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