Nothing: Am I Doing it Wrong?

Flotation therapy is an experience that used to be called sensory deprivation (but that sounds scary, so they don’t call it that anymore). The idea is that if you eliminate sensory stimuli, your brain relaxes, and so do you. As an introvert, this makes intuitive sense to me, and I wanted to try it.

Being overwhelmed with sensory input is exhausting, and blocking it out can be incredibly restful. It’s why I sleep with earplugs and an eye-pillow. Proponents claim flotation therapy promotes relaxation and reduces stress; can enable you to quickly reach brain states otherwise only found in deep meditation; can help reduce pain or heal injuries; and can increase focus and creativity.

I went to a local flotation spa and was shown into a lovely, private, soothingly-lit suite that included both a shower and the flotation tank. By the time I entered the suite I was starting to get a little anxious about this experiment, so atmosphere was everything. A glimpse of darkness or mildew, a whiff of junior-high-locker-room or mental-hospital-showers and I would’ve been gone. This said ‘spa’ in every detail.

I was given instructions and left on my own. Once I’d showered and put in earplugs as directed, there was nothing left to do but get in. I opened the tank door and slid feet-first into eight or ten inches of water exactly the temperature of my skin, so I was neither warm nor cold. I reached behind me, pulled the door closed, and stretched out. The water was infused with concentrated Epsom salt, so despite the low level of the water, I was floating – suspended.

For the first five minutes, I could see a little light around the edges of the tank door. This was a good transition; immediate total darkness would have been overwhelming. After five minutes, the motion-sensor lights in the room turned off, and all was dark. I am not at all claustrophobic, and I expected an ahhhh at this point. That never came; I really had to talk myself through staying in there once the lights went out.

I was anxious, so all kinds of chatter was happening in my brain. As I do when I’m nervous (and sometimes when I’m not), I began writing about this experience in my head. Once I realized I was doing that, I stopped and tried to focus on my heartbeat, or my breathing. I tried to meditate, which looked a lot like this. Since I didn’t feel relaxed, my inner perfectionist started in about how I was probably doing this wrong.

When my mental chatter finally quieted down, my body seemed to become very busy, even though I was not moving. Goosebumps rippling across the surface of my skin. Muscle twitches in my fingers, then in each arm and leg – even one of those whole-body startles that sometimes happens when you’re on the edge of sleep.

After a certain amount of time without input, the visual cortex starts to do funny things. I saw bright after-images, like you do when you close your eyes after a flash – except, of course, there had been no flash. Lights (which did not exist) blinked in the edges of my vision. I could not be sure if my eyes were open or closed.

While it seemed as though I had been aware the whole time, when the dim interior lights and gentle ocean sounds came on in the tank signaling the end of my hour, I felt as though I had just been awakened. Strangely, I was achy afterward; I had not been when I got in. Normally, Epsom salt baths are what I do for achiness; so this spoke to me of some kind of detox effect.

I felt good for the rest of the evening, alert, maybe a little keyed up. I slept well and felt fine the day after, but nothing out of the ordinary, either good or bad. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know that I’ll do it again; it’s the same price as an hour of massage, which I seem to benefit from more directly.

And once again I’ve served my purpose: doing weird shit so you don’t have to!


Wait…Jell-O is a Superfood?

I recently attempted to add bone broth to my diet, after hearing about its many health benefits. And by ‘attempted,’ I mean ‘did it exactly ONE time.’ Turns out I hate it. I hate drinking it, hate making it, hate figuring out what in the hell to do with all of the meat you get the bones from. All of it.

Gelatin is made from the same kinds of animal connective tissue that makes bone broth so good for us, and that we’re sorely lacking in the modern Western diet, now that most of us no longer practice traditional ‘snout to tail’ cooking. These are just some of the more well-known benefits of gelatin:

  • Reducing joint pain
  • Improving skin elasticity
  • Improving symptoms of gastric conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Improving sleep
  • Suppressing appetite

There is some science, especially for skin elasticity and joint pain; but there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence of a variety of benefits.

At first I tried simply eating sugar free Jell-O in my favorite raspberry flavor, but, while delicious, there is really only so much of that you can consume in a day. I then moved on to stirring Knox unflavored gelatin into my tea, but couldn’t get past the texture.

I finally settled on Great Lakes collagen hydrolysate. It’s more highly absorbable, cold water soluble, has no taste, and does not thicken anything you put it in. Anthony and I drink it in coffee or tea twice every day. I also bought a canister for my mother. She has painful osteoarthritis, but due to other health problems, cannot take anything but Tylenol for the pain.

A month in, we’re seeing enough results to want to continue. Anthony and I are both enjoying the strange sense of calm well-being that washes over us after we drink it, and seeing some relief of what we refer to as ‘the old;’ that random achy stiffness that accompanies previous injuries, middle age, parenthood. Neither of us have noticed any gastric impact, but we didn’t have any digestive symptoms we were hoping to address. My mom has seen a great improvement in her digestion (slow because of the medications she takes), and a small but noticeable lessening in her pain. We’re hoping she’ll see more as time goes by.

Please pass the raspberry Jell-O….


The Mood Cure: Amino Acid Therapy

In a previous post, I wrote about how learning that I have the MTHFR mutation (a genetic deficiency that impacts the processing of B vitamins), and subsequently treating it, brought me halfway back to life. This is the other half.

In addition to negatively impacting the processing and absorption of folate, the MTHFR mutation can impact how you process amino acids. Aminos can boost levels of certain neurotransmitters that are big players in mood and cognition, and there’s a solid body of research that backs using them to treat fatigue, depression, and anxiety.  The science resonated with me, and I rarely hesitate to use myself as a guinea pig when there’s something to be gained and not much to lose, so I bought a book and got started.

In Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure, she relates her experience as a psychotherapist, using amino acids as treatment in the clinic she ran in partnership with a neuroscientist. This book is the first I’ve seen that doesn’t lump all kinds of low moods together. There’s a four-part assessment designed to get at what affects you personally: depression/anxiety; energy/focus; stress; or sensitivity. They are not mutually exclusive – it’s possible to be feeling any combination, and even all of them. How you score on the assessment points to which neurotransmitters you’re deficient in, and which amino acids you can try for relief.

My scores on the assessment indicated I had three deficiencies:

Serotonin. This is probably the most well-known neurotransmitter and the one worked on by many antidepressant medications. Lack of it famously causes low mood and carb cravings, but I was surprised by some of the other symptoms on the list, like hating hot weather, being a night owl, or being diagnosed with fibromyalgia or TMJ. To boost my serotonin, I began taking 5-HTP. I found it to have an immediate impact on my afternoon and evening carb cravings, and, strangely, it shut off the voice in my head that is always nattering on about what I should or shouldn’t eat. THAT was worth the price of the bottle all by itself. I take another serotonin booster, tryptophan, right before bed, to help me sleep through the night. For some reason, melatonin has never worked for me, and the herb valerian makes me feel groggy the next day. But with tryptophan, I have restful sleep with no morning hangover. I had hoped I could eliminate the 5-HTP and just go with the tryptophan, but the results were not good. Tryptophan is a mood-booster for many people, just not for me.

There’s a great deal of evidence for a link between mood and gut health, specifically surrounding serotonin. In my case, these supplements greatly improved my bloating and my snail-slow digestion, but I have a friend whose stomach issues were exacerbated by tryptophan (after I raved about it, naturally), so tread carefully if you try it.

Catecholamines. “Cats” are responsible for your oomph – your focus, motivation, enthusiasm, energy. All those things I didn’t have any of. There are several amino acids that serve as catecholamine boosters, and I tried L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine before settling on the one that worked best for me, DLPA – which is a combination of both the D- and L- forms of phenylalanine. I knew these worked right away. Right. Away. No ‘take this and wait six weeks.’ This is the one I never forget to take in the morning, because 10-20 minutes after swallowing it on an empty stomach, it takes me from stumbling around my kitchen like Frankenstein’s monster on Ambien, to an alert and functional human able to answer questions, successfully push the button on the coffee machine, and smile at my family. This (along with L-methylfolate to treat my MTHFR) is the sunshine that rolls back my brain fog and makes work, and life, an easier and more productive experience.

GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is one of our natural tranquilizers. When I took this assessment, I was about a year past a time in my life when I had experienced unrelenting stress for about 18 months, due to a difficult family situation. It was well in the past, and yet I didn’t feel recovered, or over it. At all. What I felt was that it had burned me out so badly that afterward I was never the same. Ross’s chapter on what she calls ‘adrenal burnout’ was a revelation – filled with an additional assessment to find where you are on the adrenal burnout continuum, and real strategies to support deep recovery. GABA supplementation is only one of these. Most often I will take GABA as a ‘rescue remedy’ if I feel stressed or anxious (its calming effects are felt in about an hour), but recently I’ve started to take it regularly when going through life’s stressful patches. As a bonus, the 5-HTP I take for low serotonin also helps with stress and adrenal burnout.

I didn’t score as being deficient in the fourth neurotransmitter, endorphins. People who do are often highly sensitive, feeling life’s pain a little deeper, a little longer, than most. But the supplement I take as a catecholamine booster, DLPA, is also recommended by Ross as a booster for endorphins. So, hey – a belt AND suspenders.

Ross’s book is encyclopedic. She provides the science behind her claims. She walks you through the dosage and timing of supplements (this is important, as they can cancel each other out, and some need to be taken with or without food to be effective), troubleshoots problems and lays out a nutritional plan to support your supplementation efforts. There are extra chapters on hormones and thyroid, as these can often cause symptoms very similar to neurotransmitter deficiency. If they are the culprits behind your blahs, the amino acids may not help much if you don’t address those issues too. On the up side – it’s everything I needed. On the down side…it’s a lot. I found myself getting off in the weeds trying to do everything perfectly, and getting overwhelmed.

Ultimately, improvement won out over perfection. I was able to imperfectly implement some of her lifestyle suggestions along with the supplementation. I already live by some of her nutrition advice, but certain things were just nonstarters. For example, I am not going to give up my treasured coffee or tea, or an evening glass of good whiskey; they bring me too much pleasure. I can, however, enjoy them all in moderation.

And then when everything is working really well and I feel good, I get spotty about taking the supplements and soon enough start to wonder how I ended up laid out flat under this big boulder. Fortunately, once I restart everything it doesn’t take long until the boulder rolls off and I’m on my feet again.

If you’re going to experiment with amino acid therapy, read Ross’s book and do it armed with the information you need (about yourself, and about the aminos) to do it successfully. If you’re on psych meds, check with your doctor before proceeding. Remember this represents only my experience, and your mileage may vary.

MTHFR: it’s a mother…

In the spring of the year I turned 44, I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office for my annual physical, filling out an updated medical history. I hit this question:

Method of birth control: ___________________

I could not think of the word for that surgery your husband has that makes it so you don’t have any more babies. Wracked my brain. Nothing. Filled out the rest of the form and came back to that blank. Nothing.

Fifteen minutes later, sitting on the exam table in my paper gown, I blurted “vasectomy!” to the empty room.

This had become an increasing source of frustration for me. For years I’d been having less and less energy, more and more fatigue; I put it down to working fulltime while parenting a young child. But then came brain fog, depressed mood, and lack of concentration. My edge was long gone, and now it seemed even words were deserting me, when they had always been reliable friends. I was so tired on weeknights it was all I could do to make dinner before I washed up on the couch. On weekends, I did not have enough energy to clean and grocery shop on the same day.

All of this spilled out during my conversation with my primary care doctor, along with some tears. “And don’t tell me to exercise, eat right and take vitamins. I’ve been doing that shit for years. It’s not helping. This is not normal. I’m 44, not 84.”

After a careful look at my medical history, where a history of multiple miscarriages caught her eye, she asked if anyone had tested me for a genetic mutation called MTHFR. Not only had I never been tested, I had never heard of it.

The doctor explained it was a genetic anomaly that caused an impaired ability to process folate, a B vitamin, and some amino acids. Taking folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) was not helpful for people with this mutation, because they were not able to process, or ‘methylate’ it. Folate impacts energy, mood and cognition, and the MTHFR mutation could also be a precursor to the heart disease, blood clots and autoimmune disorders that were rampant in my family tree. I had the test.

When the results came back, I learned I was homozygous for the MTHFR mutation – meaning I had two faulty copies of the gene, one from each parent. The treatment was simple: daily doses of prescription L-methylfolate, the only kind of folate I could absorb.

Change did not happen overnight; I did not wake up the morning after my first dose feeling like a new woman. But change was steady, and by about the six month mark, things were very different. My words came back, and with them, my ability to concentrate. Little by little, I could do more in the evenings and on weekends. The amino acids I had been taking now worked much better. I was a more patient mom – my fuse was longer, I had more bandwidth.

As I researched MTHFR I was dismayed to find that most of the information available about it on the web is put out there by naturopaths, “functional medicine” doctors, or by people who are not health professionals at all. I’m not mad at naturopaths; I like to address health issues naturally whenever possible. But I like to see a research base, too; I want the science – and that’s what I wasn’t seeing. Much of the information I could find on MTHFR included recommendations without science to back them up. In my mind, anytime the words “coffee enema” appear, it’s a red flag that whatever’s going on here has left science far behind.

I found this incredibly frustrating; when much of the information out there is questionable, it has the effect of de-legitimizing a very real condition. A few medical skeptic websites are even ‘debunking’ the MTHFR mutation as pseudoscience, similar to the way fibromyalgia was treated years ago. (I’m not even sure how that works – it seems to me a mutated gene is pretty black and white.)

My primary care doctor (who is an MD, for whatever that’s worth) seemed to intuitively understand that MTHFR could have a wide range of symptoms and consequences – but most other doctors I’ve tried to talk to about it, do not. If they’ve even heard of it, I’ve been met with surprise and sometimes skepticism when I say I had symptoms, and that those symptoms abated once I began treatment. And I am surprised in turn, because that just seems like common sense: if I’ve been missing a nutrient my entire life, my body wouldn’t function optimally without it. And if that nutrient is replaced, I will then function better. I guess ‘common sense’ is an elective in med school.

A relatively simple explanation of MTHFR and how it’s treated, created by credentialed health providers, can be found at Austin Family Medicine.

One unexpected side-effect of learning all of this is a newfound appreciation and compassion for my body. She’s achieved some mighty things – reaching my fourth decade in relative good health, and growing and delivering a fine and healthy baby chief among them – all with one hand tied behind her back, nutritionally speaking. Who knows what’s in store, now that she has what she needs.