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mental health mondays :: blood and guts

one of the most frequent prejudices that people have against mental illness- whether it's doubting those who say they have it or refusing to seek treatment for their own- is that mental health is perceived as somehow different from physical health, something that exists in another realm and that can't be understood in the same way. to a serious scientist, of course, that's nonsense. our brains aren't made up of fundamentally different stuff than the rest of us and, as confusing as brains can be, we don't exactly have a rock-solid understanding of how other parts of the body work either. [seriously, grab a bottle of scotch and ask a medical professional to explain lupus to you in detail and take a shot every time s/he use the words "not sure", "think that", "believe", or "current theory". also, try to remember to drink lots of water and take a couple of tylenol before you pass out.]

but four centuries of mind-body dichotomy [thanks a lot, descartes!] have engrained in us the belief that somehow, our brains are subject to different laws and- importantly- are easier to control without medical intervention. [note :: "medical intervention" does not necessarily mean "medication". medications are useless against many forms of mental disorder.] fortunately, science is doing some catch-up work on the brain, the body and the co-dependent relationship they have.

first up, there's an article circulating right now and getting a lot of attention that posits a new theory [well, deals with a theory that has been posited by others] that depression might be best understood as a kind of allergic reaction. it all comes down to a category of small proteins called cytokines, which are present in all humans and which help the immune system ward off infection by attacking nasty things that end up in our bodies. these attacks have the side effect of causing inflammation, which we experience as things like congestion, aches, or swelling. inflammation is an important part of healing and so, when the cytokines kick into gear, they signal the brain to take it down a notch and get some rest. it's not uncommon for us to feel a bit down when we're sick and no wonder- we're all inflamed and sore and stiff and leaking- it's a miserable state of affairs. what scientists are discovering now, however, is that the road goes both ways. or rather, it may be a road with multiple lanes.

people who suffer from depression, it seems, suffer from spikes in cytokines in the same way as people who are sick from the flu or from cancer [yes, it's the same process] and that causes the same chain reaction- various sorts of inflammation and a slowdown as the brain tries to allow the body to deal with the cause. [this list of symptoms from depressionhurts.ca includes ones that can obviously be attributed to forms of inflammation.]

the good news is that anti-inflammatory drugs are probably the most common medication on the market. paracetamol/ acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen are all non-steroidal anti-inflammatories that are available over the counter and the growing wisdom seems to be that by combining these drugs with anti-depressants, we may stand a better chance of overcoming depression.

on a different, but related note, i also found some information on a tiny study on the links between gut bacteria and mental health. although none of us want to think about it, our innards are swarming with different sorts of bacteria, and maintaining a proper environment for the right bacteria to flourish is essential to all sorts of good health. [you've probably experienced the craze for this sort of thing by inundation with thousands of ads imploring your to buy probiotics, the latest cure-all being marketed by food companies. indeed, probiotics are interesting in terms of what they can do for your body, but do some research first: slapping a new label on a container of yogurt does not a panacea make.]

the link between gut flora and mental health is not well-explored [we've only recently become comfortable enough as a species to talk about the fact that we're filled with bacteria at all, let alone that having the wrong ones might be making us crazy]. however, there are clearly links between intestinal bacteria and the immune system and it bears more study if certain types of flora can trigger the sort of immune system responses that might effect the brain [as i've outlined above]. in order to maintain and improve our health, it's likely that we're going to have to pay a lot of attention to our status as porters for billions of bacteria that, in fact, outweigh the rest of what we think of as "us". however, if that thought still makes you feel kind of squirmy [it's probably the bacteria, wiggling around], you can just turn some attention towards taking a good quality prebiotic and seeing if it helps you feel better.

you can find out a little more about the dietary fibres we call prebiotics here [canadian info, but much of it isn't country-specific]. also, if you're in canada, you can take solace in the fact that health canada, as part of an ongoing effort to streamline and monitor messaging about natural health products, has tightened up the meaning of the term "prebiotic" in the last year or so, meaning that products seeking to make the claim must demonstrate at least some clinical backing.

the upshot of these two stories are that the worlds of bodily health and mental health are coming closer together. whether or not that helps overcome the perception that mental disorders are somehow associated with personal failings or weakness remains to be seen, but at least it seems we're getting on track to treating the brain as what it is: an important part of our physical bodies.

p.s. :: the image above is taken from the adorably titled "tokyo gore police".

Comments

stara66 said…
Acetaminophen/paracetamol is not an NSAID.
Kate MacDonald said…
Right you are. Although often taken for the same sorts of problems, its chemical structure and mode of action is different. Sorry for the error!

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