Food, chemicals and emotional health

Many years ago, during my management consulting days, I worked with several food manufacturers.  It was a high point of my career, giving me the opportunity to travel and providing the mental challenge of analyzing a vital and complex industry.  Fascinating stuff: just in time supply chains, seasonal peaks, trade secrets, risk.  Touring chocolate factories, bottling plants, cereal production was a regular part of my job, reviewing and advising on operational risk and continuity. I loved the work.

As I became increasingly interested in sustainability, the environmental and social aspects of the industry became a part of my research.  It is no small circumstance that my own health was failing in the same space of time.

These two parts of my life would come together in a realization that, in part, led me to end my career as a consultant.

My research on both fronts met at a disturbing point. Evidence was stacking up showing a strong link between factory food and other sources of environmental toxins and direct impacts on our health.  Many of the chemicals we ingest mimic natural chemicals that our bodies use to function.  They connect with receptors in our cells, in all parts of our bodies, and overload the system.  In time, they disrupt the natural processes that sustain us, or initiate processes that undermine our health. Even the plastics that we use to store our food and the lining of cans seep toxins into our food.  Toxins that mimic hormones that not only impact our bodies, but the health of future generations.  We pass on the damage in genetic changes.  Our children are being born with these chemicals already laced throughout their bodies.

The poisoning is gradual, the effects so seemingly organic to our biology.  Researchers are finding more and more links to human health epidemics like obesity, cancer, reproductive issues, heart disease, diabetes and so on.

Recently, more studies have focused on biochemical effects that can affect mental and emotional health.

Suicide and Glutamate: Researchers have recently announced a potential link between glutamate — a naturally occurring chemical with receptors on various human cells — and suicide.  The discovery is, in short, that too much glutamate can induce an increase in suicidal ideations and behaviors.  There have been findings in other studies which show that the chemical structure of Aspartame allows it to connect with glutamate receptors in the body.

Reading this research has helped me put one phenomenon of suicidality into perspective for myself.  At a particular point in my illness, when I was battling suicidal tendencies, I made a clear determination that I really did not want to die.  I was confused about the battles I was having.  I held on to that thought very tightly — that I truly wanted to remain alive — but I still had desperate moments when the compulsion to end my life was so strong it shut out almost everything else.  That one little spark remained and somehow it was enough to keep me above ground.

Being the analyst, I observed these desperate moments and tried to see what was happening to me.

I looked at my thoughts and feelings, how the suicidal episodes came over me like waves and then gradually faded.  I noted how the episodes always ended if I did nothing about them, if I just rode them out. I called it “suicide surfing” to myself…trying to take the power away from the experience somehow.  I noticed that the feelings would come on… almost like the niggling of a scratch that develops into a very sore throat…annoying and increasingly insistent upon being noticed.  They would rise up, taking over everything, clearing a path through all other thought.  The episodes would peak in a consuming desperation, a deep existential panic, sometimes like I imagine the panic one would feel standing in an approaching headlight, when the jump to safety is instinctual.  When all energy is concentrated on that one leap into black safety.  It was like the act of suicide was the jump to rescue the self and living was the rapidly approaching threat.  It was as if death walked in the mask of life in those moments.

But then… it would pass.   As I wrestled with the episode and took no action, the thoughts would ebb away.  They would leave me, relieved and weary.  The tension of the compulsion would subside and I would be left exhausted like I had just fought my way back from the rip.

Something instinctive told me that this had to be a native process, something biological…rather, psychobiological that is meant to be there.  It’s like nature gave us an off switch in times of great crisis, like a deer freezes in cognitive paralysis when facing a mortal threat, or a rabbit’s heart explodes.  It’s just that we are thinking, feeling beings… our mortal threats are more than just the car bearing down on us.  Our mortal threats are psychological, social, cumulative, ruminating, deeply ingrained…the threats of being human and surviving and succeeding in our complex world.

Several days ago I read that there is a chemical and a chemistry behind this psychobiological function of self-destruction and I realize that “HA!” I am stronger than that process.  I can get through it like I get through a bad headache or cramps. I imagine my body furiously clearing away the chemistry of life-ending instinct.  I see myself holding to that core knowledge that the human mind has an amazing power over the human body, and vice versa.  When I feel an episode coming on, I can steel myself to ride it out.  I can even shorten the episode, make it less painful.  I believe that I am learning how to avoid the episodes altogether.  This was all before someone in science identified the chemistry.  Awesome.

Knowledge is power.  So the next logical point to research is where this chemical comes from and to determine if there are any artificial sources of chemicals that mimic glutamate.

I must say I was appalled but not surprised at what I found… Aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG). These two chemicals are widely used in factory food production.  Americans especially are at risk.  Many countries have moved to ban these chemicals from food, but the US has no regulation — other than self-regulation — to eliminate them from our diet.

To read more of what experts are saying, this article outlines the link between MSG, Aspartame and excitotoxins on human health.   Read more, research, inform yourself.  Most importantly… read ingredient labels and take them seriously.

Anxiety and Endocrine Disruptors: Numerous studies are looking at the human health effects of endocrine disruptors — chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking naturally occurring endocrine hormones.  These chemicals, also referred to as xenohormones, attach to receptors that support the ongoing function of this critical biological system.   Our endocrine system is a regulator of so many processes: growth, reproduction, digestion and processing of nutrients, our basic self-preservation response, and has a primary role to play in the chemistry of emotion.

When we feel emotion, our body is on a very basic level processing chemicals.  Our endocrine system responds to how we feel by producing the right chemicals.  Receptors in our cells take up those chemicals.  When we take in foreign chemicals that are taken up by our cells, emotional responses can be triggered.

We become increasingly sensitive to even minute fluctuations in chemistry as we are continually exposed and our bodies lose the ability to eliminate foreign, excess chemicals.  Our health deteriorates, emotional dysfunction increases, leading to further impact on our health.  There are too many resources to quote, but these are some good articles to start with:

Learning about endocrine system function (and dysfunction) has helped me tremendously in managing my C-PTSD.  Knowing that I am dealing with a biological process that is sensitive and that, for me, requires constant tuning through nutrition, stress management and biochemical defense helps me to shift my thoughts about my disorder.  It helps me to better understand my emotions and to deal with them in constructive ways.

For example, I know that if I don’t eat regularly and maintain my blood sugar I will feel the physical symptoms of anxiety.  If I don’t eat enough protein, eat too much sugar or drink too much alcohol, then I will throw off my blood sugar until I can find a balance again.  Fluctuations in blood sugar can lead to a release of adrenaline (low), dips and spikes can result in fatigue.  For someone with PTSD, emotional swings from any source — triggered or chemical — are to be avoided, especially in the stabilization phases.

Sometimes sorting out the source of PTSD episodes is therapeutic in itself.  Knowing that a particular thought or experience triggers PTSD symptoms helps heal the mental health aspects of the disorder.  Knowing that particular health issues, such as poor rest, poor eating habits, low blood sugar, even the physical stress of colds and flu can set off PTSD symptoms helps just as much.  This disorder is not “in our heads”… it’s in our bodies, in our functioning.

It’s even in our DNA (read about epigenetics, fascinating stuff…)

It would be impossible to protect ourselves from all of the chemical attacks on our health, but it is possible to reduce exposure by making healthy eating choices.  Understanding more about how your body works across the board is helpful for anyone with PTSD.

For me, I find that everything I learn helps me build a lasting foundation for my recovery.  Understanding what I can about human psychobiology has enabled me to let go of a lot of the shame, blame and hopelessness of this condition.  I feel empowered in every small action I take toward healing myself.

Complex PTSD certainly has changed the course my life.  Deciding to give my recovery priority meant that I had to give up the pace of my career.  Becoming more aware of the preciousness of life and the human experience has led me to a dramatically changed perspective of myself and others, a much healthier one that I have ever had.

On this journey, I confronted so much loss.  I thought I lost a valuable career because of my mental illness.  I believed that mental illness damaged my reputation to the point of permanent professional shame.  I felt robbed of a meaningful and successful life by the man who allowed this, who caused all this and made me vulnerable to others who would exploit and abuse me.  I was angry with ‘everything’, the loss of my prosperity, the loss of my health, the loss of my joy…

That has all faded as I’ve drawn perspective.  For one, the career did not fit with my personal beliefs any longer.  The more I discovered that the factory processes I found fascinating were critically damaging our health and environment, the more I realized that I was fortunate to leave that work behind.

I now work for a wholesaler of organic foods as my primary source of income and I love what the company and all of the producers are doing.   While I’m not making the comfortable salary of a corporate consultant anymore, I am happier than I have been with my work in a very long time.

I guess that’s proof that what we put into our bodies and minds is essential to our health.

That’s food for thought…