Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Intermittent Fasting – Good for Body AND soul?

Have you ever heard somebody say: “S/he’s feeling depressed. Give him a chicken leg?” Probably not, neither have I. On the other hand, I have often heard people say: “S/he’s feeling in need of comfort, perhaps a piece of cake might help. Or a bar of chocolate.”

Chicken, of course, is a protein and does not affect moods. Cakes comes into the food category called carbohydrates – also containing potatoes, pasta, bread, etc – which is known to offer comfort to those in distress. 

The way carbohydrates work is that they raise serotonin levels in the brain thereby increasing a person’s sense of wellbeing. Chocolate is similarly comforting. It is high in tryptophan which gets turned into serotonin in the brain. That and its sugar rush will more than double its attraction to the comfort eater, even if the rush may be short lived.

Some people with long-term or high levels of depression or anxiety may be treated with SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor to give them their full name), giving them a level of balance through chemicals that they might not otherwise achieve. But what if a particular diet may be found to help? 

According to an article in psychiatry journal Medscape, Intermittent Fasting is gaining in interest within the medical profession. According to the article, the practice of “voluntarily abstaining from food and non-water beverages” for a limited period of time is known to benefit a range of illnesses from cardiovascular disease and cancer to diabetes and weakening cognitive skills and it seems to have its appeal with some followers who say it helps their moods and mental abilities too. 

Many of us connect intermittent fasting with the 5:2 diet where you eat what you like for five days and severely restrict intake (to about 600 calories a day) for the other two. However, there are variations. 

One 30-something fan of intermittent fasting, who has also experienced depression, uses the 16:8 method, meaning he eats between an eight-hour period and fasts the rest of the day.

He explains: “When I did intermittent fasting using the 5:2 method, I effectively had one meal only rather than spreading it over a day. I preferred to eat in the evening so found that, by 4pm, I was hungry and having concentration issues. And I didn’t do it over the weekends.

“I now have tea or water up to 12 noon and then eat reasonably up until 8pm. That means my concentration remains good and my work doesn’t suffer.”

He says another benefit is that, because he exercises in the morning, he’s burning stored fat, rather than the calories he’d have accrued with a breakfast meal.

Mood-wise, he says he feels much better. “Eating has always made me feel sluggish and that has affected my mood. I do have the occasional slip up – if I’ve a bit of a hangover, for instance! – but most of the time it’s fine. It’s become a way of life and I feel much happier now than I did before I was on it.” 

Psychiatrist and founder of 96 Harley Street, Dr Robin Lawrence believes there is a case for this way of eating. He says: “I have been using intermittent fasting for years; I am sure it elevates the mood and sharpens my thinking. 

“This is anecdotal – there have been very few studies so this is not evidence-based advice – but some of my patients have reported a similar effect. 

“It’s certainly worth a try if you are a bit ‘stuck’ despite antidepressants.”

Written by Lulu Sinclair

Photo by Izzy Boscawen on Unsplash

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Surprising Pleasure of Ageing

Who would have thought that one of the benefits of getting older is actually enjoying life more? Why is it we get happier as we age? We live in a society apparently programmed to appreciate youth, we use the term: “The optimism of youth” and, in youth, the future seems to stretch out eternally, with nothing but possibilities and hopes on the horizon. 

Looking at it that way, it would seem people should get sadder as they get older. 

And yet, according to a recent survey by the Georgia Institute of Technology, involving 20 young adults in their early 20s and a similar number of adults in their 60s and 70s, quite the reverse is happening. 

The study, which put volunteers into an MRI scanner and used eye-tracking experiments to monitor reactions to a series of pictures, found the brains of young millennials tended towards “hyper-vigilance”. That meant the young people were always on the lookout for threats and things going wrong and were permanently on high alert.

In contrast, the older people, while recognising the danger, seemed to be able to manage and control the “high-alert” function of their brain. 

What happens, says head researcher Brittany Corbett, is that, instead of the brain in an older person being overwhelmed by whatever threat it perceives, it can block out a fearful reaction that would set down a bad memory “template” and create instead a “positivity effect”. 

It seems that while older adults may indeed perceive a threat, they are able to assess its importance – or not – and put it to one side. In other words, they worry less about what may happen. 

Ms Corbett told The Times newspaper: “As we age, we try to have better overall wellbeing and protect our emotional health. Older adults who focus more on negativity avoidance seemingly live happier lives, have better health and longevity."

Ms Corbett suggested the results made sense from an evolutionary perspective. 
“As one's perceived time left in life grows shorter future-orientated goals such as information seeking grow less important.
“Instead present-orientated goals such as living a happy life and having a good well-being are prioritised.” 
Dr Robin Lawrence, founder and consultant psychiatrist at 96 Harley Street, offers his view. 

“I am not sure if we can say that this is a consequence of growing older or a difference between the generations. 

“If the former, it is to be welcomed and supports the anecdotal impression that resilience increases with age.  There is also evidence that personality disorders (particularly Borderline Personality Disorder) get better with age and that fits with the former theory. 

“If it is a generational thing - the older generation have always had a greater capacity to ward off unhappiness - then the future looks bleak and must result in a continued increase in demands for psychiatric and psychological services.”

In our current turbulent times, it could be argued there are good, practical reasons for young people to be feeling deeply concerned about the stress they have to manage. Worries about student debt, career paths, mortgage or rental affordability and relationships are real and  immediate concerns.  

One way to help train young brains to identify and contain what must be an instinctive survival fear might be to encourage the here-and-now benefits of the ancient art of mindfulness. 

Written by Lulu Sinclair

Monday, 10 August 2015

Church makes you happy

In this age of war, pestilence and the many other scourges we are seeing come to pass, it's good to know there's a means by which 'sustained happiness' can be achieved.

Researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) and Erasmus MC studied data from over 900 Europeans over the age of 50 whose results are published under the title 'Social Participation and Depression in Old Age' (clearly, these researchers have some way to go before the big five-oh!).

Participants were followed over a four year period and assessed for whether different forms of social participation were associated with changes in depressive symptoms.

Increased participation in religious organisations, they found, was associated with a decline in depressive symptoms. LSE epidemiologist Dr Mauricio Avendano, commenting on the findings, said that, of all the different kinds of social participation, the only activity linked to 'sustained happiness' was going to a place of worship. He also noted:
"The church seems to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life."
Interestingly, attending church was found to be more helpful in maintaining mental wellbeing than participating in sport or charity work. The findings also showed that participation in political and community organisations was associated with an increase, rather than a decrease, in depressive symptoms.

While previous studies have examined the mental health impact of participation, this is, reportedly, the first paper of its kind to look at the effects of participation in specific activities.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the much subscribed 12-step programmes are so successful in the treatment of addiction, based, as they are, on handing over one's grip on life (or lack thereof) to God. This act of humility places one squarely in the territory of recognising one's human frailty for what it is, thereby giving one the opportunity to allow divine intervention.

The 12-step programme is based on the Christian faith of its founders, and therefore deploys such powerful principles as acknowledging our personal powerlessness and defects of character, and gives us the opportunity to make amends where we have erred and to forgive those who have offended us.

When we are given the means to process and address the spiritual content of our lives (and, after all, happiness is a spiritual good) we are given the keys to sustained happiness. The results of this helpful study therefore come as no surprise.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 31 July 2015

Size really does (grey) matter

It's the size of the matter that matters, according to the results of a new study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, snappily entitled 'Significant grey matter changes in a region of the orbitofrontal cortex in healthy participants predicts emotional dysregulation.'

Effective regulation of the emotions seems to be an increasingly prized commodity, with soaring diagnoses of borderline personality, bipolar and antisocial personality disorders dominating the mental health terrain. It has long been known that people diagnosed with such disorders exhibit compromised emotional regulation and a decrease in volume of certain regions of the brain.

The researchers on this study were interested to discover whether individuals deemed to be mentally healthy (i.e. not diagnosed with mental health disorders), but who rated themselves as having difficulty with regulating their emotions, also exhibited diminished brain volume on MRI.

Reassuringly, the answer was yes!

Such 'healthy' individuals were found to have a smaller volume lower frontal lobe (orbitofrontal cortex) than those who were 'healthy', but rated themselves as having no difficulty in regulating emotions.

Furthermore, the greater the problems with regulating emotions, the smaller the lobe volume. (This same area, by the way, corresponds to the area diminished in those diagnosed with mental disorders.)

The lead author on the study, Associate Professor Pedrag Petrovic, commenting on the findings, said:
The results support the idea that there is a continuum in our ability to regulate the emotions and if you are at the extreme end… this leads to a psychiatric diagnosis."
Or how about the possibility that there are many more people wandering around who could easily be diagnosed with mental illness - they just happen to slip through the net!

This study is encouraging in that it points to the fact that the so-called 'healthy' and the 'mentally ill' may have more in common than we are taught to think. Perhaps we are not so different from each other after all.

Rather, maybe we are all just a diagnosis away from a DSM-defined mental health disorder - as the saying goes, you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Monday, 27 July 2015

The value of humility

How much do you think you know? And would you be right in your assessment?

A new piece of research places into question the seemingly straightforward task of judging one's own knowledge on a particular subject, and suggests that those who think they 'know it all' are more prone to lies and deception.

Psychological scientist Stav Atir of Cornell University and his colleagues set out to discover whether individuals who perceived (and stated) themselves to be experts in a particular subject, were more likely than others to lie about their knowledge.

As part of the experiment, they asked 100 individuals to rate their knowledge of personal finance, as well as their understanding of specific financial terms. Most of the terms were genuine, but the researchers also included a handful of fake terms (e.g. pre-rated stocks, annualised credit).

Interestingly, those who saw themselves as having a high degree of financial expertise were more likely to claim themselves to be experts in the bogus terms. This trend was also repeated in other subject areas, including geography, literature, philosophy and biology.

More fascinating is the observation that even when participants were told that some of the terms they were rating their knowledge against were fictitious, the self-proclaimed experts were still more likely to brazenly claim familiarity with made-up terms.

The research team concluded that a tendency to lie about knowledge in self-proclaimed experts might prevent them from educating themselves in these areas and thereby lead to negative consequences for them. Never mind about the consequences for those who may be victims of their advice!

Since when do we sympathise with the perpetrator and ignore the plight of the potential victim?

This research exposes the scourge of hubris, defined in the dictionary as 'excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance'. It is the opposite to humility, which is defined as 'a modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc.'

To cultivate humility, we must first distinguish it from low self-esteem; humility comes from a position of strength. When we are humble, we know that we are intrinsically valuable as human beings, but fallible by virtue of our human nature. When we are humble, we have no need to 'big ourselves up' in order to look good in the eyes of the world.

By contrast, when we have low self esteem, we lack this understanding and are influenced by what others think. We need to look good, lest we be discovered for our perceived 'crime' of being less than perfect. Since perfection is unattainable, we are always falling short of the mark and always needing to cover up for our lack of perfection.

True humility is now becoming as rare as hen's teeth. If you are lucky enough to encounter it, you will be speaking to someone who is indeed an expert - an expert in life.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 17 July 2015

Surveillance - a new treatment for depression

In case you hadn't noticed, there's a revolution going on. The rise of the machines, you might call it, or perhaps technology on steroids.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the brave new world of healthcare, where technology-enabled clothing and accessories can monitor your heart rate, contact lenses can detect blood sugar for diabetics and robotic walking devices are just a tip-toe away from changing the lives of wheelchair users.

Recent research published in The Journal of Medical Research suggests that depression may soon be in on the act, with an app that gathers data from sufferers' smartphones.

Forty participants were asked to complete an online health questionnaire, specifically designed to probe for symptoms of depression. They were then monitored over the course of two weeks, with the so-called 'Purple Robot' app gathering data on their phone usage and geographical location.

The results showed that those participants with symptoms of depression used their smartphone three times more often (an average of 68 minutes per day) than those who did not have depressive symptoms (an average of 17 minutes).

Furthermore, participants with depressive symptoms travelled to fewer locations than those without symptoms. Senior author, David Mohr, PhD, observed that 'when people are depressed, they tend to withdraw and don't have have the energy or motivation to go out and do things'. Commenting on the findings he also said:
"[This] information could ultimately be used to monitor people who are at risk of depression, and to perhaps offer them interventions... or to deliver the information to their clinicians."
So let's get this straight. What's being suggested here is to track the movements and phone calls of those at risk of depression, then submit their data to a third party, who (or which - don't discount a computer interface) would then presumably verify a diagnosis and trigger treatment.

If you didn't have depression to start with, odds are you would wind up with it, or, at the very least, a heightened sense of (justified) paranoia.

Though reliable figures for the incidence of depression are hard to come by, with anything between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 in Western countries afflicted, the scope for mass surveillance with a system like this would be irresistible to those in big government. Expect to see more funding making its way into research like this.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that depression, which can be difficult to diagnose and treat, and as individual as the experience, circumstances and temperament of the sufferer, requires a slightly lighter touch than this. Happily, it is impossible to reduce the spiritual to data points and app-fodder.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 10 July 2015

How to spot a psychopath

Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that a psychopath is someone at the extreme end of the mental health spectrum. Which is true, but we tend to assume they are easily identifiable by the crimes they commit (most notoriously, murder).

Many who commit murder are indeed psychopathic, but the number of people who express superficial charm, lie, lack empathy and feel emotion only at surface level (thereby placing them on the diagnostic spectrum) may be greater than you think.

Professor Robert Hare, a Canadian criminal psychologist and the creator of a psychological assessment used to diagnose psychopathy, is one man who probably understands better than most the nature and true incidence of the disorder at large. He has studied and worked with psychopaths, in prisons and elsewhere, over a long career. He says of his experience:
"It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern.”
Hare's test covers 20 criteria, each of which is given a score of 0 (psychopathy absent), 1 (psychopathy partially present) or 2 (psychopathy fully present). Scores over 30 represent 'red alert' and anything under 5 'breathe a sigh of relief'. They are, in no particular order:
  • Glibness and superficial charm
  • Over-inflated sense of self-worth
  • Lying
  • Cunning and manipulation
  • Lacking remorse
  • Emotional shallowness
  • Lack of empathy
  • Unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions
  • Tendency to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Lack of behavioural control
  • Behavioural problems in early life
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Criminal versatility
  • History of broken parole
  • Multiple marriages
  • Promiscuous sexual behaviour
Recognise anyone you know?

Hare has been quoted as saying that 1% of the general population can be categorised as psychopathic and that prevalence in the financial services is 10%. While this latter figure has been disputed (and it would be, wouldn't it, given that the financial services run the media) the good professor may not be too far off the mark. Personally, I think it sounds a bit low.

We shouldn't be so surprised. Troubling research reported by Forbes showed that 3% of those assessed on a management development programme scored highly for psychopathy - well above the number for the general population. Prison populations weigh in at 15%.

Practically, it's worth remembering the reality and the scale of the problem, for those (hopefully) rare occasions when we ask of ourselves 'is it me who's gone mad or X?'

For more insight on the subject, with specific reference to the workplace, check out 'Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work', published in 2006 by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare.

Written by Jacqui Hogan