Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello, I'm Henry Emmons and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee: And I am Aimee Prasek. Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on building the elements of joy, the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks a joyful life. The element for this episode is resilience. So we're working through our resilience and hope series for the next while.
And in this episode we're talking about balancing brain chemistry. We're sort of starting off with a very body-focused approach here, and in the next two episodes, really. If you didn't listen to the last episode. I'd recommend it cuz everything will make a whole lot more sense here. In last episode, quick summary though, we talked about the carrot, egg, and coffee.
So to recap, the carrot after boiling in a pot of stress just broke down, became a mushy mess. The egg, though masked by its shell was, once flexible at its core, amidst the stress, it hardened up and it closed up. Coffee, which is more our model for resilience, remained intact and after some time actually changed that stressful environment around it, or at least saw it differently. The boiling water of stress became coffee.
So me, as I said last episode, definitely used to be an egg. When stress hit, I was more inclined to close up to try and do it all on my own. I'd keep up my shell so nobody would see the mess. Maybe you listening can relate or you resonate more with a carrot. When stress hits just feels like too much, you get steamrolled by it and sort of end up in a heap.
We all have tendencies, some influenced by our wiring, shaped in some ways by how we solved stress as kids, maybe what we were modeled, what we interpreted as possible based on our resources. All of these things sort of coming together to form a bit of a pattern as to how we respond to stress. But we are built to handle stress and none of these things can completely take our resilience away or prevent us from being coffee
Henry: So I wanna kind reach back into some, some enduring research that I think has really informed me and a lot of, of us in mental health, and it's a research on temperment. So I wanna say a little bit about that. And it's a really enduring quality that we humans have. So a lot of times we, we kind of mix this up with personality, which sometimes we think personality is really who we are, but I don't think it is. I think of personality as something that we sort of take on. It's like not quite a mask, but maybe a little bit more like that. And it's largely unconscious, but it's definitely not who we really are. Temperament isn't exactly who we really are either, but it does tend to stay with us more throughout our lifetimes. So in this famous Harvard study, Jerome Kagan was the lead researcher for 44 years. Now that's a pretty enduring study.
Henry: My gosh. So So, um, what they found is that even when we're toddlers, our temperament shows up.
And if it's anxious, if we tend toward an anxious temperament, you can observe a toddler and tell who is likely have an, uh, anxiety disorder later on in life. So what they did sounds kind of mean in a way, the mother would bring the toddler into this room with strangers and then leave and some
Aimee: It is how all those studies went. Back then.
Henry: Kind of cruel, doesn't?
Aimee: It always abandonment..
Henry: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So how they reacted was kind of a measure of their temperament. So, the long and short of it is that temperament is kind of how we're wired.
So last week we talked about two things that that really contribute to that wiring: our genetics and our early childhood experiences, both of which are mostly beyond our control.
But here's an interesting thing about wiring of the brain. The brain is not really hardwired like a computer might be, you know, kind of permanent. It's really more like being soft wired, which is able to be changed.
So, me for example, I have kind of an anxious temperament. But I think most people who know me now would not really see me as an anxious person.
I've done a lot of work, I think to try and change that. Although if you push me hard enough, I'm gonna get anxious again. Um, but you know, it, at first it felt like a lot of work and now it just feels like it's just part of my routine, self-care to do some of these things. So I believe that a lot of these tendencies do have to do with our brain chemistry.
Now, I admit that might come because of my training as a psychiatrist, but I have found it helpful and hopeful to try to understand better how the body works. The way I see it, brain chemistry is never static. It doesn't stay the same. It is very dynamic. It is constantly changing, and it does have a huge influence on how we feel and function, moment to moment. So I think it's a really good place to start our conversation on resilience,
Aimee: I agree. I also really like temperament, that concept. It reminds me also that it's sort of this first suggestion. It has this fluid nature. Um, maybe I'm just imagining that room of those poor children being abandoned, but then, you know, they come back and there's, there's still fluidity there. I see that in resilience and when we hold it alongside this dynamic nature of the brain,
I just feel this possibility open up. Nothing is as fixed as it seems. Like you said Henry, nothing. And maybe it's that dynamic nature of the brain that can sort of suck us in so much as well. We know so little about it really. And at the same time it's like everything. It must have a secret switch in there for happiness, I think is sort of, the thought.
So it makes sense how tempting it can be to give all of our attention to the brain and body when it comes to mental health. You know, this idea that you can kind of just biohack the depression out of you, just like a series of fasting cold showers, supplements and food pairings, are the only thing standing between you and you're resilience or happiness.
Or the right combination of medications. I think it's where conventional medicine, or at least in the recent past, put nearly all of its investment when it came to mental health. So there's, there's sort of that swing of the pendulum. At the same time, I really like talking about brain chemistry and these body-focused strategies first because they seem more accessible when you feel depleted.
Compared to the more mind and and heart-focused work that are also essential for resilience. It's as if these body focus strategies seem more tangible and can offer those quicker boosts so you can feel better more quickly. Which is what you want when you just don't feel like you have anything in your tank.
It can be enough to push a bit more motivation and confidence to start doing the additional work, the mind and heart work.
Henry: So I started my career as a psychiatrist in the 1990s pretty much. Which was, at the time, it was called the Decade of the Brain. And it was a really interesting period because drugs like Prozac and Zoloft were still pretty new, and there was just tons of optimism. I that, at least in my field, people really believed that if we just learned enough about brain chemistry and how to manipulate it, say with medication that we would someday cure depression and anxiety. Well, obviously that hasn't happened and now we know that this idea that somebody has a serotonin deficiency that can be fixed with an SSSRI is a huge over oversimplification.
Now, a lot of my own writing has been aimed really at trying to help folks rely less on medication and try to find more natural ways to feel better. But I do wanna say that I personally do not see medication as a bad thing. I just see it as another tool that can be used well. It can carefully and judiciously prescribed to support somebody when they really need that support. I really believe that people, some people, benefit from medication. And I think there are even times when it makes sense to use them long term.
However, I do think that we as a society and maybe as a medical profession, we have taken to using it too often, too quickly, and for too long of a period of time. I think ideally for at least for in most cases, medication would be a bridge. You know, helping give people some relief and support for their mood while they really need it until some safer, better tolerated tools like natural therapies can be kind of brought on board. So the sorts of things that we're gonna be talking about really in these next few episodes.
Aimee: Yeah. Medications are just one great tool to consider and it sucks that there's so much stigma around them. I do like comedian Taylor Tomlinson's description of meds. I love comedy, helps me understand things. Uh, it's in her, look at you Netflix special, she said, " I had friends who scared me too when I was trying to get on medication.
They were like, Ugh. I tried, I tried antidepressants. I didn't like how I felt on them. I didn't feel like myself. And now that I'm on them," she says, "I'm like, yeah, me neither. It's the best!" So there's like some very simple and kind wisdom there that I love. If it makes you feel better, then what a great place to start.
Um, maybe you go off of them, as you said, Henry, after some time and after you build up other skills, maybe you stay on them. We're all different. So we're not gonna talk about meds right now. I think we'll do that in a separate episode in the future. But please have that conversation with your doctor, psychiatrist, therapist. Medications can be such a powerful and life-saving tool for a lot of people. What we are gonna talk about here are two other strategies to balance brain chemistry: supplementation, and nutrition. And just to note, we'll put the names and links to all the supplements we talk about in the show notes.
So you can head to JoyLab.coach or NaturalMentalHealth.com, you can click on podcast and head to episode 54. All right, supplements. I have a love-hate relationship with supplements, quite honestly. Mainly because when it comes to supplements, it's just completely overwhelming. There's so much snake oil and marketing and inflated promises.
I think. A lot of "health gurus" have these, what I would say, ridiculous regimens of like 40 some pills for just, I don't know, general energy . And I think it can be sort of, um, leaning us into the same issue that we have with medications, which can be that they're easy to overdo because they seem like simple, effortless solutions. At the same time, I think there are some supplements that can really help folks when it comes to mental health. I know that is absolutely the case for me. But I also know I've wasted too much money on junk that has been pitched to me. So that's something that really drew me into your books, Henry, the Chemistry of Joy and the chemistry of Calm, just a sensible approach to supplements.
They're not everything, but they can definitely be something.
Henry: I'm just remembering that when I was approached to write the Chemistry of Joy, I didn't seek it out, someone asked me to write a book about natural therapies and depression. They, what they really wanted was a book about supplements. And I just said, you know, I would love to write a book, but not just about supplements.
You know, I want to try to, to really take a broader look. So, in a perfect world, you know, we wouldn't need medication or nutritional supplements. We'd get everything we need to make all of our neurotransmitters and keep them in perfect balance, you from our diets. But for all kinds of reasons that just is not what's happening. So I like to think of both medications and supplements as bridge tools.
And ideally move in a sequence from medication, to supplements, to getting all of our nutrients needed from our food. So things get a little more complicated though when we're working with actual people, partly because we are not all built alike. So there's really an art, believe me, there's an art to prescribing medication because folks respond so differently to various meds and dosages. And the same thing is true for nutritional supplements. So I try to bring a little order to all this complexity by talking about different subtypes of anxiety and depression, and it really comes from my observations over the years as well as my understanding of brain chemistry.
So I'm gonna really simplify this here and you can read a lot more about it at naturalmentalhealth.com or my books if you're interested. But simply put, I see there being three distinctly different types of depression where some people are mostly anxious or nervous and have a lot of worry and so forth. Other people tend to be more irritable and restless, that's a second kind- moody. And then there's a third pattern where people feel mostly sluggish and lethargic and they lose most of their motivation. Now I think that these different patterns might come partly out of our temperament, the soft wiring that we talked about.
And then some of it might come from our current state of our brain chemistry. Now there are also three kind of similar patterns that I've identified for anxiety. So I will admit that these three categories are also oversimplifying. The brain is incredibly complex. And like I said earlier, brain chemistry is constantly changing, and really rapidly changing. But still, I have found it helpful to support these key neurotransmitters, whether that's with medications, supplements, or both. And so understanding these patterns is really helpful in doing that. So, for example, in order to calm more of an anxious pattern, we might want to really support the serotonin system. If we're looking to stabilize the mood and soothe that agitation, we might wanna focus more on balancing the GABA glutamate system.
And then to add energy, motivation, or focus, we might really wanna work on the dopamine system. So again, simplified, but we've gotta have some simplicity in order to approach these things.
Henry: So at Natural Mental Health and Joy Lab, we're focused mostly on positive wellbeing and not on pathology. So we have taken these subtypes, we got six categories now, and we have, really tried to focus on how each of them is different based on their strengths, and we call these their Resilient Types. Each of them has their own strength, which is really where we wanna place our focus. But each also has their own challenges. And I find it really helpful to know what those are, how to recognize them, and then what to do about them so we can more quickly get back to our healthy, resilient selves.
Aimee: Yeah. That strengths first, resilience first approach is in itself transformative. I love thinking about when I'm a little bit out of balance instead of judgment or self-criticism that can come with that. My tendency now is to think, oh look, my strengths are just a little bit wild.
It's just this gentler approach to when I seem like I'm getting out of balance because it's coming from a place of self-acceptance. So if you haven't yet, do take the resilience quiz over at naturalmentalhealth.com, click on quiz. You can find out your resilience type and the common obstacles that you might resonate with.
Once you have your resilience type, uh, you can also sign up for a free mini course that includes a lot of the body-focused strategies we're talking about in this episode. And the next two as well. You'll also find supplements to consider for those obstacles. It's just a refreshing way to approach supplements, and to not feel completely overwhelmed. Of course, be sure to speak with your doctor before starting any new supplements. And also in the mini course you'll find some nutrition choices that can support your resilience type and address some common obstacles. And what I really love about this is that we're focusing mainly on what to include in your diet, what to eat more of.
It's like not a finger wagging, totally impractical diet that omits all the food groups and rules your life. Uh, and actually the foundation of what to eat more of sits on top of something we call the resilient diet. Resilient diet is just a practical approach to eating in a way that is nourishing for your body, your mind, and I'd say your soul.
So the particular foods to add on top and some to possibly reduce help to balance brain chemistry in a way that is really doable. So Henry, do you want to give a bit of a broad overview on what these choices look like, how they can balance brain chemistry, and then with the knowledge that folks can head to the resilience quiz and get their own lists based on their results?
Henry: Sure. So let me, me start by going back to that progression I talked about. Going from medication, to supplements, to food. So just to be clear, we don't wait to start working on our diet until we're off of medications and supplements. We, we wanna do that right away. Cuz it gives us a really good foundation.
And I, I really think that it can speed up that transition from, you know, relying more on medications to feeling good just from your diet alone. So generally speaking, medications are the most potent, fastest way to support mood. Most folks, if they're on the right medication at the right dose will feel better, usually within a couple of weeks, four weeks, typically at the most. Now, nutritional supplements take longer. They're more subtle. I usually suggest people give them about four weeks, even up to a couple months before giving up on them. if it's possible to give it that much time. If you're relying on getting your nutrients from food, it's even more subtle. And so you really might need to give that three months, six months, even a little bit longer to really feel like your mood is, is getting better.
But I think there are some things like your sleep and energy that'll improve a lot quicker if you do some simple work on your diet. So I think of food improving mood in three distinct ways, which really work together to raise our level of health. They are reducing inflammation, managing blood sugar, and balancing brain chemistry. There's a lot there to be said about those, so I'm gonna be really brief right now. We're gonna get into this a little bit more actually in the next episode. At Natural Mental Health, we have just a great nutritionist, Carolyn Denton, who has an entire series on these things and more. And we'll put a link to her series in our show notes.
So here are my crib notes version of how to eat to support your mood. Start with inflammation. If you have signs of inflammation, let's say problems with digestion, or your skin, or any kind of heart disease, or autoimmune problems; anything that's affecting your whole body, also affects your brain. And there is a theory with a lot of evidence that inflammation is one of the prime causes of depression and even that antidepressants might work by reducing inflammation. So to do this through diet, here's some simple suggestions: Try to eat less gluten and dairy and more olive oil, nuts, and fish; the good healthy fats.
Second category is blood sugar. The brain is entirely dependent on getting its blood sugar, its glucose from the bloodstream, which it needs to produce energy. But it has to be kept within a very tight window. If blood sugar gets too low, the brain is gonna complain very loudly about that. If blood sugar gets too high, it's actually really toxic to the brain. So we wanna manage our blood sugar pretty closely. And here's simply put how you can do it. Don't eat too many calories in one sitting, especially those things that are quickly turned into blood sugar, like sweets, bread, and alcohol. Eat more fiber which slows down the absorption of carbs. And get some high quality protein with every meal, which also will reduce the impact of the glucose. Third thing, building brain chemicals.
So think about it this way; the only way that your brain can get the building blocks it needs to make these neurotransmitters is from your food. Or from dietary supplements if you take them.
If you take the resilience quiz, you'll get more details about your food choices in your mini course, but here are some really quick suggestions. If you tend toward anxiety or feel really stressed, focus on healthy carbs. Things like root vegetables, whole grains, and fresh greens. You still need to get some quality protein with each meal, but not a lot. You don't need a lot. And then really watch the empty calories, like the refined carbs. You're burning through a lot of nutrients, so you do need to replace them, the good, healthy nutrients.
Now, if you tend to feel more moody, irritable, or agitated, if that's the subtype here, think about putting out a fire with your food. Focus more on your healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds, and things like avocado and coconut oils. And then think about getting foods that have lots of water content, salads, fresh fruits, other veggies. And you can actually cut back on protein maybe until you feel better because a modified vegetarian diet still has plenty of protein and it's not as activating or agitating. And then kind of be careful about not eating too many spicy foods.
And then if you feel like you're in that third category where you're tired and unmotivated and lethargic, you might actually need some more spice or more stimulation from your food.
So add more flavors, more heat, more protein, um, which does help you make more dopamine. You might even want to add some caffeine or dark chocolate, but be really careful, really careful, about alcohol and sweets.
Aimee: I actually love these lists as well because, you know, as we approach our food with more, curiosity and mindfulness, more awareness, every bite can be an opportunity to calm the system, or you just listen.
You're able to listen to your system more intuitively. I remember when pregnant I craved the spiciest foods on earth. Because I think I was so tired. I was, my body needed a little bit, uh, more energy. I would dump half a bottle of hot sauce at every meal. So it's wonderful to start to approach food in this, this way of curiosity and compassion, self-compassion.
It's really empowering, I think, and that's the approach that we like to take. I am, I'm also imagining that all of you listening are trying to take furious notes with Henry's, um, suggestions. Put the pen down. I should have told you that earlier. Head to the show notes for this episode, number 54, scroll to the bottom.
Um, you can find the full transcript, so everything you need, take the quiz, the resilience quiz at the website, and then you'll have your mini course. No notes needed. So we also wanna have more conversations like this in the future. I think we've heard some of you asking for that more on supplements and nutrition.
So do let us know if this is resonating with you, if you'd like to hear more of it. All right, so let's close this episode with some wisdom from psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge.
"The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself."
Thanks for joining us!: Thank you for listening to the Joy Lab podcast. If you enjoy today's show, visit JoyLab.coach to learn more about the full Joy Lab program. Be sure to rate and review us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.