Better living through brain chemistry.
(Caution: Layperson talking about brain chemistry here. Everything in this post should be considered a simplification to aid understanding and not actual technically correct medical advice. In particular, my descriptions of what various brain chemicals do is not intended to be the be-all, end-all definition of their nature, but rather the most salient parts for people with mood disorders. The most important actual advice in this post is the part where I suggest people do their own research.)
So, most emotions… most feelings… have both a cognitive and a chemical side. There are things you are thinking in your mind and there are chemical reactions that are happening in your brain, and neither one of these two things by itself is the feeling you are feeling. That’s something that happens in the intersection of the two. Trying to figure out which is “real” and which is “fake”, which is the cause and which is the effect, is a fool’s errand.
A physical change in your brain chemistry—you get an endorphin rush, which stimulates the release of dopamine—can lead to a change in your thinking—you feel great, so you’re thinking positive thoughts and thinking about things that also make you feel good. The reverse can also be true… thinking about things that get you worked up can open the chemical floodgates. It’s not that one side pulls the strings and the other one dances. The physical and mental are both reflections of each other.
But sometimes those reflections are just completely out of sync. Anyone who has a mood disorder is likely to know this. Nothing’s wrong in your world, not a bad thought in your head… but there’s a nameless, formless dread, all the same. There’s a bad feeling that attaches itself to anything around you, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s there.
It’s a chemical thing, not connected to any cognitive phenomenon.
This is why the most effective treatments for anxiety and depression disorders are pharmaceutical—it’s a physical, chemical solution for a physical, chemical problem.
The sense of accomplishment that you get when you do a task you’d laid out for yourself? The physical side of that comes from dopamine. Imagine that wasn’t there. Everything that’s under your control is still the same. You have the same goal. You still understand why it’s a necessary or good thing for you to accomplish it. But when you do… no rush. No spark. No warmth.
If you’ve never felt this disconnect between your thoughts/actions and feelings, you might think the intellectual knowledge that you’ve accomplished something or did something that needed to be done should be all that anyone actually needs. “Who needs a chemical rush?” Well, you do. We all do. That’s why it’s there, or why it’s supposed to be there.
That smugness you feel when you think that you manage to get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work without any weepy hormone B.S. clogging up your brain?
That’s chemical smugness, right there, and you are very lucky to be able to feel it. Try to imagine that you couldn’t feel that satisfaction, no matter how right you knew you were.
Without the right chemical reactions lending their weight to the words in your head, accomplishments can become hollow, tasks can become pointless, familiar and comforting sights can become alien and hostile, and the world can seem an entirely pointless place.
Now, I mentioned above that there are pharmaceutical treatments. A little disclaimer before I move on to the point of my post: my goal here is not to bash psych meds or the companies that provide them, or to discourage anyone from taking them. Like I said above, a chemical problem demands a chemical solution.
But psych meds aren’t a solution that will work for everybody. Some people don’t have the money. Some people don’t have access. Some people have adverse reactions. Some people just haven’t managed to hit upon the right combination that works for them, with their own particular life and their own particular brain. Any or all of these situations can be exacerbated by doctors who are unhelpful and inattentive to what their patients are telling them.
If you have a brain chemistry problem and you can’t address it with pharmaceuticals, there are other options out there. Some of them have actual research backing up their effectiveness. Some of them are have thousands of years of history backing up their effectiveness. Few of them have the bulk of double-blind studies and other testing that pharmaceutical companies are expected to do (and can afford to pay for), because there’s no patent involved and no way for anyone to corner the market on whatever profits come from them.
There’s something you can find packaged as “L-DOPA”, “DOPA”, “Mucuna Extract”, or “Dopa Mucuna”. It’s the same thing that pharmacies prescribe as “levodopa” under a variety of trade names, except it’s refined from a bean, long used in the treatment of neurological disorders in India and Africa. The brain turns L-DOPA into dopamine and adrenaline.
Some bodybuilders and athletes take L-DOPA to get pumped up mentally, the way they take other supplements to pump up physically.
There’s another supplement you can find called “5-HTP”. This is what tryptophan is metabolized into. According to popular mythology, the high concentration of tryptophan in turkey is responsible for the Thanksgiving food coma. In fact, there’s not nearly enough of the stuff in turkey to have a noticeable effect.
5-HTP is to serotonin what levodopa is to dopamine. If dopamine is the “feel good” chemical, serotonin is the “feel nice” chemical. It also has a role in your sleep cycle. Since I started taking 5-HTP to boost my serotonin levels, I’ve been able to cut out the pills I used to take to sleep.
For treatment of depression, 5-HTP has shown a similar success rate to Prozac.
I will repeat that: for treatment of depression, 5-HTP has shown a similar success rate to Prozac.
This doesn’t mean that if you’re on Prozac and it’s working, 5-HTP will necessarily work just as well for you. I’m not encouraging anybody who’s got things ticking along managably to roll the dice. But if you could use something like Prozac and it’s not available? Maybe worth checking out.
It has also shown some incredible results when combined with commercial antidepressants, though this is a “talk to your doctor” situation. Seriously, don’t mess with your meds on my say-so.
(Concentrated tryptophan itself is also available as a supplement. I have not had occasion to compare its effectiveness on myself versus its metabolite, but apparently it sometimes proves effective for people who get nothing from 5-HTP.)
Gingko biloba… it’s hard to mention gingko without a skeptic jumping up to point out that it’s been disproven that gingko can stave off Alzheimer’s. And that’s true. But the world is full of things that don’t prevent Alzheimer’s and yet nevertheless do many wonderful things. Among the wonderful things that gingko does do is inhibit the reuptake of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, meaning there’s more of these important chemicals available for your use.
Green tea also aids in the brain’s use of dopamine. If your life is not arranged so that you could make and drink tea regularly, you can get it in pill form… just don’t take it on an empty stomach, and not even for love or money should you ever take one just before you eat.
None of these are brand new discoveries in the annals of world health care, though they don’t slot neatly into the western/capitalist/industrial version thereof and may have suffered somewhat from the contact. Commercially available gingko pills in particular are notorious for their low concentration/high adulteration rate.
But these are things I’ve found out about for myself as part of a rather convoluted personal process that actually started with me trying to alleviate physical symptoms of my disability and manage my sleep cycle. There are other things out there.
All of these things may have side effects for you. Some are relatively mild, but some can… in some cases… exacerbate the problems you might start taking them for. A too high dose of L-DOPA can lead to overexcitement, increasing anxiety. Nothing is going to work the same for everybody.
This stuff has worked for me. I endorse it on the grounds that it might work for you, not that it will.
My advice would be for people to do their own research. Google the name of an herbal supplement and your disorder or symptoms, and you’ll almost certainly find a message board where people are discussing their experiences treating the latter with the former. If you read the scientific background, pay attention to mentions of the “blood-brain barrier”… if you’re putting something in your stomach that can’t cross the “blood-brain barrier”, it’s not going to get to your brain, no matter how much your brain needs it.
Introduce new supplements into your body slowly, in small doses and one at a time. Increase the dose over time if there’s no noticeable reaction, good or bad. Even if you find a fist full of herbs that all sound completely awesome, take them in isolation from each other first so that if you have an untoward effect, you can figure out what’s causing it. Pay attention to what happens. Remember, you are actually tinkering with your brain’s chemistry here, so tread with some care.
That might sound scary, but it’s something that happens all the time whether you mean to or not… and if you’re reading advice on how to adjust your brain’s chemistry, you probably know better than to believe that nature will always get it right on its own.