Our obsession with medicine and disregard for the effect of food and legal substances on our overall health, particularly our mental health.
I've been thinking about how we and the world of medicine are almost schizophrenic about what we put into our bodies. We are very aware about the effects and dangers of controlled drugs, only partly concerned with the effect of legalized drugs and totally oblivious to the effects of food that we consume.
Prescription drugs are very tightly controlled but legalized alcohol, over the counter drugs and food are consumed by almost everybody without any clear thought about what enters our bodies and what effect it or a combination of food substances will do to us.
Prescription drugs contain minute quantities of controlled substances that affect our bodies and our mental health. Doctors and pharmacists are trained to understand these drugs and the interaction of these drugs and how they can affect each other. Some drugs enhance each other's actions while other's can cancel each other out, produce unpredictable results, and some combinations can be life threatening. While the controlled drug interactions are carefully studied, interactions with 'normal' food intake is not.
A real example for me was a friend who was given warfarin after a routine operation to keep his blood from clotting. He then also took a couple of aspirin for a headache, probably for a hangover. The combination of the drugs (and possibly alcohol) thinned his blood to the point where he became comatose and survived only through quick medical intervention.
Another example is anti-depressants and other drugs that cause constipation. Yes, they tell you in the fine print! But they do not advise that you should greatly increase the very regular fiber content of your diet to avoid the certain formation of hemorrhoids.
Drugs and food actually come from the same or similar sources. Drugs are concentrated extracts from plant material or synthetic copies of such substances. Many foodstuffs contain the same substances found in drugs and many that have not yet been discovered as medically useful.
Pharmaceutically extracted and patented concentrations become prescription drugs that are then highly regulated by the FDA in the USA and similar bodies in the rest of the world. With the exception of substances like cannabis herbs and 'exotic' poppy plants, the world of herbalists is by and large totally uncontrolled. Yet, pharmaceutical medicines have their origins in herbal medicines.
My concern for more than 25 years has been to understand the causes of mood disorders, the sources of depression, panic attacks, compulsive behaviors and such, because I suffered from them all for more decades than I care to guess at.
The subject of food vs. medicine is vast, but for the purposes of this article I will concentrate on but the tip of the iceberg of 'mind altering' substances as an example of how ignorantly we approach food and its effects on our mental health.
Let's start with the effects of blood sugar. High or low blood sugar levels have a direct impact on our overall sense of wellbeing and our moods. An appropriately high level of blood sugar makes us feel energized, positive and generally satisfied. Low blood sugar has the opposite effect. We feel week, tired, possibly frustrated and hungry. A candy bar, soda, starchy meal, or sweet beverage is a quick fix and we move on again. Too high a level of blood sugar makes us hyper for a while. Taken incorrectly, that is, in an un-refined form and without appropriate other foods, the sugar is absorbed into our blood stream quickly and we feel good, but it is also metabolized very quickly, turned into weight gaining fat as quickly and in a very short time, our blood sugar levels drop and the cycle is repeated.
Just about everybody is aware of the weight gaining consequences of this routine but little regard is given to the mind / mood cycles that go along with this cycle. These mood cycles actually make us think and act irrationally. The easiest example would be the disregard for known dietary consequences. A less common understanding of the irrational behavior that goes along with this routine lies in anger outbursts, simply feeling low or irritated or moody, resulting in us saying and doing things we would not normally do. From the intake of high doses of sugar we may experience bursts of too high a level of blood sugar which makes us hyper for a while, before we drop down again. (Does anybody recognize the symptoms of bipolar or manic depression disorder here?)
Next, we should look at caffeine, (coffee, many sodas, tea, chocolate, and many over the counter drugs). We need a boost, so we have a cup of coffee. The effect wears off quickly so we have another and another.... We feel OK or good while we keep this up, but it is when the caffeine levels in our bodies drop that we suddenly get into 'kick the dog' mode.
Many 'A type personalities', hardworking career people, arrive home exhausted, irritated and frustrated, night after night. Have a look at your caffeine routine. At the office you probably have a regular stream of caffeine being fed into your blood stream and then, on the commute home, it works itself out of your system and your mood hits a low, just as you get home!
Would you believe that your bath routine can affect your mood? It is often said that too much of anything is not a good thing, and never has it been more true than about what we put into our bodies, but it is also true of our obsession with hygiene! Every time we wash our bodies with soap we wash off a layer of natural oils that nature provides as a way for us to absorb vitamin D from sunlight. While most other vitamins are generously provided by eating a variety of fresh vegetables, fruit and protein sources, vitamin D is rare in natural foods. Exceptions include fish liver oils, especially Cod Liver oil that is generally available as a supplement.
Calcium and Vitamin D
What makes Vitamin D so important? This rare vitamin is essential for our bodies to absorb other essential vitamins and minerals, notably, Vitamin E, Vitamin A and Calcium. Without Vitamin D in your body you can drink as much milk as you like and your body will simply pass the essential calcium. So what? As adults our bones and teeth have been formed, right? Wrong! We need calcium daily and without other sources we start taking calcium from our own bone structures, weakening our bones and teeth resulting in a variety of skeletal diseases later in life. But this article is about the effects of food and other routines on our moods and mental states. If our calcium absorption level drops to the level where we source it from our own bones, havoc rages in our mental states. Low mood levels and downright unexplained depression is the result. This is one simple explanation what many people know as the winter blues. In winter the sun is scarce and we hide under layers of clothing or indoors.
Of course too much sun is also a bad thing, and most people have a good old soap shower or bath after a long sweaty session in the sun, and down the drain goes the precious vitamin D. So what is the answer? Change to an Eskimo diet of raw fish is one answer. (By the way, fish liver oil has been the saving food substance for many peoples living in very cold and snowy regions.) The other easier answer is of course making sure that you get regular supply of vitamin D which these days is normally added to commercial milk, but just to make sure, check that your daily vitamin supplement has a healthy dose of vitamin D component.
I wish I did not have to mention alcohol or tobacco. These are such obvious sources of mind altering substances, but it is so universally abused that doctors basically have given up on pointing out the effects or dangers. If you care about your mood swings, down cycles, depression, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, anger outbursts, shaking and sweating attacks, start plotting your alcohol use. Tobacco abuse symptoms should be known by everyone, and any smoker will know the instant high you get from taking your first puff after a long break. I surely do not need to go into much more detail about these substances, except to point out that these substances interfere and basically negate the effect of prescription drugs meant to treat mood disorders!
As with legal recreational drugs, cannabis needs a mention as it is often argued that Cannabis is no worse than alcohol or tobacco. Maybe so, but 'no worse' is hardly an accolade. Surely I don't have to go into much detail of its effects but additionally to other mind blowing effects, cannabis is responsible for paranoia! Who wants to live with that?
By comparison to minute quantities of substances in controlled drugs, we consume vast quantities of uncontrolled substances without giving it a thought. This is crazy.
The link between substance abuse and mood disorders is seldom obvious because the mood disorder often manifests not while you take the substance, but sometime after you have ceased taking it, so one is inclined not to see the link. (In the term substance abuse I include sugar, caffeine, tobacco, soap, alcohol, cannabis, over the counter drugs, and any of the same or regular food that you consume routinely.)
So, what do we do?
- For a start if you suffer from mood fluctuations of any kind, including depression or anxiety, it is a good idea to start tracking what you eat and drink, by the hour. On a second access, track your moods. Look for correlations between your intake and your moods as far back as 7 days. An example of a 7 day effect would be shaking and sweating or headaches that manifest up to 7 days after you have stopped taking the substance, is alcohol and other drug withdrawal symptoms. It's called the DT's. Some over the counter drug detox symptoms can manifest for as much as 21 days!
- Secondly, make sure that you take good multivitamin and mineral supplement every day. Even vary the supplement product from time to time. You never know whether the contents actually match the label description.
- Thirdly, vary your diet widely and regularly. If you have a specific liking for any specific thing, take care and limit your intake.
- Four. Learn as much as you can about nutrition. You cannot read enough about it. Vegetarians and vegans especially should be aware of the limitations of their food choices and make sure that they consume foods that provide essential minerals and vitamins normally obtained from animal products.
- Five. We do need blood sugar. Avoid refined sugars and starches. Choose pasta and potatoes over white bread, cakes, sodas and candy. Here's a life changing tip: Eat a portion of protein along with a small amount of starch (sugar).... This has the result of the sugar being available to the blood over a longer period as opposed to in a single rush and staying in the blood stream longer. Typically the blood sugar level will be as high as with a portion of starch or sugar on its own! So you feel good for longer on the same portion. You won't need to top up your blood sugar levels every hour and guess what! You will lose weight! So if you follow the logic so far, a hamburger made from fresh ingredients, or poached eggs on toast, make excellent meals!
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