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!