The effect of Intermittent Fasting on the brain, or Fixing My Head

This is the written version of my speech on Intermittent Fasting I prepared for my Toastmasters Club.

I know it is hard to see it when I am up here- at my most animated, full of energy and nerves, but I suffer from depression- and have done so for the vast majority of my adult life. In my last speech- and Verity would have heard it at the Westlake club- I opened up about my mental health, with the aim of de-stigmatising depression- and found doing so gave me such a sense of relief, of total acceptance of where I am mentally, but also- most importantly- a huge amount of hope that I will be able to improve on the status quo.  That the traditional fixes that I have been relying on up until now- i.e. medication, exercise, healthy eating may not be the only avenues worth exploring.

Today, I thought I would share a recent- and in my opinion- potentially completely life-changing practice I am experimenting with-

Intermittent Fasting

Yes, I see your eyes rolling- you are thinking oh golly, what an anti-climax!  All we need is another speech about another new-fangled diet!  SIGH!

But wait. Hear me out.  I am not really interested in fasting for weight loss.  Although I do believe that it does work for that.

What I am wanting to share with you today, is the potentially very important effect fasting can have on the brain. More specifically, the effect fasting is having on MY BRAIN.

I am going to firstly run you through WHY intermittent fasting could be good for the brain- the science bit; and then touch on HOW to fast- or at least, the fasting method that is working for me.

WHY fast?  It makes a lot of sense, in terms of our evolution, to assume that our ancestors would have experienced hunger a lot more frequently that we do nowadays.  No fridge, no shops, no conveniences like a toaster would have meant you would probably have aimed to have one proper meal a day.  Perhaps eating as regularly as we do nowadays is not quite what our bodies were designed for.

I stumbled on a youtube video of Prof Mark Mattson, where he is advocating intermittent fasting as an extremely effective enhancer of brain capacity, performance and probably most important for me at this stage- its positive impact on mental health issues.  He looks specifically at the positive effect it has on degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

But I am wanting to take this a step further today, and suggest that- certainly in my case- I am experiencing a marked reduction in symptoms of depression intermittent fasting.

What happens in the body, when you fast, is that all the glucose supplies that are stored in the liver and blood eventually become depleted and the body then switches to the burning of ketone bodies.  This is very desirable for weight loss, because we are essentially tapping into our fat stores and burning that stored energy.  But what is the impact on the brain?

This is where it gets interesting.  Prof Mark Mattson suggests that perhaps ketosis is for the brain what exercise is for the muscles- in other words, it triggers neuronal repair and growth.  He has been able to show in rats that intermittent fasting results in brain stem cells forming new nerve cells- this is known as neurogenisis- in the hippocampus of the brain.

Interestingly, the hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with learning and memory, as well as mood and emotion.  It is the part of the brain that a brain scan will show the first signs of damage from diseases such as Alzheimers- where memory loss is the first indication of the disease.  Another effect of Intermittent Fasting that has been noticed in the hippocampus, is that it increases the levels of what is known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.  BDNF is best described as FERTILISER for neurogenisis.  Depression is strongly linked with low levels of BDNF in the brain.  So, it seems logical that the effect I am feeling on my mood since I have started Intermittent Fasting a few times a week, could well be as a result of the improved levels of BDNF in my brain.

 

In the wild, you can imagine that this mechanism was very useful.  Picture Cam the Cavewoman.  If I have not eaten for a while, being more alert, more aware with enhanced cognitive abilities triggered by ketosis, would make me more likely to have a successful hunt, or develop a new way of digging for roots, or doing whatever it takes to get my next meal.

 

So now the HOW of intermittent fasting.  The 16/8 method I am playing with, means, essentially, that on most days, I skip breakfast and only eat at about 1pm.  By doing this I am “fasting” for 16 out of 24 hours and only eating within an 8 hour window each day.  I also believe in eating healthy, real foods, but have always been fairly good with that- I don’t have a very sweet tooth- so that has not changed.  Those are the – very simple- mechanics of the “diet”.  I often exercise in that fasting time period, and I don’t restrict my fluids at all- drinking water, tea and coffee, but with very little milk.

In conclusion, Intermittent fasting is not new.  People have been fasting for mental clarity, spiritual enlightenment or simply because they hadn’t had a successful hunt since the dawn of human existence.  It seems to me that perhaps  my brain- and possibly yours- functions far better if it has to use ketones as fuel from time to time- thereby stimulating increased levels of BDNF, that brain fertilizer and creating new nerve cells in the important hippocampus section of the brain.

Thank you.

The very act of eating can be exhausting; it takes a lot of energy to digest food. When the body is freed from that chore, it naturally feels lighter and much more vibrant. ~Allan Cott

I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency. ~Plato

 

 

 

 

 

Phew!

I am extremely relieved to report that I am feeling a LOT better now. The withdrawal effects coming off the anti-depressents were truly dreadful- it felt like I was living in some kind of horrible, alternative reality- but they have subsided now.

So much has been happening, I thought it would be best to list things:

  • We have new addition to the family- a ridgeback puppy.  His name is Ernest and he is simultaneously the cutest creature on the planet and the most hectic.  We got him because he is one of the best kinds of dogs to run with and will make running in the forest and greenbelts a lot safer for me. He will also add to our security because ridgebacks are fairly intimidating, large breeds.  It is a long-term project, though, because Ernest will not be able to run with me until he is over a year old, without the risk of getting terrible arthritis later.  This means that at the moment, I need to walk the puppy and Benji AND run on separate occasions, which makes for lots of time outside, which is not a bad thing!
  • I am doing a lovely parenting course, called Roots and Wings.  I love the other moms doing the course and feel excited that some significant shifts will be made in our family as a result of the course.
  • I have done 2 Toastmasters speeches on Intermittent Fasting and want to post a detailed post on this practice, which really seems to be helping me.
  • We had the most incredible holiday over the long weekend at the end of April.  I can highly recommend a visit to Victoria Falls and this will definitely be a full blog post for another day.
  • I joined a #100gratefuldays challenge, where I am posting a pic each day and writing about what happened on that day that sparked gratitude.  It is a powerful practice that keeps one focused on finding those special moments throughout the day.

It feels like I am almost managing my depression and anxiety without medication, but I am not under any illusion that I am healed.  For example, I am struggling with feelings of victimisation and I have to remind myself all the time that I am the master of my own destiny and not a victim of circumstances.  That, for example, I chose to get a puppy and getting up in the night because of him is a consequence of my own decision.  A decision I do not regret, especially when snuggling him and breathing in all his precious puppiness!  Negative thoughts are present almost constantly, even as I search for my grateful moments and enjoy so much of my day!  The word “battle”, when used referring to depression is a truly apt one.  I battle ALL THE TIME.  But I don’t think I am losing the battle.  I am exhausted by it, but I feel I am making progress.

My hope is that my brain will adjust and strengthen in time and things that “push me over the edge” right now, will no longer do that and my capacity for stress, anxiety and anger triggers will improve.  Please, please, please let it be so.

Update on medication (again!)

I have not been happy with my “doubling the dose” of my antidepressant.  Aside from that initial boost to serotonin levels, all I have noticed subsequently are the side effects.  Namely, dizziness, tiredness, headaches and, worst of all, a “drugged out”, unfeeling sense of distance from reality.  I have given the trial a reasonable length of time to come right and it just hasn’t.  Certainly not how I choose to live.

So, this morning I went down to my previous dose and I will have to see what impact that has on me.  I did a bit of googling- as one does-  on reducing the dose, and it is recommended to drop by 25% per week.  I have just halved it straight away, so I will probably feel a bit weird, but I am sure I will be able to push on through.  Of course, I should have consulted with my doctor before doing this.  But I think my logic is sound.  I have definitely not had a boost in my mood- the bigger bath-plug that my antidepressant is supposed to be for my serotonin levels has not worked at plugging that hole.

At the same time I have been reading about all the benefits that intermittent fasting can have on the brain.  The specific talk I watched (from a Toastmasters perspective, I must apologise for the far-from-riveting way this work is presented) is on this link and the talk is specifically referring to the preventative effect fasting has on the development of alzheimers and dementia.  In my own life, I have definitely noticed that I feel sharper, more mentally alert and yes, even happier, when I get into what I suspect is ketosis, or a fat-burning state.

Now, of course, I am toying with coming off the medication completely.  Given that my life is relatively simple and stress-free right now, this may be a good time to try this.  And, of course, I would love to be free of medication.  I have this constantly suppressed wish to be able to function free of medication.  It is suppressed because I know each time I have tried this in the past, I have turned into a sobbing, irrational loony who thinks the world is evil and everyone and everything is out to get me.  My doctor always tells me that there is no shame in being on medication for life if one has chronic depression.  I get the logic.  But the wish is there.

Should I try it once more?  Dare I?!

The power of the To-do List

(As it applies to parenting)

I am pretty sure that all productive people rely on lists to keep track of what needs to be done.  I know I do, and even now, with my life being relatively quiet and simple, I am still using my beautiful Macaroon weekly planner to keep track of my to-do list.  To get the same one I have, here is a link to it on the Macaroon site!  Be warned- there are many irresistable stationery items on this site!

While there, be sure to check out their family weekly planner, which I also absolutely love.  What I do with the family planner, is make up a new one each term (with that term’s extramural programme indicated), and then I laminate it.  Any additional appointments, etc, I then stick on with either washi-tape or post-it notes, which makes the “funnies” stand out rather nicely, so the children notice these additions to the standard programme.

I tend to sit down on a Sunday and consolidate my diary, the calendar and the weekly planner onto the family weekly planner.  This does mean, admittedly, that sometimes I only realise we have a clash on that Sunday, but this usually still gives me enough time to communicate the issue and re-jig the diary a bit.  I also do my shopping list at this time, after having planned the meals for the week ahead.

So, planning and to-do lists are a very important to me and help me feel in control of things.  I can glance at my to-do list at any moment, and quickly slot something into the many little gaps I have on any one day which makes me feel nicely productive!

But, I think I have been missing a trick.  This amazing post,  has made me realise I should take the power of the to-do list even further and start issuing Matthew and Sophie with a weekly to-do list.  Why haven’t I thought of this before?!  We have half-heartedly done star charts when they were littler, but I have never been comfortable with the rewards aspect of a star chart for chores and responsibilities.  A to-do list feels much more like real life.

Here is a great resource for selecting a template you like and then printing off to-do lists in excel weekly. (so you can input your items before printing and copy from one day to another and from one child’s list to the other).  I selected the “daily to-do with lists” and will use the light version (to save ink!).

Now feels like as good a time as any, so I have just done one for each of my children, relating to what needs to be done for the rest of the week.  I used the notes section to add a family challenge, which is to not call other family members by nasty names until Sunday (don’t ask!).  I will keep you updated as to how the children take to this and see if this could be an effective way of stopping the nagging AND engendering a sense of accomplishment in the children, all at the same time!  Here’s hoping!

Another update on medication

I am now really not sure that doubling my dose of antidepressants has helped.

I have certainly noticed some undesirable side effects (which I am sure will subside), like a funny head-ache, a  tendency to feel like  a completely unemotional zombie, rather than a person, and a habit of staring into space blankly (!), but I can’t really say I am feeling more positive than I did before.

It was almost like I had an initial euphoric feeling to which I have now adjusted.  So disappointing!    I will carry on taking the higher dosage, but I am not nearly as hopeful about the outcome as I was before.

It wasn’t ever going to be as easy as just popping a pill, right?!

How to make a vision board

Once a year our Business Group gets together for a meeting with a slightly different format- where we each create a vision board.

 

This is the process

Before starting- and with a big blank piece of paper (at least A3 size) in front of you- you need to visualise the question you are wanting to explore.  This exercise is usually done at the beginning of the year, and so often the question will be related to the year ahead.  My question I sat with in this session was, “Who am I in the world?”.

There are piles of magazines on the table in the middle and you then have to page through magazines in a slightly automatic, non-judgmental way, just pulling out all the pages with images that pop out at you, or appeal to you for any reason.

At a stage, the collecting of images is brought to a close and the cutting and sticking starts.  You can use a small amount of planning here- grouping things together if that makes sense, but still using more right brain than the logical left brain.

In our group, we then each get a turn to present our vision boards to and explain what has come up during the process.  I have done a board for at least the last 3 years.  Sometimes they don’t seem to “work” or resonate particularly with me. This is what happened to me last year.  The one I had done the prior year, though, really inspired and influenced that year.

What came up for me

This time, what really came up was the complete lack of “work”-type images in my board.  I had been very open to finding some- I must admit I even brought along a few Toastmasters magazines (as well as other, more typical magazines!) with the decidedly calculating thought that there would be those kind of corporate-style images inside (picture a team around a boardroom table with someone doing a slick presentation!).  But I didn’t find any!  The appeal of corporate comes because of a realisation that, for me, getting dressed and looking good are more important than they are to many other people.  I have noticed that my self-confidence and mood are directly affected by what I am wearing.  This feels like a rather superficial aspect of myself, but I have decided to embrace and accept it, rather than to fight it.  It is rather odd, though, that during this time when there is no real reason to dress up (for work), I am still planning my outfit and doing my makeup and hair.  I had thought that perhaps this meant that a job with a corporate kind of image, may suit me.  After the vision board exercise, I am realising that I don’t need to have a job that fits my style.  My style is simply that- a style.  A style that happens to be more put-together and polished than your average stay-at-home mom.

What DID come up on my board was yoga, parenting (teens!), art/creativity, minimalism, nature, running, a strong marriage and celebrating the everyday with an open mind.

The Value of a Business Group

One of my most precious resources as an entrepreneur, or small business owner, was my wonderful Business Group.  This phenomenal group of women meet once a month, at a set time, set day and set venue, with a set, very simple meeting format.

The format is just a quick check-in from each person in the group (who has managed to be there!), giving us a quick summary of what is happening in their life at the moment.  It also gives us an brief update on any developments since our last meeting.  While checking in, it is usually really clear which one (or two) of us are going to need to be the focus of the meeting- with a more in-depth look at the challenges/ issues that they are currently grappling with.

In an incredibly gentle, supportive way (but giving the person a firm shove, where necessary), we then talk through that issue and offer advice, resources, share contacts or similar experiences in order to help that person.

The meeting ends with a check-out, where each person shares what they have learnt, or what their “take-away” from that meeting is.

This support is truly invaluable.  So often simply sharing the issue or worry with the group and realising that it is not unique to me or my business, gave me all the support and strength to carry on that I needed.   The space is so precious to me that even though I am no longer a Business Owner, I have not “resigned” from the group.

“Surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams, encourage your ideas, support your ambitions, and bring out the best in you.” 
— Roy T. Bennett (The Light in the Heart)

If I had to choose just one piece of advice for an entrepreneur, it would be to form, or join, a Business Group. Have a Wattsapp group for all of you to post quick questions or updates, so that the support is there when you need it and not just once-monthly.

A quick update on medication

I realised I had nothing to lose by increasing my dose of my antidepressant (thanks, Pete!).  Except, of course, the little dream of being able to move beyond needing medication one day.  In my head, I have accepted that I need to be medicated for the rest of my life, but in my heart I wish this wasn’t the case.  And increasing the dose is a new acknowledgement of a chronic problem.

 

Serotonin down the plug hole
Serotonin down the plug hole

On the other hand, it is so silly to fight the fact that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain (a lack of serotonin) which medication can fix.  And if, as my doctor explained here, the plug is just not quite big enough to be keeping the serotonin levels optimal in the bath that is my brain, how ridiculous not to use a bigger plug!

 

So, I started with a double dose yesterday, anticipating some side effects, but hoping that the side effects would be minimal because my system is so used to this medication.

I didn’t notice any change yesterday.  No nasty side effects, no impact on mood.  But today has been a little different!

I am feeling rather good.  Admittedly, the day has had a good structure to it so far.  I started it with a pleasant run with my running friend.  I then managed to shower quickly, plan my shopping list and be at the shops as they opened at 9.  This meant the store was well-stocked and nice and quiet.

And you see, I am not sure I would have appreciated this as much as I did, if I hadn’t been feeling better.  Early days, but I am rather excited!

My first experience of TRE

TRE stands for Trauma/Tension Release Exercises.  Up until last month, I had never heard of it.  But I had it recommended to me, as mentioned in this post here.  Then, when my yoga teacher’s email newsletter announced she would be doing a Yoga/TRE workshop, it just felt like it was meant to be and I signed up straight away!

TRE is simply a series of exercises that activate the body’s ability to shake, or tremor.  These tremors release muscular tension and have a calming effect on the nervous system.  This effect is used a lot in nature, where you will see a buck- that has been chased and nearly eaten by a lion- shaking uncontrollably for a bit- and then calmly joining the herd and eating grass, as if nothing has happened.  I have certainly noticed that my dog, Benji, shakes uncontrollably at the vet.  Up until now, I have just felt terribly sorry for him when this happens, but now I realise he is actually rather fortunate to have this way of “getting his nervousness out”, whereas I – in similar, scary circumstances- would suppress all  the trembling and nervousness I may be feeling and store it all as muscular tension.  So, effectively, TRE aims to make me more like Benji!

The workshop consisted of 2 hours of yoga and then an hour of TRE (but only actually tremoring for about 15 minutes).  There were about 6 participants in the workshop and then the 2 teachers.  The yoga part was lovely and time just flew by.  I am finding yoga beautifully healing and calming, so it is a treat to have more yoga than usual this week!

Then came the TRE part.

There are a series of very simple exercises that one needs to follow which seemingly prepare the muscles for going into the tremoring.  They felt almost too simple, especially compared with the yoga, but we all did them dutifully.  The last one before lying on the mat involved sitting with your back against the wall.  We had done this during my very first yoga class, and I had noticed then that this caused my legs to shake (specifically my quads).

We then had to lie on our mats, and, starting with the soles of our feet touching and our knees as wide as they can go, you slowly bring your knees up and at some point – very weirdly- your legs start shaking.  For some of the time, I was not sure if I was MAKING my legs shake, or if it was involuntary (as I think it is meant to be), and from time to time they stopped shaking.  To reactivate the tremor, you just need to open your knees and start raising them slowly again.  If the tremoring feels too much, you lie your legs out straight and it will stop.

It felt a little arbitrary- I was not sure what I should be feeling/that I was doing it “right”/what exactly was going on, but the feeling was not unpleasant, just a bit strange.  Our teacher had warned us beforehand not to have “tremor envy” and I did notice that the people who were not new to TRE seemed to be tremoring a lot more vigorously than I was!  So perhaps one develops this new skill with time.

We were told to drink lots of water and try to have as gentle a day as we could afterwards.  I left feeling not at all sure of the benefits of the practice.

But then, 2 things happened that made me think, perhaps the effect has been a lot bigger than I realised!

The first thing that happened, is that Sophie dropped a glass- that smashed to the floor right next to me- and I didn’t even jump.  Now, normally, I am a very jumpy person.   My standard reaction to that happening  would be to  physically jump (or at least tense my shoulders), and then scream/shout at the person who had given me the fright, as no doubt, adrenalin pumps through my system.  I didn’t flinch.  I just said calmly- “that is OK”, and Sophie and I picked up the pieces of glass and cleaned the floor.

That is pretty amazing on its own.  But there’s more!

My sleep last night was beautifully deep and restorative.  Truly blissful.  I am not feeling terribly stressed or anxious at the moment- without a job my life is as calm as it can possibly be- but to be able to feel that relaxed, was revelationary.

So, despite some initial misgivings during and directly after my first experience of TRE, I URGE you to try it for yourself.  It could be mind-altering and life-changing and I, for one, am booking a private session and I can’t wait for more!  For those of you also in Cape Town, please click on this link to find a practitioner near you.

The happiness project

A book review

I had this book, written by Gretchen Rubin, recommended to me as good holiday reading, and I didn’t manage to get it before the holidays, so I am reading it now.

It is a breath of fresh air on that esoteric concept of happiness.  What Gretchen did- and then wrote about- was to focus on very specific techniques in a pragmatic look at how to increase her levels of happiness.

What I love about it is she didn’t do anything too dramatic- like set forth on a long journey of self-discovery.  Or, at least, not on a physical journey.  She approached the project, as a project, and tried various things- such as starting a blog (this, obviously interested me!), starting to collect things, nagging her husband less- and then quite scientifically noted what helped and what didn’t.  Obviously, as she points out, what worked for her may not necessarily work for another person.  And she is encouraging everyone to start their own, personal happiness project.  Some things worked and some didn’t.

 

Things I have resonated with:

  • She speaks a lot about her personal 10 commandments- the first of which is to BE GRETCHEN. I am certainly aiming for the acceptance of being who I am that being Cam fully brings.  I am CAM.  This blog name reflects that.  She takes that a bit further- and I certainly relate to this.  There is a sadness that comes from realising and accepting that I am beautifully myself, but limited to just being me.  I am not, in this lifetime, going to be unlimited things.
  • Supportive groups and friends help
  • Her blog has brought great happiness to her
  • What is fun for one is not fun for all. In a family, this means that you may do some things that are not fun for you, but if the others are having fun, it can ripple over to you (but may not, and that is OK).  It also means that you don’t need to berate yourself for not having fun in a circumstance where others are clearly having a whale of a time.  Accept that.
  • One can be completely intentional about creating fun memories for your children.

She has a very active blog (as a result of her happiness project!), with some fun personality quizzes, etc.  So you can get useful insights and resources here.  In South Africa, the book is available at Takealot.com

She does emphasise that it is not written for people who are depressed, but rather for everyone who is wanting to explore practical ways of being happier.