I’m back! Whether you like it or not, here I am again in your Inbox. Actually – not true, you can unsubscribe at any time! There is one thing you can guarantee from me in the coming months however…in my blog posts you will never read ‘in these unprecedented times’. Personally – if I read or hear those words one more time, I may need to jump off the BDI Bridge.
Perhaps you didn’t notice I stopped writing. That is a good thing. You are busy with life – and I trust you are taking care of your physical and emotional health. I took a bit of a sabbatical to study functional medicine, which is a topic I want you to become more aware of. Stay with me please – because it has a lot to do with your emotional health.
What does taking a functional medicine approach to mental health look like? It means I work with the person as a whole. You are a system of biochemical reactions – you are not just your brain and your thoughts. You can’t change the environment you are in right now, but you can change your thoughts about the environment. My job is to help you do so. For those of you that are interested, you don’t need to rely solely on talk therapy. I belong to a group of functional medicine practitioners who are comprised mainly of MDs, NDs, NPs, and other medical health practitioners. There are only a few of us in psychology, the so-called soft sciences. However, I see this changing and it is for the good. Believe me.
“You can’t change the environment you are in right now, but you can change your thoughts about the environment. My job is to help you do so.”
The area most in need of FM practitioners is the area of psychiatry. If you have loved ones with the diagnosis of ADHD, Schizophrenia, Anorexia, Anxiety, Depression, or Addiction, you know exactly what I mean. Or you may be experiencing such a state yourself? Whether you are on this side of the ‘label’ or the other, you likely feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness at times to say the least.
Let me make a disclaimer right now before I continue. Pharmaceutical interventions are warranted at times, and they can be a game-changer for some (nightmares for others due to how your body might process the drug). This is often due to our own individual biology. If you ever completed DNA testing, you will have noted individual gene variances. You may have one or two variants of a particular gene, etc. Think of this as being a guide for you – your DNA template if you will. The genes load the gun, but your environment pulls the trigger. I don’t pay too much attention to this, but it can be quite helpful at times. For example, although you eat a ‘healthy diet’ your triglycerides remain high. This is likely due to the inability to process carbohydrates and saturated fats well. Okay, now that you know, you titrate your diet a bit differently. It doesn’t mean you will be a metabolic train wreck for the rest of your life. You are a unique specimen. This is how we need to approach physical and emotional health. It is individualized medicine. Individualized psychiatry.
Back to mental health…so here we are. Let’s use sleep as an example of the way psychology is linked to biology. We know what sleep deprivation can do to a person’s ability to function. The more common symptoms are an inability to focus, make good decisions, and irritability. Underneath the hood there are many more detrimental effects due to diurnal dysregulation of your circadian rhythm. Sleep interruption can occur due to exogenous factors (baby crying or dog barking) or endogenously via your hormones. The culprit here is cortisol, the mother of all hormones. You likely recognize this hormone as it is known as your stress hormone. It can be your friend or foe. We need it to have a wakening response, which is called CAR or Cortisol Awakening Response. It normally peaks somewhere between 5-7 am for most people. After it peaks, it gradually decreases during the day. Imagine a downward sloping curve towards the end of your day, to which melatonin then responds and begins increasing.
However, when we are ‘stressed’ you will not see this normal downward sloping pattern during your day. As an aside, if you have an Apple watch – take a look at your average HR variability. If your average is low – that is a sign your body is having a hard time coming back to balance, and you are likely more stressed than not. If you have a hard time getting out of bed, even after a sufficient amount of time in bed, your awakening response or cortisol is low in the morning. If you have a hard time falling asleep, your cortisol is high in the evening. See how this is the inverse of what you want? If you feel emotionally and physically exhausted all day long, you are past your resiliency and likely have a flattened curve. The cortisol is low throughout the day. There are non-conventional labs that test for what I described.
This isn’t something we shouldn’t ignore. However, it is important to note acute stress, or a spike in cortisol, is good and normal. Think of how you feel prior to writing an exam, giving a speech, or skating towards the end zone. You want the cortisol signalling to occur as if to say ‘give me a shot, I need the adrenaline’. You require the turbines to get turned on within the cell. Or, in the case of injury, it is cortisol that signals inflammatory messengers to your tissues, which in turn help heal the body. If I go back to the sleep deprivation example, your brain has become inflamed and therefore you now have a headache. It is your body’s way of telling you to take care of yourself. It is quite magical.
However, chronic spikes in cortisol are NOT good. Chronic stress will take a toll on your body. Your body will lose resiliency and it will show up in many ways. Those of you that suffer from skin conditions will see ‘flares’ occur more often during certain times than not. You are that person who catches every cold out there. Nutrient deficiencies, food intolerances, or simply burning both ends of the candle is enough to sustain the inflammation. This pattern of chronic stress is described as the body’s allostatic load – and if it becomes too much, your physical health will eventually fail. This is when chronic disease may occur. We don’t want this for ourselves or our loved ones. And may I add, no one gets the ‘get out of jail card’ when it comes to overburdening your body with stress. It will nip you in the bud at some point in your life. So, for all you Type A go-getters, ‘I am supermom!’, or bulletproof men, think again. You are human.
You are human and you need to manage your stress. So, this brings me full circle to my remark about these ‘unprecedented times’. Let’s get over it. If you are a person that is stuck to the brain-numbing TV and listening to the numbers climbing or feeling hopeless or anxious not knowing when it is going to end… please take a moment to reframe these thoughts. Take a News ‘fast’, unplug from social media, and step into the present. Manage what is in front of you today. Pay attention to your work, your kids, your friends, your spouse, and most of all, yourself. This is temporary. We have all needed to shift and pivot from our normal, but the fact is, we did it. Some of us may have taken more of a blow than others, but you have to remember you are building your resiliency by doing so. You are stronger now than you were in February 2020. I am certain of that.
In summary, you may be reading more about how you need to support your mental health through diet, exercise, and sleep in my blogs. Hopefully you won’t mind me shifting between this topic and others like relational health/marriage counselling, because your health is everything. It is all about preventative medicine and preventative psychiatry. We need both physical and emotional check-ups. And not to worry, if you come to see me I won’t send you off with only a prescription to take Vitamin D and eat more vegetables, I am still your Winnipeg marriage counsellor and your psychotherapist. We will still have that same experience in the room. However, if you become more curious about how your biology changes your psychology, I am more than willing to jump right into that conversation.