So, right now in my Anatomy & Physiology class, we’re studying the nervous system.* I find this infinitely more fascinating than, say the difference between skeletal and smooth muscle. The brain is a crazy, crazy thing (pun unintended, but a happy accident) that I have always found completely fascinating. For a while I considered going back to school in psychology rather than dietetics, but two things held me back.
Firstly, it would require not just another bachelor’s but another master’s, meaning five additional years of school instead of three.
Secondly, considering I have my own issues with depression/anxiety (thank you, crappy autoimmune system), spending my life burying myself in other people’s depression/anxiety is probably not the best option for me. Conversely, people in the dietetics/wellness field all seem to be ridiculously peppy and cheerful all the time. The way I see it, it will be much better for my mental health in the long run to be around happy people 40 hours a week.
As someone who basically grew up in a library, took some psych classes for fun as an undergrad, and has known a few therapists, I feel I have my fair share of information about how the brain works on an emotional level. But I’ve found this stuff about how the brain works on a chemical level so interesting! I mean, as an English person, someone who always prided herself on, you know, having a soul and reading “Literature” (said with a British accent, of course) and understanding the heart of the universe. Math and science and all that seemed, while important, like something for drones; you only enjoyed it if you had a calculator where your heart should be.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but all those jokes on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory about the rivalries between humanities and business/science departments? Totally true.
So anyway, I really only became interested in dietetics because it impacted my life personally. I was diagnosed with celiac disease when I was 17, and my health has become steadily worse since. More diagnoses, more diseases, more susceptibility to things like the flu and bronchitis and walking pneumonia (which just took me down for the last two weeks). Dietetics (and a tattoo, but that’s a story for another time) have become the only way that I feel like I have control over my body (in a healthy way).
Enter the new bachelor’s degree and my new classes, which, as I said, I am enjoying way more than I thought I would.
Which brings me back to the nervous system and how the brain works.
Emotional vs. chemical: it’s English vs. Science, heart vs. head, soul vs. calculator all over again!
I had a handle on the emotional stuff. I know it pretty well. I was comfortable with it. And then came the science, and it rocked my freaking world.
So let’s break it down, in my student-ese.**
Basically, your brain produces these chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the body’s way of communicating. The brain or spinal column sends them out to nerves everywhere else in your body to tell you how to feel, move, etc, and then your nerves send more neurotransmitters back telling the brain or spinal column about things it’s feeling, sensing in the environment, and so on. Neurotransmitters are the way our bodies function.
One of the things that amazes me about studying the human body is the huge number of places where one little cell can go whacky and the entire body is pretty much screwed. Neurotransmitters are one of those things. When you hear people say that depression is a chemical problem, they’re talking about neurotransmitters. When you get sleepy after eating too much turkey on Thanksgiving, that’s neurotransmitters. When you drink Red Bull to pull an all-nighter during finals week, that’s neurotransmitters. When your cat scratches your legs because she’s sleeping on your lap and had a bad dream and so digs in her claws, and you scream and jump up off the couch, that’s many, many neurotransmitters moving really, really quickly.
Like I said, crazy.
Anyway, there are a bunch of different neurotransmitters, and they all provoke or prevent different types of reactions in the body. The three that interest me the most (because they have to do with psychology) are dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. If you’ve ever dealt with anxiety or depression, or seen a Zoloft commercial, odds are you’ve heard of at least one of these too. Dopamine and norepinephrine are excitatory (aka they give us energy, happiness, desire to get up and at ’em), and serotonin calms us down.
Here is a very simplified version of how neurotransmitters move in the body: Two nerve ends (synapses) are near each other. One lets loose some neurotransmitter (say serotonin) into the space between them (which is called the synaptic cleft. This name makes me giggle for some reason – like the serotonin is flowing around Superman’s chin, or something). The other synapse absorbs the amount of serotonin it thinks it needs, and then some enzymes come around and clean up the leftover serotonin chilling in the cleft that’s unneeded.
What happens when someone is depressed is that the nerves are unable to tell exactly how much serotonin needs to be taken in. Too much is left in the cleft and cleared away by the enzymes, and not enough is taken up by the second synapse. Alternatively, or simultaneously, the first nerve may not even be making enough in the first place. And this progresses on from nerve to nerve. So when you take an antidepressant, what the medication is actually doing is telling your nerves, “hey, quit leaving so much serotonin laying around. You need that shit!” And possibly, “hey, quit slacking! Make more of this!”
I had no idea that this was what was happening with an antidepressant. To be honest, the idea of medications that mess with the brain kind of scared the crap out of me. It felt like, if you mess with your brain, you lose yourself. And yes, of course, there are side effects and other issues to take into consideration, but learning about this actual process made things seem so much simpler and more logical.
As a side note, I also learned that drugs like cocaine completely wipe out your nerves’ ability to sense when they’ve made enough neurotransmitter and when they’ve absorbed enough, which is why you feel so good at first, and why later the nerves can malfunction so badly. They’re flooded with their own life force.
The body uses specific nutrients to make the various neurotransmitters, and there is some research out there to suggest that some dietary changes can mildly help with mood because they aid production and uptake of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. But more on that next time.
*I like to start posts as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation. Ten bonus points if you can name that movie reference. Hint: it involves Meg Ryan.
**And please, as always, bear in mind, I am a student. In level 1 A&P. I am not yet an RD and am most definitely not an MD.