So this is not exactly a post about fitness and nutrition but I went down a rabbit hole this week and this is what has come out of it…
There is a Hindu saying – The world is as we are. The world around us is a reflection of how we think of ourselves and how we behave. Hatred is not borne from a loving heart. I believe that health and self love are intrinsically linked and I can easily see how this can spread to the people around you. Another saying goes – you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. but it is much bigger than that. A study on the extent of social influence on health was published in 2008. The researchers, Kirsten Smith and Nicholas Christakis found that if a friend of yours becomes obese, that you have a 45% chance of becoming obese yourself and if a friend of a friend becomes obese you have a 20% chance of also becoming obese. Even if you don’t know that person! This trend was similar for other health signifiers but the most intriguing part of the study was that it was also true for happiness. If a friend of a friend is happy with their life, you are 6 % more likely to be happy. Take a second think about how many people you have influence on and are influenced by.
I am going to go off track for a bit here but I promise to make some sense of it all by the end. Actually, no promises…
Traditional Chinese medicine links emotions to the health of organs and internal systems. I suppose it is logical that the state of our minds shapes the decisions we make, our behaviors and in turn how healthy we are. But is it possible that their is a more direct link from emotions or mental health and our body’s well being at a cellular level?
In Chinese Medicine sadness or grief is linked to the lungs. Sadness or depression saps the body of energy and weakens the nervous system. Strong lungs are important for immune function, fighting both bacterial and viral infections, water metabolism and skin health. Symptoms of lung deficiency include, shortness of breath, shallow breathing, fatigue, persistent bouts of crying, sweating, allergies, asthma and frequent colds and flu.
But what is the physical link? Chinese medicine has been using the 5 element model for several thousand years, in which emotions correspond to seasons, elements, colors, organs etc.. But our Western scientific paradigm insists on statistical significance within the current research template in order to come to any truths. We also have a hard time wrapping our heads around anything mystical or spiritual. So where is the hard evidence?
In the 1980s Dr. Candace Pert demonstrated that Neuropeptides act as chemical messengers between the immune system and the brain. Neuropeptides are protein-like molecules that neurons use to communicate with each other. Pert dubbed these peptides “molecules of emotion.” While mapping peptide receptors in the brain she noticed clusters of them in the Hippocampus and Amygdala, structures linked to emotion and memory. But beyond this, the peptide network extends throughout the body, into the organs, spinal chord, glands and even muscles. it is still a theoretical leap, but Pert insists that emotions are stored within these locations outside of the brain in the form of peptides and their receptors. It’s a fascinating idea and one that lends itself to the belief that physical manipulations such as chiropractic, osteopathic, massage therapies and even exercise can illicit extreme emotional responses. I have been witness to this in the studio with some of my clients but I resist any assumptions as to what the causal pathway is.
Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that work in the immune system to clear debris or other cells that may be harmful to normal function. They also carry receptors that can accommodate almost every kind of neuropeptide we are aware of. In fact, Pert’s husband, Michael Ruff who is an immunologist theorizes that macrophages may be something like nomadic brain cells allowing for a more direct link from emotion to immune response and vice versa.
More recently the gut – brain connection has garnered more research interest and general acceptance as a causal link to function and dysfunction. Almost all of us have anecdotal evidence of anxiety causing digestive issues. Stress is a major cause of chronic stomach and intestinal health problems and what is stress if not the manifestation of fear, sadness and/or anger.
The microbiome-gut-brain axis is now being understood as a bidirectional line of communication. The theory is that colonies of gut microbiome can instigate pathological change via the immune endocrine and nervous systems.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and extends from the brain stem down to the ends of the intestines. Again, what researchers are seeing here is bidirectional communication – a “neuro-endocrino-immunilogical” pathway that seems to impact gut and intestinal function as well as energy homeostasis. So, while top-down information (external factors like environmental stress) may have impact on your gut health, bottom-up information from the kinds of bacteria in the gut may in turn affect emotion and behavior. The link between gut health and depression is currently being studied extensively.
In the online journal called Deviant Behavior, Gato et.al. review research on the gut-behavior connection and suggest that criminologists may want to study a link between crime and biochemistry. While the mechanism in which this works has yet to be researched, the idea is similar to what current research in other areas is supposing – that environmental stressors, including exposure to violence can have an impact on gut microbiome (and may even be passable through pregnancy and delivery of babies). Can subjection to violence have a lasting impact on our health at a cellular/bacterial level? And can this impact in turn lock us in to create further stressful or even violent acts? I have no idea, but this is where science is headed and it is fascinating stuff.
How strong can the influence be from the gut? Can it actually have serious influence on behavior. Hold on, this is where things get weird…
Have you ever heard of toxoplasmosis? Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that lives in rats (but also humans) and while it carries out most of its life with the rat as its host, it needs to move into a cats body in order to carry out the rest of its life cycle. So what does this parasite do to get there…it controls the rats mind. By reducing the rats fear of cats, and even making it attracted to cat feces. The rat gets a little too courageous for its own good. Rat comes out of hiding – cat eats rat – parasite now lives in the cat. Super cool and terrifying, right?
Now the million dollar question and real life horror movie plot is: can gut bacteria have this kind of control over human behavior? Well first of all…apparently researches have seen risky behavior, specifically daredevil driving increase by 2.5 times in people who carry the same parasite as our poor, possessed rat friends. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any adverse effects for the majority of us who carry it. As of yet, there is no such research on bacteria and human behavior but we do know or believe that it can cause mood disturbances which can then lead to unhealthy behavior so maybe it is exerting some kind of control just perhaps not as specific as the above example.
One study found that supplementing the diet of prisoners with vitamins, minerals and fatty acids led to a decrease in anti-social and violent behavior. I am not sure if the supplements given would have had any impact on gut microbiome but a link from diet and behavior is a start. A number of other factors may have been at play here but it is still pretty interesting.
I can’t help but wonder what happens to people and communities on a larger scale and over a longer period of time when exposed to daily life threatening stress and social exclusion due to sexual identity or racial, religious or ethnic background. Can we have a predisposition to violent behavior based on the microbiome profile we may have inherited from our mothers? What kind of effect does the trauma of our parents have on our future? And are we perpetuating this behavior throughout our communities through our ‘friend of a friend’ social influence studies?
Using fMRI imaging, an international team of psychologists attempted to investigate whether social exclusion rather than religious or political beliefs led to acts of terrorism. Based on a survey screening for susceptibility to terrorist recruitment, the team found a sample group of 38 people. They noticed high activity in an area of the brain associated with “matters too important to be traded.” This area also lit up for those who expressed a willingness to act violently in the name of their cause. The most interesting finding was that when the researchers manipulated the environment so that the participants felt excluded – the willingness to use violence increased, as did the activity in the brain linked with this thinking. By no means did this study come to any concrete evidence but the researchers concluded that social exclusion is an important factor in determining the potential for acts of violence.
Lots of questions and interesting ideas floating around.
A traditional Chinese medicine practitioner may treat Anger, frustration and resentment by improving liver function. Current Western medicine might prescribe sedatives and counselling but maybe eventually we will begin looking at microbiome profiles and be able to match them with a mix of the above approaches for an even more holistic approach.
If “The World Is As We Are“ I would like to believe that if we start with love and inclusion we may give everyone a better chance at living long, healthy lives. If we want to illicit change in our worlds I believe we need to start with ourselves.