott

Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker

Questionnaire for amino acids mentioned in the episode click here.

Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food

“People don’t make the connection between how they eat and how they feel emotionally through the brain. They don’t realize there is a connection to food and the brain and emotional well-being.”

Dr. Uma Naidoo is a board certified psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition specialist. She is the director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and also on faculty at Harvard Medical School.

In this fascinating episode, we discuss her exciting new book, This Is Your Brain On Food, which I highly recommend. Listen to the entire episode and subscribe wherever you get podcasts or listen here.

Key topics of our conversation include:

  • img_0728a.wDr. Naidoo’s journey as a psychiatrist and professional chef
  • How what we eat affects our brain
  • The origin of the gut/brain connection
  • The rise of mental health concerns
  • Food to avoid for mental well-being
  • Inflammatory foods
  • Orthorexia and food obsession
  • How to add more diversity in your diet
  • The impact of caffeine and alcohol on mental health
  • So much more!

Learn more about Dr. Naidoo here.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @drumanaidoo

Find her book on Amazon or your favorite bookstore. This book is so helpful and needs to be part of your mental health library!

Normalizing Mental Health Care with #SameHere

What do you do when your mental health is suffering and nothing you try helps? Are there options beyond the traditional treatment plans? Where can you find support?

#SameHere is an organization founded by Eric Kussin after he experienced 2 and a half years of suffering from a mental health crisis that briefly interrupted his career as a sports executive.

In this episode, you’ll learn Eric’s story in detail, and you’ll also hear from psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Pleener, who is the leader of the Same Here Psych Alliance and advocates for multiple healing modalities when it comes to psychiatry.

Listen here or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts!

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Key Topics:

  • Eric’s story and how he got to the root of his issues after digging through his trauma
  • How mental health is a continuum and the problem with using phrases like “stop the stigma”
  • The non-medication healing modalities that Same Here brings awareness to
  • The STARR exercises that improve mental fitness, as the “gym for the brain”
  • The importance of creating community support and awareness for mental health
  • Why you can’t use the same tool over and over to improve mental health – you need more!
  • Mental health treatment shouldn’t be a one size fits all plan.
  • The work Same Here is doing with schools and businesses
  • How you can get involved

To learn more, go to https://samehereglobal.org

Follow on Twitter: @samehere_global

Follow on Instagram: @samehere_global

Thanks to PTSD, I’ll Never Be a Hero

Thanks to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I’ll never be a hero.

I want to. I’d like to think that I’m a person of action, and that if I witness a dangerous event I’ll jump right into rescue mode. I’m a nice woman, and I like helping.

But I can’t. Trauma keeps me from moving. Trauma keeps me frozen in place, dissociating myself from reality, stuck to the floor in cement boots.

I taught English for 11 years, so looking back, I’m glad the topic of “disaster response time” wasn’t a job interview question. I wouldn’t have passed to the next level of interviews, that’s for sure.

I remember once when I worked at a middle school, a substitute teacher passed out in a classroom down the hall from me. I heard students running down the hallway, calling for the nurse. I peeked my head out the door, knowing I needed to check and see what was going on, knowing I needed to respond. But everything started moving in slow motion. I heard cries, I heard the words “CPR,” I saw others in action. But I was frozen. I couldn’t move.

I was chained to the past.

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I was 9 years old again, listening to the cries of my mother and grandmother as they try to revive my dying grandfather. I hear my grandma shout “No Freeman!” I watch him falling out of the car to the sidewalk and onto my front lawn. I watch them get out an epi pen, perform CPR, yelling for help.

I watch his eyes roll back.

Continue reading “Thanks to PTSD, I’ll Never Be a Hero”

An Integrative Approach to Mental Health – Interview with Dr. Noshene Ranjbar

The field of psychiatry is changing as new discoveries about the brain are made. There are many pioneers using evidence-based medicine to seek out different treatments beyond traditional methods and prescription medication. While meds are definitely helpful for some and are one helpful tool in the toolbox, according to Dr. Ranjbar, “we are asking them to do what they were not made to do.”

img_9005Dr. Noshene Ranjbar is Harvard trained and board certified in General Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Integrative Medicine. She serves as medical director of the Integrative Psychiatry Clinic at Banner – University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson.

In this episode we discuss the changes in mental health approaches in the last 20 years, how integrative psychiatry is different, nervous system dysfunction, common underlying issues that impact mental wellness, as well as Dr Ranjbar’s work with refugee and American Indian communities.

Click here to listen on the show page or here on iTunes. Continue reading “An Integrative Approach to Mental Health – Interview with Dr. Noshene Ranjbar”

The Mental Health Impact of COVID-19 – Interview with Psychiatrist Dr. Amelia Villagomez

I’m so thrilled to share that we have surpassed the ONE MILLION download mark on the Sparking Wholeness podcast! So what better way to celebrate than with an episode featuring an integrative psychiatrist who discusses the mental health impact of COVID-19!?

Dr. Amelia Villagomez is an integrative psychiatrist at Progressive Psychiatry in Fort Worth, Texas. She attended medical school at Texas A&M, completed her training in General Psychiatry at Yale, and did a fellowship in Child/Adolescent Psychiatry at Harvard. To further her education in holistic healing methods, she completed a fellowship for integrative medicine at The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and is certified in mind-body techniques. In this interview, Dr. Villagomez addresses the top mental health concerns during this pandemic and its aftermath.

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Download the episode here or subscribe on iTunes here.

Topics addressed:

  • How children and adolescents may actually be seeing a decrease in mental health concerns during this time, which poses the question: is an international pandemic less stressful than going to school?
  • How the pandemic is forcing us to rethink current paradigms.
  • Managing uncertainties and expectations.
  • The increase in insomnia, its causes, and what to do about it.
  • How the abundance of information may be negatively impacting us, stages of disaster, and potential trauma resulting with the current season.
  • The importance of mindfulness and staying in the current moment with self compassion and self awareness.
  • Nutritional support for mental health and why your brain needs 7-9 different fruits and veggies a day.
  • Why the gut-brain connection is something we should all be talking about.
  • Why the concept of PLAY is so important for mental wellness and holistic health.

Continue reading “The Mental Health Impact of COVID-19 – Interview with Psychiatrist Dr. Amelia Villagomez”

Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle

When I was 21, I made a suicide pact with myself. I felt the weight of the world on a consistent basis, as I struggled with depression, mania, and the chaos of jumping from one failed medication to the next. My mind was not my friend, and I didn’t feel safe in my body. At the young age of 21, I was fatigued from fighting the swirling thoughts and the heavy waves. I was burdened by being the only one who suffers from such a debilitating disorder.

I didn’t want to be on this exhausting earth any longer than necessary.

I decided that by my 41st birthday, I would end it all.

Today I turn 39. I have been in a stable place mentally for over a decade. The giant roller coaster I used to ride with my moods is now just a soft swell, a gentle up and down of a kiddie coaster.

I have no intention of ending my life. Not now. Not ever.

img_7600My life is a gift. My illness is a gift. For so long I lived in shame about my diagnosis. I didn’t want to share about it, and I didn’t want to look “abnormal.” I knew I carried a stigma. Today I am learning that thanks to my moods, I get to see the world from a different lens. Colors are richer and brighter to me. The air is fresher. Sounds are more soothing and meaningful. Everything is vibrant and alive. And even when they are not, and I experience a drop in my mood, I see the dark side and feel more deeply than others… meaning I can empathize with others’ pain in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I know now that my pain has a purpose. My pain showed me who I can be in spite of a broken brain.

Continue reading “Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle”

Being Bipolar in a Global Crisis

No amount of sugar or substance can make my brain buzz the way a dose of hypomania can. The ideas, the thoughts, and the LIFE that course through my head – all those are amplified in a time of crisis or extreme change. Being thrown off my daily routine or sleep schedule is a risk to my mental health. So throwing me into a global pandemic and giving me access to information 24/7 can really shake things up.

I find myself hopping around from medical research sites to conspiracy theory groups to political commentaries and read over all the comments and opinions. I am an excellent mimic. In order to manage my symptoms early on, I found a way to adapt to acceptable behavior and commentary, so I wouldn’t have to stand out any more than my buzzing brain could allow. I know what I shouldn’t voice in public or on social media, at risk of anyone thinking I am “crazy,” the C word accusation being one of my biggest threats. I fear other people’s opinions of me more than the average person, because deep down inside I know that my brain functions differently from everyone else’s, and that is scary. So I turn inward, and obsess, and research some more, and head down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, at the expense of my sanity.

At first the racing thoughts and buzz are a high, and they fuel me and energize me. At some point though, my brain reaches breaking point and I have to make it stop. I’ve been down these roads long enough to know where they end – in verbal explosions or in heavy medication to shut it all off.

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The carousel ride that is bipolar disorder.

So I fight. I maintain my mind by shutting off my triggers. I stop researching, stop listening and reading to anything that will throw me into a black hole of information. I take naps, and I go to sleep early. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never struggled with sleep. I can always breathe myself to sleep. In for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, out for 8 seconds. I burn off the energy through heavy exercise. I write, I dig into my feelings and name what is going on instead of escaping through obsessive behaviors.

The thing about bipolar disorder, is that it manifests differently in everyone. Everyone struggles in a unique way, and everyone has different triggers.

*To hear more details from others who suffer and how they manage, click to listen to Episode 29 of the podcast on my show page or subscribe on iTunes.

I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tools for finding stability during times of major stress or life change. Before I list them, here is the caveat – these tools aren’t always effective in the middle of a full-fledged episode. It is really hard to tell someone who cannot physically get out of bed due to depression, “You should just lace up your shoes and go outside. Why are you just laying there?” Or telling someone who’s manic, “Slow down and go to sleep.” It doesn’t work like that. These are physical illnesses that affect the physical function of our bodies. Our brains aren’t capable of telling our bodies to do what our bodies need to do. This is why we have to be on the offense and employ these tools REGULARLY, during times of stability, so that they are habitual and instinctual. The sooner we can tighten up these strategies at the beginning of the roller coaster climb or at the beginning of the dip downward, the better off we will be. Continue reading “Being Bipolar in a Global Crisis”