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“We humans are very proud of our particularly complex brains. Thinking about constitutional law, philosophy, physics, or religion is an impressive feat and can prompt extremely sophisticated movements. It is awe-inspiring that our brains are capable of all this. But at some point, that awe wears off, and we hold our brains responsible for everything we experience in life—we think up experiences of well-being, happiness, or satisfaction inside our own heads. When we are insecure, anxious, or depressed, we worry that the computer in our heads might be broken.” ~ Giulia Ender
It was the beginning of 2020, and I’d had two beers while on a date. My stomach now hurt, my brain was foggy, and the air was cold—rain falling from a grey, dreary sky.
Fast forward three months later.
The sun was out, and I’d just played with the cat outside. I found myself immersed in a good book that I enjoyed after my amazing run earlier in the day. My housemates and I ordered pizza (of which I ate four slices), yet that night I went to bed satiated, without any stomach discomfort or gastrointestinal stress whatsoever.
Four months later, I received a diagnosis of celiac disease. My gastro told me she’d thought I had it for at least a few years, if not more. I immediately thought back to that day I’d eaten four slices of pizza and felt totally fine.
Why would gluten have made me sick at some points, yet not at others?
The link between mental and physical has been long studied. As Mark Hyman wrote, “Now we understand that 95 percent of all illnesses are either caused by or worsened by stress. What you think can influence how sick or well you are. The mind influences the body.”
Functional medicine practitioners have argued about the importance of broadening our focus to the entire body as part of comprehensive treatment for mental health conditions. Hyman posits, “What if mood, memory, attention and behavior problems, and most other ‘brain diseases’ have their root causes in the rest of the body—in treatable imbalances in the body’s key systems? What if they are not localized in the brain? If this is true, it would mean our whole approach to dealing with brain disorders is completely backward.”
This reasoning not only makes sense to me but feels plausible.
The day after my date, even though I’d only had two beers, I was experiencing anxiety over the uncertainty of the other person’s intentions. The day I ate the pizza, I’d felt content and relaxed. My social and companionate needs were met. I’d been generally sleeping well, and my housemates and I were getting along.
Stress can exacerbate symptoms of any underlying condition. As author Samantha Irby wrote of her Crohn’s, “It usually flairs from stress. And what a pain in the dick that is because it means I can never just, say, avoid cheese and have that be the end of it. Sometimes I can have meat and sometimes that same meat makes my gut feel like it’s eating itself from the inside.”
A commenter on celiac.com had a similar experience, “I found by experience that eating dinner rolls at home gave me gas, bloating, etc. Eating them while mellowed out on a scuba trip to the Caribbean with my friends produced little, if any, symptoms. The point though is that the severity of symptoms did vary in association with what I assume was emotional state—stressed out versus mellow.”
When younger, I, too, believed in the myth of the brain and body’s as separate. Brain fog and fatigue (in addition to a history of disorganization as a kid) found me relying heavily on coffee. Depression started as early as seventh grade and I’d always assumed that it came from feeling like I didn’t fit in as an introverted, queer kid in a mostly straight, extroversion-valuing society.
Even after high school, though, the fatigue continued along with the sleep problems. At 30, I started experiencing tingling in my hands and legs. It wasn’t until my celiac diagnosis that I began to consider this huge missing piece to the puzzle—the link between physical and mental health.
Therapy, inner work, and antidepressants could only do so much so long as the other missing piece was unknown to me. Nothing would fully heal me until I stopped putting gluten into my body.
The mind and body are connected—just like the heart, lungs, liver, and skin. Yet we treat organs as separate in part, I believe, because the truth is inconvenient and complicated. Subscribing to it takes work. So does adopting changes in the way we live, consume, and operate in daily life.
Talk therapy and trauma healing are valuable. In my mind, these are integral and necessary components of every person’s healing journey. My therapist and antidepressants aided me significantly (most notably in high school). Therapy helped me accept my sexual orientation and come out to the people in my life at a young age, thus helping to renounce the enormous psychic burden I’d carried with me for years. This continues to help me today.
Yet these are not the only components, and the work toward completely healing doesn’t end with them.
Back in 2013, I wrote about some of my mental health symptoms that I suspected were stemming from biological imbalances:
“It’s like I’m watching a movie of my nervous system. Here comes E’s moment of existential despair and helplessness because she hasn’t consumed enough iron yet today. She thinks more people who understand her, and a girlfriend, and a promise of immortality will cure these feelings, but maybe all she really needs is a chicken breast with some onions on the side, then she’ll be fine for now. Yes, the former would be a more substantial, meaningful, long-term remedy…but the latter is more realistic and implementable. When my blood sugar is stable, these worries feel way less formidable.”
As you navigate your own mental health healing journey, consider this: rule out any underlying conditions or autoimmune diseases. Some might be fairly straightforward to pinpoint and treat while others might require more detective work.
As Hyman said, “It is much easier to work on yourself if your brain is not in chaos, if signals and communication systems in your brain are not incoherent and unsynchronized by toxins, allergens, infections, nutritional deficiencies, and stress.”