Archive for May 2004
I openly admit to being obsessed with nutrition. This isn’t through wilfulness or even biochemistry – indeed, serotonin plays a role in obsession, and if there is any one neurotransmitter I end up fighting with, it’s serotonin – but my obsession with nutrition is simply due to miserable necessity.
Perhaps my blood-brain barrier is more permeable than most people’s. I find that what I eat strongly influences my mood, that I can rarely drink without feeling it the next day, that I can rarely eat any significant amount of carbohydrate without stepping onto a rollercoaster.
If I don’t eat enough fat I get fat-hunger, so chicken and fish don’t fill me in the same way as red meat. 200mg of chromium picolinate makes me irritable. Half a gram of L-tyrosine or L-glutamine motivates me or calms me down respectively – a lot of people have to take considerably more to get the same effect.
When I was a vegetarian I drank milk every day instead of tea or coffee, two pints or more. My mother convinced me it would make me fat, but when I stopped drinking milk I rapidly became irritable and anaemic, with a sallow complexion and lank hair. I had no energy, and I was forced to give up being a vegetarian. I’m sure my problem was a B12 deficiency. I feel the sun, I feel cloud cover, I feel the cold. I feel my clothes. I’m weak, but I’m tough. I’m permeable, like silk.
I haven’t had any aspartame since I wrote last. I haven’t had any depression either. I’ve been irritable now and then because I’ve been drinking and eating too many carbs, but I haven’t been depressed. Until last night…
Last night we went to a Thai restaurant. I must admit it wasn’t my preference due to the carb-avoidance problems of Oriental restaurants, but we have a couple of J.’s friends staying and my pathetic protests about healthy food are no match for a couple of strapping lads on a beer and curry mission.
J. and I had crab and asparagus soup for starter. I was pretty tired and clammed up early on during the meal. It had been a long day, we went to Monaco and walked around the grand prix circuit, and everyone was in need of a rest. I couldn’t concentrate on any of the conversation and found it all very boring, and gradually I became more and more depressed. By the time I’d finished my main course I knew something was wrong.
“I feel really strange, crab isn’t poisonous is it?” I joked to J. I had two numb pressure patches on my cheekbones, and another around my right ear, as if someone was pressing their hands heavily against my face. I felt spaced-out, almost disembodied or dysphoric, and deeply depressed. My legs felt very weak and heavy, a sensation I recognise when I’ve drunk a glass of wine when I’m dehydrated, but I’d only been drinking water. When I described the sensation in my legs, J. said “Yeah, I’ve got that feeling too!” He later confessed that he’d also developed a strange tightening in his chest like asthma, but didn’t want to mention it in front of “the lads”, for fear of a ribbing.
At first I was scared, then I wondered: could it be Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? I decided to look up the symptoms when I got home. I was distracted for the rest of the evening by the strange sensations in my face and couldn’t really enjoy myself. I slowly became less spaced-out and eventually returned to normal. It was about one o’clock in the morning by the time my symptoms had fully subsided, and by then the evening was over.
The FDA says:
MSG Symptom Complex can involve symptoms such as numbness, burning sensation, tingling, facial pressure or tightness, chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, and weakness. Asthmatics may experience these symptoms as well as difficulty in breathing. Additional studies in asthmatics under controlled conditions have not produced consistent results. MSG: A Common Flavor Enhancer
- burning sensation in the back of the neck, forearms, and chest
- numbness in the back of the neck, radiating to the arms and back
- tingling, warmth, and weakness in the face, temples, upper back, neck, and arms
- facial pressure or tightness
- chest pain
- rapid heartbeat
- bronchospasm in MSG-intolerant people with asthma
[...] A reaction is most likely if the MSG is eaten in a large quantity or in a liquid, such as a clear soup. Monosodium Glutamate
Clear soup, for example, crab and asparagus soup!
There’s a lot that the FDA don’t tell you about MSG, such as how artificially produced free glutamate differs from the natural bound glutamate found in foods – natural bound glutamate takes a long time to digest and may not even be broken down the whole way, as the body uses peptides and proteins from food, not just amino acids. After doing a lot of digging, I’ve come up with some interesting results that connect this experience of depression to my experience earlier in the week on diet coke.
Aspartame contains phenylalanine (which adversely affects one in 15,000 Americans); aspartic acid (an excitatory amino acid); and a methyl esther. Aspartic acid and glutamic acid load on the same receptors in the brain, cause the same brain damage and neuroendocrine disorders in experimental animals, and, with the exception of blindness related to aspartame ingestion, cause virtually the same adverse reactions in humans. The Toxicity/Safety of Processed Free Glutamic Acid (MSG): A Study In Suppression of Information
I’ve been very careful to avoid anything containing aspartame this last week. Illogically, I was beginning to doubt my theory. But I’ve unwittingly tripped the same mechanism again, and experienced depression again!
Many MSG-sensitive individuals have found that once sensitized to MSG, their tolerance for MSG decreases over the years, and that it may be lowered by extreme exercise and/or ingestion of any alcohol just prior to or just following MSG ingestion. MSG Update: The Difficulty in Keeping MSG-Free
If so, could it also be that my diet coke drinking after exercising had the same effect on me, making me particularly vulnerable to the effects of the excitotoxin, aspartame?
Aspartame itself doesn’t have any calories, but basically, one of its ingredients, the amino acid phenylalanine, blocks production of serotonin, a nerve chemical that, among other activities, controls food cravings. As you might well imagine, a shortage of serotonin will make your brain and body scream for the foods that create more of this brain chemical—and those are the high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich snacks that can sabotage a dieter. Obviously, the more aspartame one ingests, the more heightened the effects. Simply put, aspartame appears to muddle the brain chemistry. Aspartame – Diet-astrous Results
I have resolved that from now on, I’m not eating anything complicated enough to have an ingredients label on it.
Notes from October 2007
Now my attention had been drawn to aspartame, it was also drawn to other additives. Though I didn’t write them down, I began to remember several other incidents where I had suffered from depression or weird reactions to food that I had put down to “hypoglycaemia.” For example, I’d known for years that I was sensitive to caffeine and sometimes when I drank it I felt like I had taken coke. Now I knew I was sensitive to MSG as well.
For example, there was a time in the autumn of 2003, a few months after I had started Atkins, where I went through a rocky period. Part of that rocky period was attributable to using methyl salicylate and aspirin. Another part of that period I was drinking diet cokes every week.
I also remembered an incident that had taken place at Christmas time – when I had eaten some tinned French Onion Soup. Within minutes of eating the soup I had a pounding heart beat, felt dizzy, and couldn’t stop walking around gasping for breath. I put it down to “hypoglycaemia” and thought the soup must be too sweet for me. My partner looked on the label, and noted that the soup contained MSG. That soup just about ruined my day!
I think I’ve just had a brainwave. I’ve spent the last few days in a deep depression and I’ve been trying to figure out the biochemical cause of it. With me, depression is almost always biochemical. Environmental factors can often spark it, but to do so I have to be vulnerable in the first place. Sometimes I am just depressed for absolutely no reason other than chemistry. But if my biochemistry is alright, I can handle just about anything without becoming depressed. The last few days I haven’t been handling anything at all.
I thought it might be carb-and-insulin related, because it usually is. I had severe reactive hypoglycaemia last year, but since going low-carb and losing a lot of weight I’ve been pretty stable and upbeat. I’d say I’ve been really good since Christmas time with a positive outlook on life even when things have been going wrong.* I still have bad moments now and then. Sometimes if I have a dessert at a restaurant or an ice cream when we go through the Old Town, I do feel it the next day and I’m irritable until lunch or sometimes dinner. Those are the only times I’m really exposed to any quantity of carbs, sometimes I even handle them okay.**
J. went away last Thursday for a couple of days. I tend to eat less carbs when he’s not around because frankly, the less carbs I eat, the better I feel. I had a little plan to get some exercise in, so every evening I’ve gone for an hour and a half walk around the promenade or up to the park on the headland. Exercise helps you to use the insulin your body produces. So I thought maybe all this extra exercise had changed something insulin related and that’s why I was depressed. But all the reports I read about exercise say it makes you feel good. It’s always made me feel good, I certainly felt good after I exercised for the first three days.
I thought it might be vitamin related – I’ve been fiddling around with my supplements, taking them, not taking them, and I started taking chromium picolinate again, which is useful for hypoglycaemia as it increases insulin sensitivity. Vitamins, particularly B6 and C can influence brain chemistry as they’re used in the manufacture of certain neurotransmitters. Chromium picolinate can increase serotonin levels in the brain.
I even thought it might be sunlight related – I’ve been getting a lot of extra sunlight for the last few days, and I even burned a bit on Saturday after going out in the midday sun. Exposure to UVB helps you turn cholesterol into vitamin D. Cholesterol gets made into hormones, so I thought maybe I’d unbalanced something with all that UVB exposure. But sunlight usually has a positive effect on me because it also increases serotonin levels.
It was Sunday that I woke up depressed. Monday I was so miserable it took half an hour of gentle nagging to get me off the sofa and into the shower after breakfast. I haven’t been able to concentrate on work – I’ve been downright avoiding it. Okay, so the stuff I’m doing at the moment is pretty damn torturous, but usually I can handle that with a few complaints. Okay, thinks I, so maybe it’s the combination of:
- Lower carbs than usual (usually positive)
- Fiddling with my vitamins (possible but unlikely)
- Exercising (usually positive)
- And difficult work (I can normally handle it, but maybe I’m just vulnerable because of the above…)
Until tonight. Tonight I think I figured it out. I went for a walk, I felt great, happy again, relaxed. On the way back I got a diet coke and drank it. When I got back to the apartment, and I fell into a deep depression and kept wanting to raid the fridge. Then I started to wonder.
Diet coke contains an artificial sweetener, aspartame. Incidentally, it was developed by the notorious Monsanto, one of the main forces behind genetically engineered foods, but that’s another story. Aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and a methyl ester.*** Aspartic acid is an excitotoxin in the brain. Phenylalanine is turned into dopamine in the brain, and its passage in can decrease levels of serotonin and spark carb-cravings. People have reported these side effects as well as numerous others after consuming aspartame in diet drinks.
On Saturday I drank a whole bottle of diet coke. On Sunday I got depressed, and I drank another can of diet coke. On Monday I was depressed all day and I drank a can of diet coke. Today I drank a can of diet coke and I was immediately depressed again. I don’t normally drink more than a can every three weeks, and that’s about the limit of the additives in my diet! I wonder whether it’s the aspartame? I wonder whether the exercise made me more vulnerable to its effects?
As the serotonin precursor (L-tryptophan) is unavailable without prescription, unfortunately the only way I can fix it is to take some supportive vitamins, some L-glutamine to increase stability, drink lots of water, risk eating some carbs, and wait for it to wear off. I will let you know how it goes.
Notes from October 2007
* I was high on life and very smug about living somewhere as lovely as Nice. My self-esteem, low for most of my life, was verging on egotism. I was getting lots of sunlight and good food. I was actually happy-high and almost manic. I was very excitable and talkative all of the time and actually went out of my way to renew some old friendships. I noticed that whenever I went back to the UK, I seemed to get brainfog and feel depressed. Was it the awful, cloudy weather? Was it something in the food? Was something missing from the food? I wondered about all of these things.
** These occasions were also the only times I was exposed to additives.
*** Aspartame doesn’t actually need to break down into anything to have an effect on the body, it is an excitotoxin in itself.
Discovering that I reacted to aspartame was a revolutionary discovery for me. It was the first time my attention had truly been drawn towards additives as the source of a potential problem. Sadly, when I repeated this observation to others, they tended to dismiss me as a crank. It didn’t matter that I’d reproduced it!
Unfortunately it would still be a long time before I came to understand the bigger picture of food chemical sensitivities!
We were back in Old Blighty last week. All hell broke loose in the form of a thunderstorm ten minutes after we got off the plane. Everyone repeatedly assured us what fantastic weather the UK had been having. We assured them could not possibly be as nice as Nice. The train from Derby to Sheffield took us through the Dales and allowed me that special appreciation of the English countryside reserved for ex-pats. I was pleased by the romantic, fluffy trees, they’re very different from palms and olives and oranges. The only negative was (yet another) obese woman from “daan saath” who insisted on chatting on her mobile phone for the whole journey about how awful her desk job was. It’s hard not to get dragged in. We’ve grown to like not being able to understand other people’s conversations.
Strangely, there are no crottes de chien in England! Where do they all go?
In other extremely predictable news, the Brits seem to be swelling before our very eyes. We came back to (yet another) news article about Brits being told to start dieting and exercising. I am sure the Sheffielders are even more obese than they were at Christmas. Even the staff at the office have put on weight (and acne) …apparently as a result of going on weight watchers. I think Britain will shortly reach critical mass and sink into the North Sea. Put the potatoes and pasta down, please, before we become extinct through coronaries and infertility!
By contrast to the general UK population, the cast of Eastenders seems to be getting lighter. Janine and Laura, formerly walking sacks of potatoes (perhaps literally) have definitely dropped a couple of dress sizes. I think even Pat is looking lighter. If she continues, Janine could be positively sylph-like in another three months. Maybe someone finally bought a copy of New Diet Revolution onto the studio set? Kat can declare she “eats cake and keeps fit” in the latest gossip rags as often as she wants, it still isn’t doing her any good.
French gastronomy is not for the Rosemary Conleys of this world. The French eat more saturated fat than any other nation. It fills them up so they eat less, whereas Brits with their “healthy” low-fat diets are the ones who get the cancer, heart attacks and are constantly hungry and scoffing on crap out of vending machines. In Nice I am surrounded by gorgeous tall slender women with incredible waist-to-hip ratios I can only dream of.
I finally got my sister on Atkins about six weeks ago. She’s usually irritable and over-sensitive, but according to my father she’s now “positively serene all of the time”. She’s bought an Alsatian puppy that drops crottes de chien all over the house and eats her Ikea furniture and designer trainers. Whilst I was there my mother and mama said things that would normally provoke her, the dogs bounced all over the furniture and fought everywhere (one ran slap bang into the glass of the French window), and the atmosphere was very overwrought, but there we both were as calm as cows, taking it all in with the same detached amusement. She said to me “it totally changes your emotions and outlook and everything”.
Sad news: we heard that Caron Keating died, aged 41, after a seven year battle against breast cancer. I feel sad and helpless. Wasn’t she a vegan? Didn’t she advertise soya milk? Why do I have the sneaking suspicion this is connected to her diet? It makes me mad that women with breast cancer are still told to avoid saturated fat based on a study that has been discredited. If you want to know what the real killers are, they’re white sugar and flour, polyunsaturated oils, hydrogenated vegetable oils, nitrates, fertilizers, food additives, cosmetics and suntan “protection” creams full of carcinogens. How are you supposed to manufacture vitamin D from your cholesterol supplies (yes, cholesterol makes hormones and vitamins, without it we’d all be dead) without getting out in the sunlight? Vitamin D is one of the most powerful anti-cancer agents known to us. Cancer was rare before the turn of the last century and all these new fangled foods. Do you think our ancestors hid in caves all day and ate only the lean bits of the bison? No thanks, I’m on a diet. Do you think I look good in this sabre tooth tiger skin?