Gut Health = Brain Health?

One of my first blogs on this site was about a book called Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter – a neurologist who blames lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.) on excessive carbohydrate and gluten consumption. It’s been four years since that post and I have followed much of the book’s advice – I eat a primal diet that consists of meat, vegetables, fruit, and some whole fat dairy. My body is happy when I eat this way and I never have to worry about measuring portions or counting calories – this use to be a requirement because I put on weight easier than a bear preparing for hibernation.  Eating the aforementioned foods is not a diet but rather a lifestyle. Wheat, corn, rice, and added sugars are great once in a while but not as a base for your personal food pyramid. My buddy Chris O’Brien – an aspiring low-carber with a nagging penchant for club crackers – recommended that I read Dr. Perlmutter’s newest book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain. This book changed the way I think about the microbes that live within our bodies. In a sense, we are more bacteria than human – we carry more single cell organisms than actual cells in our body. These microbes help us with a myriad of bodily functions like digestion, immunity, sense perception, and mental processes. Without microbes, we would simply die.

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The health of your gut bacteria determines the health of your brain. The stomach and brain are interconnected – just think of what happens to your digestive system when you are anxious. The rise in diseases like Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, and autism are being linked with imbalances in gut bacteria. These imbalances allow bad bacteria to flourish over good bacteria; this leads to excess absorption of energy (obesity), inflammation that stimulates autoimmunity (Multiple Sclerosis), and/or gut permeability which can exacerbate neurological symptoms (Autism).  Studies show that our ultra-sterile environments and antibiotic use is disrupting our microbiome. Added to this is our Western diet low in prebiotic fiber and high in carbohydrates which foster bad bacteria. As an icing on the cake, exposure to environmental toxins like plastic residues, pollution, and workplace stress can all disrupt good bacteria. The connection between the gut and the brain is most obvious in those struggling with mental health disorders – studies show that more then 50 percent of psychiatric patients struggle with digestive ailments.

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So what can we do to help our microbiome? We need to eat diets which are high in fiber so good bacteria have food to eat. Also, eating probiotics like yogurt or fermented foods like sauerkraut help introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut. Avoiding toxins is an obvious must, but don’t forget about toxins lingering in the food supply like gluten and added sugar. Is gluten actually a toxin? I would argue that gluten in high quantities – the amounts seen in normal Western diets – wreaks havoc on the digestive system and on the microbiome. If you require more convincing then I recommend trying a gluten free diet for a month – I bet you’ll start feeling better after the first week. I recommend these things not only from research studies but also from my own experience. I used to eat “healthy” whole grains and I normally had stomach pains, constipation, and bloating; I was even diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) before I started eating a primal diet. Now unsurprisingly, the only time my IBS flares up is when I go back to eating grains. If you suffer from any of the above ailments, it is worth it to read this book. You may not see a complete reversal of your disorder but I would bet your symptoms will get drastically better. Read the book for yourself. You have nothing to lose except some bad microbes.

Pregnancy Pressure – A Man’s Perspective

Christina and I are currently in the process of trying to get pregnant; yes, even while I am typing this sentence, we are working towards making a baby 🙂 Joking aside, it seems like there is a lot of pressure when it comes to getting pregnant. This pressure starts as soon as puberty occurs. As an 11-year-old sweaty, hormonal kid, I thought sex always equated to pregnancy. The stress for girls was even higher with rumors that kissing in hot tubs can lead to a baby in 9 months. For most of my life, pregnancy was equal to a death sentence and an appearance on Jerry Springer. Even after getting married, I felt like it was taboo to get pregnant – imagining whispers of “Honeymoon Baby” or “Shotgun Wedding.” I am at a point in my life where all those previous misgivings have totally reversed. The best way to describe how I feel right now is to think of using your credit card at a store. I have a credit card with a chip which requires me to insert it into a slot. When you insert the card into the slot, there is a prompt that says “Do Not Remove.” There is a lot of waiting and looking around the store during this time. The calm of the “Do Not Remove” phase suddenly changes into the most stressful experience of the whole shopping process.

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The credit card machine – as if holding a poisonous snake – starts to blink and screams at you to remove the card
. It goes from 0 to 100, and I get anxious every time this mercantile exchange occurs. There is no yellow light for a transition – only peaceful green to morbid red. For most of my life – through involuntary abstinence and careful safety precautions – my thoughts concerning pregnancy were minimal at best. Sometime in the past year, however, the light turned from green to red, and something changed in my brain. It is as if the card machine started to scream at me and now every time I see a baby or a pregnant woman my mind sounds like this…

“GET PREGNANT NOW, GET PREGNANT NOW, GET PREGNANT NOW!!!!!”

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Most of this pressure is self-imposed, but there is still a lot of real pressure when friends and relatives are getting knocked up like the contagious flu spreading through an elementary. If I feel this as a man, I can’t imagine what women feel like – even those who detest the idea of having kids. We are social creatures, and we like to fit in – especially anxious people like myself. Christina has an app which tells her when to have sex, and I have been studying it like the treasure map in The Goonies. Should we have sex every day during your fertile window or every other day? Do I even have enough bullets in the cartridge to last that many days? Is it possible to use a turkey baster if I fall ill? Should you stand on your head for a few hours afterward?

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I feel sorry for my sperm right now, and my nether regions are probably pushing production like its Christmas Eve at the North Pole. That is what I am feeling right now – pressure in both of my brains. I thought I share this because it is something we all struggle with but fail to talk about. Pregnancy is usually portrayed through gender reveal parties and cute pictures – the reality is a steaming conveyer belt of soldiers going down a booby-trapped tunnel which is accessible only a few days a month. I really think we need to expand our pregnancy scare tactics from just teenagers – let’s make a sex-ed curriculum for thirty-year-olds.

What Is Your Sleep Animal?

I have always been a diva when it comes to sleep. As a boy, I never wanted to have sleepovers because I would want to go to bed early when everyone else wanted to hangout until dawn. One prime example was my 7th birthday, when I left my party early (which was in the basement) to go sleep in my bedroom, leaving my Mom to entertain 10 sugar-crazed boys. For the same reasons, I didn’t like going to overnight camps or camping in a tent where I knew adequate sleep would escape me. In my young mind, the boys who could sleep anywhere were the boys who grew up to be the cool guys. They were the guys who could close out a party, watch a movie marathon, and go for a midnight swim. I was always in bed before my parents (even in the weekends) and I still usually go to bed before everyone in my family. When I do sleep I need a solid 9 hours to function and ideally 10 would be perfect. This somewhat pathological need for sleep has shaped my life and my daily activities. Do you want to wake up early and workout? No. Do you want to go see the midnight premiere? No. Do you want to go get drinks after dinner? No. Do you want to join a morning book club? No. My window of ideal sleep is between 10:00 pm to 8:00 am. If I deviate too much from that window I will be a zombie for the next day and possibly the whole week. I know I am a high maintenance sleeper and my obsession with sleep led me to read The Power of When by Michael Breus, PhD.

There are four types of sleepers: Bears, Lions, Wolfs, and Dolphins. Bears make up 50% of the population and wake up naturally with the rhythms of the sun – not going to bed too late and not waking up too early. Lions, naturally morning hunters, make up 20% of the population and are the people who rise very early and accomplish a ton of things before Bears even begin to hit the snooze button. Wolves, naturally nocturnal hunters, are the late-night prowlers who probably best fit my description of the “Cool Guy.” Dolphins, which sleep with only half their brain at a time, make up 10% of the population. Dolphins are the people who would normally be described as insomniacs; they have difficulty falling asleep, they are easily awoken, and they struggle to get more than 6 hours of sleep a night. What sleep animal are you? To take an accurate quiz on the author’s site, click the link here. I am a Bear but I think a better description would be a Koala Bear – they sleep a crap ton. Most of the people I know are Bears but I do know a Wolf (shout out to Megan) and a Lioness (shout out to Ashley). I still have yet to meet a Dolphin but I think my wife is some weird combination of a Panda Bear riding on top of a leaping Porpoise. I think the biggest take away from this book is to put sleep on the top of your priority list. If you struggle to get enough sleep because you like to stay up late, try turning off all electronics one hour before bedtime. You really need 5 complete sleep cycles to get a healthy nights rest; each sleep cycle is an average 90 minutes long so that equals about 7.5 hours a night. People may have longer cycles or shorter cycles but most people know their sweet spot when it comes to a great nights rest.

Peruse the website and check out the specific recommendations for each sleep type. Just remember, without sleep, your brain and body are at a significant health handicap – limiting your full animal potential.

The Psychopath Next Door

“Psychopaths kill more people in North America every year than the number killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” This fact is quite scary and comes from the book The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience by Kent A. Kiehl, PhD. Are you a psychopath? Is your neighbor a psychopath? Is your mother-in-law a psychopath? I think that we have all at one point in time used the “psychopath” word to describe someone we have encountered. There is a definitive way of assessing this disorder and it is called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This assessment is performed by a trained interviewer and rates a person on categories known to be present among psychopaths: Glibness/Superficial Charm, Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth, Need for Stimulation/Proneness to Boredom, Pathological Lying, Conning/Manipulation, Lack of Remorse or Guilt, Shallow Affect, Callous/Lack of Empathy, Parasitic Lifestyle, Poor Behavioral Controls, Promiscuous Sexual Behavior, Early Behavioral Problems, Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals, Impulsivity, Irresponsibility, Failure to Accept Responsibility for own Actions, Many Short-Term Marital Relationships, Juvenile Delinquency, Revocation of Conditional Release, and Criminal Versatility. Holy Cow! Don’t worry if you identify with some of these categories because you need a fairly high score on the overall assessment to be considered a psychopath. In addition to this identification process, new research is showing that the brains of psychopaths are actually abnormal compared to the general population. More specifically, the paralimbic system, which is responsible for processing emotional stimuli, is atrophied and less active in psychopaths compared to non-psychopaths. Functional MRI scans of the brain can accurately assess the activity of the paralimbic system and if a person scores high on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist it is almost always the case that their paralimbic system is compromised.

Psychopaths are normally very smart individuals but what they lack is emotional intelligence. Since their paralimbic system is less functional they are unable to sufficiently process emotions; this is like reading the lyrics to a song but never hearing the music. They are extremely literal and have great difficulty with abstract thinking. Their limited emotional capabilities are why many psychopaths commit unthinkable crimes and seem to have no remorse or care for subsequent punishment. This is why psychopaths are repeat offenders and usually have a very long list of committed crimes. Punishment in general does not work with psychopaths and going to prison for them is no different than going to a condo in the Florida Keys. What is really scary is that researchers believe the paralimbic system may be atrophied in psychopaths since birth. There are many parents that have children that do not respond to punishment, abuse animals, enjoy arson, and have several other traits on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. So is a child who exhibits psychopathic tendencies destined to be the next John Wayne Gacy? Yes and no. The chances are higher but with the correct atmosphere and positive behavioral reinforcement a callous and unemotional child can become a functioning member of society. In the future, hopefully we can prevent the next Ted Bundy by identifying high risk children and putting them through research-proven treatment. Sadly, we currently are reactive when it comes to mental illness (remember all the public shootings last year) and need to be more proactive in helping individuals who are struggling. In the end, psychopaths make up a small percentage of the population but they are a real threat and more awareness of treating mental illness is needed to prevent heinous crimes from occurring. What is your take on mental illness? How can we improve the treatment process? Do you suspect a psychopath lives next door?