Part 1: On 21st Century Excesses and Deficiencies

Dr. Karen Faisandier provides an overview of her talk in late 2016, under the auspices of AHSNZ. This talk was part of a women’s wellness event with Dr Lara Briden and Dr Anastasia Boulais. Karen discussed the psychological expression of physical excesses and deficiencies.

Here is part one of her summary of the talk, including an important question raised by a member of the audience.

The speakers and attendees of the AHSNZ Women’s Wellness talk held in Wellington, 2016

Karen will be a speaker at the AHSNZ Symposium, 20-22 October in Queenstown. You can read more about Karen’s work HERE.

While our basic human physiology is largely unchanged, never in history have we collectively contended with as many unremitting and insidious insults to our wellbeing and vibrancy as we do today.

First, check out this quote I like, from the book Psychological Masquerade:

“Psychological symptoms are not always best explained psychologically.”               Robert Taylor

It’s true. They also may not always be best explained by other reasons that are accepted by the masses at the time. For example, when you look at some of the proposed causal understandings of female physical/psychological suffering over time, they include sexual and reproductive organ issues (and lack of sex/orgasms), possession and black magic (with exorcism and execution), and penis envy (thanks Freud). ‘Hysteria’ was the first known descriptor of what are now termed “psychosomatic” disorders, and was originally applied to women and defined as “the conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms”.

Things progressed post-world wars however, after men returned home with the physical and psychological effects of prolonged or acute stress and trauma. There was a shift to obtaining a greater scientific understanding of such experiences, as well as effective treatments for the debilitating effects (Van der Kolk, 2014). This eventually led into well-known biological models that have been generally accepted until recently, including catecholamine dysfunction as the explanation for depressive and anxiety disorders (e.g., low serotonin, dopamine, GABA), with psychiatric medications widely used as treatments (e.g., selective-serotonin re-uptake inhibitors – SSRI’s). Under a medical model, binary or dualistic concepts of mind and body relationships became the focus within clinical practice rather than integrative, as per NZ based mind-body expert Dr Brian Broom (Broom, Booth, & Schubert, 2012). More recently though, there has been discussion on the limitations of both dualistic and catecholamine models, as we’ve seen an emergence in research on the gut-brain axis (see below). Concerns have also been raised around rising rates of mental disorder despite the commonality of psychiatric medication use (e.g., as per 2015 NZ Pharmac data 1/6 women used an SSRI).

The gut-brain axis involves the complex interaction of our gut microbiome (the array of microorganisms in our gut which require balance), the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the cortisol and adrenaline producing stress response), the vagus nerve (gut-brain/two-way communication line), and the immune and neuroendocrine systems, among other things. How our modern diet and lifestyle jeopardise the harmony of the gut-brain axis, and how to repair this harmony, is a promising area of research within many fields, including mental health. Problems within the gut-brain axis explain overlapping physiologic and mental symptoms such as those seen in ‘psychosomatic’ disorders (Greenblatt & Brogan, 2015). For example, anxiety, panic attacks, emotional lability or flatness, cognitive changes, and insomnia can arise with physical food allergies/intolerances, nutrient depletion, insidious hormonal problems including thyroid, sex hormone, or adrenal dysregulation, and autoimmunity. This brings us around to how modern excesses and deficiencies affect the gut-brain axis and contribute to these phenomena.

Excesses & Deficiencies

When I talk about 21st century excesses I include this non-exhaustive list of modern factors that were absent or minimal at earlier times in history:

  • processed food and food intolerances/sensitivities
  • device notifications and screen time (especially in the evening)
  • sugar
  • caffeine
  • medication
  • alcohol
  • mindlessness (chronic “automatic pilot”)
  • perceived stress, rushing, and being “busy”
  • toxicant exposure (pesticides etc.)
  • social media/self-focus and the ‘imaginary audience
  • intrusive sensationalist media of many forms

Then there are the deficiencies of things that our ancestors likely had more ready exposure to:

  • adequate nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, macronutrients)
  • true relaxation
  • sunlight
  • movement/physical strength
  • time in nature
  • deep quality sleep
  • meaningful connection and community
  • hands-on childrearing support
  • environmental intuition (respecting the wisdom and rhythm of nature)

In just one example of the physical/psychological overlap, the slide below contrasts various symptoms of suboptimal nutritional intake (arising from a combination of the excesses and deficiencies listed above) with the common symptoms of a depressive episode (Note: a diagnosis of depression also requires other factors like ruling out other explanations, symptom duration, and degree of impairment to functioning).

That is a large overlap, right? Yet broad nutrient insufficiency is often not delved into and worked with, and so people are frequently not aware of how much their diet and lifestyle may be impacting psychologically. To have the nutritional foundation for mental and emotional wellbeing, the brain requires individually sufficient macronutrients (healthful fat, protein, and complex carbs) and all the various micronutrients that are abundant in food as designed by nature (e.g., optimal B vitamins, Iron, Folate, zinc, Magnesium, Vitamin D etc.). Our heavily processed and highly carbohydrate based modern diet does not provide these adequately, plus, when there are additional insults from the lists above (and let’s face it, we all have some), they use up extra nutrients, make absorption difficult, and place strain on the gut-brain axis.

Here are what I consider to be other common key deficiencies from a psychological perspective:

  • secure attachment
  • compassion (for self/others/world)
  • aligning our behaviour with our values
  • a sense of meaning and purpose
  • and allowing difficult emotional experiences

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Upcoming Events

  1. With speakers coming from Europe, UK, USA, Canada, and Australia, as well as plenty of home-grown New Zealand talent, this a truly international event. Our presenters will cover a range of topics, including nutrition, medicine, psychology, movement and physical activity, including theory, and in some cases, practical application, discussing the evolutionary origins of disease, modern biological mismatches, and how the knowledge of the past might inform us on both the problems of present, and those of the future.

    International Symposium 2017 – Queenstown, NZ

    October 20 - October 22