Trajectory of a Year - or, Continuing my Personal Health Adventures
I have a huge disinclination to draw conclusions about anything health-related. I don't want to be known as That Person who recommends a healing modality after testing it for A Very Short Time, Announces Tremendous Results, and then...experiences a "Relapse" and never discusses said Modality again.
But when is anything in health "conclusive?" Since that's up for debate, and because I have been trying a lot of different things this year, I am going to trepidatiously announce that my mental and physical health status feels a lot more stable and Good Overall. And so, for the very few persons who tend to geek out on the topic of methylation, mental health, and all the sorts of things that have filled my thoughts and experiments this past year, what follows is a brief summary of Action Steps I Took During 2014, continuing my quest toward a Much More Peaceful Mental State.
As you may remember, this has been Quite A Year in terms of my personal Brain.
And while it may just highlight some of my more obsessive tendencies, after experiencing some substantial suicidal feelings at around this time last year, I became even more Very Highly Motivated to get well, and to understand some of the underlying causes of my periodically Torturous Emotions. (I'm lucky enough to have a very lucky life that does not justify so much torturousness, after all!)
So: I'm hesitantly about to outline the Stuff I've researched and tried this year, which has culminated in a constantly evolving protocol that seems to have landed me where I am right now: feeling more happy, stable, fun, and productive, in general, and for longer stretches, than I can remember feeling. (Footnote: enhanced fertility was a side-effect, not the intended outcome!!)
(Another footnote: I appreciate personal growth as much as the next woman-who-came-of-age-in-the-nineties...but I can assure you that my improved mental state is not due entirely to that (since I've been doing Personal Growthy Things for many years now, including during my darkest moments). I kept a daily calendar/health journal for the past year, noting each time I tried something new, and any reactions/effects, good or bad, that I could notice - and by teasing out certain emotional reactions and watching for their existence (or lack thereof), I'm reasonably sure that not everything I've tried has been the result of a placebo effects. Could be. But probably not.)
Okay. With all caveats out of the way, here's some of what I've geeked out on this year:
Starting around New Year's 2014, I read Paul Jaminet's book, "The Perfect Health Diet." This was prompted by two articles on his blog, one concerning the best dietary sources of glucose for the human brain (and why dietary starch is very different from dietary sugar). After this, I read an overview of a discussion Jaminet had with Ron Rosedale and others at the Ancestral Healthy Symposium several years ago, which includes an interesting comment thread.
After reading Jaminet's book, I subtly but definitely changed the macronutrient makeup of our family's diet, most specifically by adding more carbohydrates in the form of "paleo" starches: plantains, white rice, white (and other colors of) potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, etc. I continued to try to understand: when are "low-carb" vs. "moderate-carb" vs. "high-fat" diets therapeutic, and when can they be harmful? I appreciated many articles by Chris Kresser over this past year, some of which focused on beneficial therapeutic diets (i.e. "paleo" or "WAPF"-type) - which he mostly describes as "plant-based diets that include meat".
At the same time, I was continuing our family's experimentation with Resistant Starch, which has consistently yielded fascinating results in the realm of both digestion and mood & behavior. I'm fairly convinced that without resistant starches, certain family members wouldn't have been able to digest the absorbable types of starch! (At the same time, RS is not a magic bullet, though for certain people, with certain symptoms, it's pretty incredible.) This guy has done a ton of thinking on the topic. And here's an interesting take on RS (plus some notes about historical RS consumption in the comment thread).
Paul Jaminet recommends various supplements in his book, and I decided that after four years of Healing With Diet Alone, it was time to experiment much more fully with these. Also over the winter, I did a LOT of reading about and listening to Dr. Kelly Brogan, who is a medically-trained psychiatrist who specializes in women's health, and who has not started any client on psychiatric drugs for the past nearly-three years. In her work I finally found validation within a "holistic" framework for my experience of extreme psychiatric manifestations of hormonal (etc.) imbalances. Dr. Brogan refers to depression and anxiety, among many other mental health symptoms, as "sickness behaviors" - caused by underlying physiological dysfunction, she believes, rather than their being a primary illness themselves. I appreciate detailed theories these days, rather than "eat right and exercise, and do therapy and maybe try some psych meds, and after that it should clear up just fine!" I liked Brogan's 2013 paper on postpartum depression, along with this interesting look at the burgeoning field of psychoneuroimmunology. As per her recommendations, I began taking maca, vitex, turmeric, and other herbs that seemed like a Good Fit for my brain.
I am always fascinated by the art of extracting Action Steps from Interesting Research. I liked this article, concerning why it's maybe not a good idea to Believe In "science" as an innately self-correcting process. I also liked this intriguing interview with Ellen Langer concerning placebo, nocebo, and positive thinking. And, I am Very Much Intrigued by the concept of "functional medicine" when combined with an evolutionary/ancestral take on human health.
I continue to find new reasons why the health of our guts is of supreme practical and spiritual importance, and why what we eat might be the most fundamental reason that a Healing Protocol will work (or not). I liked this article about lactose intolerance. I also did some reading about biofilms this year, especially because I'm curious about how fungal infections affects human health in the context of various dietary macronutrient profiles.
It takes time to trust that things can work again, especially when Baseline wasn't stable and smooth to begin with. I find that it takes me at least three weeks to trust that my Good Mood is really Good, and not a fickle fluke - which explains why, when experiencing "PMS," I almost never have a very stable outlook on life (one good week, at best, assuming a four-week cycle!). But - gradually in 2014, as the weeks and months ticked by, I became more buoyed by the growing stability I was feeling under the influence of yet another "diet" - this time characterized by an emphasis on dietary starch, in addition to all the other nutritious and expensive foodstuffs we have already been eating for so many years. The new basic supplements and a few targeted herbs seemed to improve things further. It's amazing how personal growth and common sense pop psychology can actually make sense without a lot of work, when ones brain is feeling semi-normal levels of Good Feelings!
With renewed enthusiasm, I started delving into further ways to target the Black Cloud.
I read snippets like this - a few people's targeted-supps advice for OCD. Using anecdotal reports like this, I began experimenting on myself in order to additionally help my offspring. I read a bunch about high-dose iodine, including this summary from The Homeschooling Doctor. Over a period of months, I worked up to a moderately high daily dose of iodine for myself, and definitely noted some Effects.
I decided to learn a little about "methylation", and read a lot of information that was intriguing, a lot of claims that were Larger Than Life, and I started wishing that I could live at least a hundred more years...because humans will know so much more then! I kept on reading. Lots of practitioners are focused on genetic testing - they advise if you "test positive" for a specific mutation, then you should take various nutrients to up- or down-regulate your methylation pathways. A reason why methylation ("a biochemical process where a methyl group is added to the cytosine or adenine DNA nucleotides") has practical importance is that it is one way in which our genes receive (and in many cases retain and pass on) notice to express themselves. This whether-or-not gene expression has to do with how methyl groups interact with and "bookmark" our DNA and its histone strands. Like a spring, which can be coiled tightly or loosely, and do different things, depending on position. Sort of.
Based on some intriguing research I found, concerning the requirement for some people to take certain forms of B vitamins in order to make them absorbable and methylate-able (and in some cases, to have Profound Effects on mental health), I began working up toward higher doses of methylB12, methylfolate, and SAM-e.
Then. I discovered we were pregnant. And - you should excuse the expression - I completely flipped out. Enhanced fertility (read: the ability to get pregnant when It Just Wasn't Possible) was NOT the end result that I'd been shooting for, what with all this health experimentation, and I had no idea whether any or all of the things I was taking might be harmful for a tiny developing fetus. It's impossible to know for sure. :( I immediately discontinued the semi-high doses of iodine, dropped some of the herbs, and found that everything else I was taking seemed compatible with Pregnancy Health. I seemed to be feeling okay, better than with previous pregnancies, at least, though Very, Very Tired. I commenced praying for many, many, many blessings.
In September, I had the first real hiccup to record in my Health Journal. I developed a horrible, awful, nearly debilitating headache...that would not stop, no matter how much rest or sleep or darkness I got. It lasted for two solid weeks, during which time my head felt like it was stuck in a vise all day and all night, not to mention that high anxiety and OCD perseveration was suddenly growing and clawing at my brain again, and scaring me greatly. The whole episode culminated in three consecutive days of panic attacks, and I was really starting to panic even when I wasn't having an attack! I really really really really really didn't relish the prospect of another pregnancy Breakthrough.
Over a period of six weeks, using very targeted experimentation, I conclusively determined that the headache/panic was due to one or all of three supplements: methylB12, methylfolate, and SAM-e. I immediately stopped taking all three, but felt very shaky for a few more weeks. It is not good, to feel like something as Very Tiny as a B-vitamin pill can push you toward a nervous breakdown! Plus, I couldn't understand WHY: a bunch of practitioners recommend B12 and folate and SAM-e for symptoms that nearly exactly mirror my own - why would I have a paradoxical reaction, especially since I had been feeling so good for the first couple of months that I took those things??
Sometimes I have to try to understand things in order for them not to freak me out so much.
I finally found some articles that included comment threads which were sincerely illuminating. Chris Kresser writes about "Methylation - what it is, and why you should care about it". Additionally (though a little late to prevent my two-week migraine), Kresser explains why the idea of treating hypothetical methylation issues based simply on the existence of a genetic mutation (rather than a determination that the gene itself is not expressing itself optimally) is not the best idea (essentially: "genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger").
And then I discovered the work of William Walsh (who initially collaborated with Carl Pfeiffer), who characterizes various "biotypes" of depressive illness using serum and urine markers for histamine, folate, zinc, copper, ceruloplasmin, pyrrolles, etc. His book "Nutrient Power" got me exceptionally intrigued. I was fascinated by his background in working with mentally unstable criminals, as well as people suffering from other forms of severe mental illness. Excerpts from his research can be found here, but it's worth getting the book even if you only want to read his lucid discussion of the concept of epigenetics. Walsh describes why methylfolate in particular can be exceptionally useful for some...while for many, including "low serotonin, undermethylated depressives", it can be "the suicide nutrient".
Yes! Finally! Some reasons why one tiny pill could make me feel so exceptionally crappy. I started realizing that I wasn't taking supplements only to remedy deficiencies, but also in some cases to counter an "overload," and - in the case of methylfolate - possibly to stimulate the expression of epigenetically-mediated predispositions towards or against certain symptoms. You know how they say to take vitamin C and echinacea for colds, and it never seems to do much? I was finally noting that supplemental nutrients CAN do things, and have profound effects, even while they are distinct from psychiatric (and many other) medications because they are familiar molecules that our bodies have evolved with (rather than completely foreign compounds). But holy cow, natural does not mean Simple and Universally Safe, that is for sure!
I found a practitioner trained in the practical application of Walsh's research, who also does phone consultations, to help me modify my own protocol. NY State has a bizarre set of laws governing the lab tests that a person may or may not get, so I drove to Pennsylvania to get blood drawn. (Someday, I will work to change these ridiculous and overbearing laws!) While I waited for the results, I read some more fascinating articles, with some content I'd come across years ago while researching the dramatic effect that copper and zinc levels can have on the development of eating disorders.
"Hypercupremia" is characterized by low histamine and high copper levels in the body, and my blood tests reflected this state, combined with functionally low levels of zinc. In some cases, the see-saw balance between two or more nutrients can have a distinguishable effect on the body, and the ratio between copper and zinc is one of those cases:
In addition to all of the self-experimentation, I used a substantial amount of Grandma Lily's generous gift to fund a trip to NYC to have an appointment with Dr. Kelly Brogan. I was very excited to have a chance to talk with her in person, because I think she is brilliant, and I want to have a brilliant doctor on my side, if you know what I mean. Also, in case I happen to become certifiably insane at some point, it definitely seems like a good thing to be the client of a technical psychiatrist.
The trip was a whirlwind, and fun and totally exhausting. (Note to self: never never again bring two glass quarts of dilly beans in your backpack when doing a walking tour of NYC. Bring housewarming gifts such as down feathers or tissue paper or rose petals, instead.)
I still think Dr. Brogan is brilliant - and I also think that she has a long way to go in terms of refining her clinical practice. Her initial recommendations to me were very general and simplistic, and it would be fiscally unwise for us to spend hundreds of dollars more to determine whether her further recommendations would be worth the money. I am grateful to Grandma Lily for the chance to have had the appointment (plus I got to visit with an old friend whom I hadn't seen in years! Like the homeschool high school reunion that I've never experienced. Plus, I spent a really nice afternoon with Mom, who met me at the doctor's office)...but I was reminded that the state of our country's healthcare system is incredibly, woefully challenged. True "health" care from brilliant practitioners is not available for a price that most Americans can afford.
My goals are crystallizing through all of this: I want to learn and learn, more and more, and someday learn enough so that I can become a clinician capable of helping others to heal their bodies - maybe at an affordable price! This is my fifteen-year-plan...
Love from snowy snowy crazy cold blowy snowy land of SNOW,