Planet of Microbes by Ted Anton: Links Depression/Anxiety to Gut

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If you watch the Big Bang Theory, read the Science section of the New York Times and live on the line where nature meets poetry, Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms by Ted Anton will engage you in the history and future of microbes. Anton is as much a historian of science as he is a creative nonfiction writer. Anton was my science writing professor at DePaul in graduate school. So after I finished his new book I decided to contact him for an interview to shed light on microbes and health, specifically how they affect mental health.

You don’t have to understand science to understand Anton. He explains without patronizing, probing to the depths of life’s origins. He writes about how microbes influence health, mental health, and horticulture; how they are found in astronomy; how they can be used to fight disease; and how they can tell us secrets about the origins of life.

Anton got the idea for this book from his previous book Bold Science (2000). “The book ended with a Yellowstone hotpool with two researchers found 80 new species of microbe, including examples of a whole new kingdom,” he said. “Life is way more diverse in terms of microbes than first saw.”

Microbes play a role in anxiety and depression. “There is a strong link from our gut to our brain,” he said. “Gut is known as the second brain. Trillions of microbes live in the gut giving us the butterflies and our gut instinct.” Lack of diversity or a Western diet induce serotonin uptake inhibitors in the brain. This is why studies say we should consume prebiotics/probiotics such as yogurt, beer, wine, or cheese. “It’s controversial so you should discuss with your physician,” he said. The studies are correlation studies not causation. Studies show that a lack of diversity in the microbiome are due to anti-biotics. This may cause increases in the diagnosis of autism, ADHD.

If science were a movie Anton shows you the scientists behind microbes discovery, including the behind the scenes details of their lives. Reading Planet of Microbes is like talking directly to scientists. Anton sets the scene to give you every last detail of their worlds.

Fitness Builds Self-Confidence and Adds to Mental Health

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John Zvonek has been in mental health recovery for 12 years since he was age 25.

“I had to find healthy habits,” he said. “I had to take my recovery seriously that meant no drinking, drugs and be as healthy as I could possibly be.”

He gained 80 pounds in one month because of his psych meds and so he began a journey into fitness. His first goal was to lose weight but after awhile he began to love it, making it his career by becoming a certified personal trainer. He discovered ways to let negative energy out through workouts and now helps others learn this trick.

“Exercise became an outlet. I do it for sanity not the vanity,” he said. “My goal is not to have a beachbody, my goal is to be mentally well.”

“Getting strong physically builds your mental health and your confidence,” Zvonek said.

Zvonek who is involved in youth mental health first aid, a NAMI peer facilitator and recently spoke on a panel for the NAMI Connecticut statewide conference in 2017, is a trainer at Body Temple Fitness in Wallingford, Connecticut where he works to get at the underlying reason people are in poor health in addition to giving them new exercises to do. He also teaches a candlelit yoga class, which is a warm safe place where people can find peace.

Using exercise to combat fears is another thing that helps him stay well. He did an Ironman with running, biking and swimming to combat his fear of water that he had since he was a child. Zvonek was afraid to stay up overnight that the lack of sleep would trigger his mental health. So he decided to combat this by hiking 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail. At certain points in the hike, he stayed in touch with a family member by walkee talkee and completed the hike beating his fear.

“I stayed healthy through that. There is nothing I can’t do because of my mental health issue. I just have to find a way to do it safely,” he said. “Fitness builds my self-confidence. I don’t feel I have something wrong with me and I feel like a million bucks.”

Zvonek hopes to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire this winter and Mt. Rainier in Washington state by summer.

“I hike to inspire clients by being a power of example of a healthy active lifestyle,” he said.

At home, he has a wife and 2-year-old daughter, who encourage his fitness endeavors.

“I try different things with my clients like biking, tennis, boxing. The biggest thing is to make someone leave feeling better than they walked through the door,” he said.

Zvonek says there are bodyweight exercises that you can do from home if you don’t have access to a gym. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats and pull-ups are all good. Using a stepper or just marching in place while watching television is great too.

“I started my fitness journey walking 15 minutes on a break from work,” he said. Today, he runs, does tai chi and yoga, weight lifts three times a week, hikes, bikes in the summer, and attends an occaisional Zuumba class when his schedule allows.

Suicide shouldn’t be a stigma anymore

Cat was 37 and in the middle of the worst manic episode of her life. She was confused, angry, depressed. Her stringy blonde hair framed her face giving her the appearance of the late Kurt Cobain. She had been walking the streets of Minneappolis and Chicago for a week. Her clothes dirty; her body battered. Cat jumped to her death from a south side Chicago overpass.
Cat was a gifted artist and poet who was trying to get out of the nursing home which housed her into independent living again. Her art and poetry told whimisical, magical stories unlike any other artist.
For me, Cat’s death brought out my own inner fears and demons. Dee Carstensen’s song “Hemingway’s shotgun” says it all when she sings “someday you’ll find it staring at yourself.” Chilling. Everyone will somehow one day find themselves relating to depression and suicide.
The non-profit organization To Write Love on Her Arms was born out of one man’s desire to help a friend struggling with self injury, suicidal impulses and addiction. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and invest directly into treatment and recovery according to their web site.
Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day. Each year 42,773 Amercans die by suicide according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This phenomenon can be prevented. People with mental health challenges need hope and help. Everyone can do something to help from supporting an organization that deals in mental health to reaching out to a friend in need.
I wrote a novella Brooklyn’s Song about a teenager grieving from a friend’s suicide and how she heals. It is available for purchase here on Amazon.

Mental Health Organizations you might get involved with or donate to:
Active Minds
helps college students deal with mental health challenges
This is My Brave
erases stigma by producing storytelling shows about mental health
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Depression Bipolar Support Alliance


You can’t Backpack through a Mental Hospital Or, Maybe, you can.

During college, while all my friends were backpacking through Europe or studying abroad, I spent my time in and out of psych hospitals. Sure I missed out on some terrific college experiences but I gained an education in a population who are discriminated against and marginalized. I decided I wanted to use my journalism skills and background to end stigma one story at at time. But I want to talk about what you can learn from being in a psych hospital.

You will meet all kinds of people with different diagnosis of different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds and sexualities. Your mind will be opened to what others have experienced but you are all united by mental illness. These illnesses don’t discriminate. Everybody can get them and many will over the course of a lifetime.

If you go to a place where art, writing, drama, music therapy are encouraged and funded, you will learn new tools for self-care. You will learn that creating art is a practice and you don’t have to start off good to tell your story. Your story matters in this fight to end discrimination. Find your medium and begin.

Medication is one way but not the only way. Electroshock, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, talk therapy are helpful too.

A low dose of medication is preferable, always. High doses can cause zombie-like feelings as well as health problems long-term.

You’re insurance will run out before you are ready to go home. Mental health care is expensive at the critical care level. It is important to follow closely an outpatient care plan such as taking prescribed medications regularly and seeing a therapist. These tools are less expensive than a stay in a mental hospital.

Medication can be expensive. Pharmaceutical companies have scholarships for people who can’t afford their meds. If you are low-income, look into your state’s Medicaid program. You can also buy meds by mail-order through Canada. I’ll talk about this one in a later post. There are also pharmacy discount cards like GoodRX and Walmart is a lot cheaper on some brands.

You will be able to wear your own clothes, except shoes. They will give you very comfortable slipper socks to wear. If you come in with clothes in bad repair from an episode, they will give you gowns to wear temporarily and later they’ll let you find sweats in the lost and found, a collection of things patients left behind or people donated.

You have rights. You can refuse any treatment they want to subject on you. You many want to have an advanced directive on file with treatments and medications listed you do and do not want. An advanced directive also has emergency contacts as well as who you want to visit you and who you don’t.

If your state has a legal aid clinic to help people with mental health conditions, ask them about a Patient Bill of Rights. In Connecticut, CLRP is a legal clinic that helps people from housing to discrimination.

You are allowed to keep a private journal in the hospital. If you need paper and something to write with, just ask.

Profile in Brave: Risa Sugarman

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I met Risa Sugarman as she was fighting with her insurance for a round of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to treat her depression. Risa struck me as a put-together, forty-something with short red hair and glasses. No one in the suburban town we’re both from would guess she had struggled with depression since college at Columbia University as well as borderline personality disorder.

“I want to be happy,” she told me when asked what she hoped for the future. “I want to get a hold of this illness and want my daughter to be healthy and a good person and my husband to be as strong as he is now and get to follow his dreams.”

Risa began a group working on their behaviors using dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive therapy that embraces mindfulness. She’s looking into transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Despite having short-term memory loss from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), Risa knows it works to get rid of her depression. She wrote a piece on Stigmafighters about the travails of being high-functioning. Daily she struggles feeling exhausted all the time, not sleeping well, no appetite, negative thoughts, constant questioning whether she’s a good mother and wife.

“By 3 p.m., I’m done and ready for pyjamas,” she said.

Risa also works a part-time job at the mall. She loves it because it gives her something to get out of herself. Trained as a social worker, she left this career for awhile when she became seriously ill. She did a little contract work in grant writing but it became clear that she needed something less stressful.

You can find Risa at http://risasreality.blogspot.com or on her column for the Huffington Post as well as many other places online.

Signs of Bipolar Disorder

I have lots of posts planned for the coming weeks/months. Bare with me as I get to writing them all. Some of them are journalism and it takes me longer to do these posts. For now, here’s a post about some symptoms I experienced during my episodes.

Google wants to tell me what the signs of a bipolar person are. I don’t need the warning. I have bipolar 1 disorder. I’ve spent years with therapists and psychiatrists going over my symptoms. I’ve been known to rapid-cycle on some occasions. Rapid-cycling means you go from manic to depressed sometimes within hours or a few days. No wonder I like spin class.

Ultra-talkative …until my words bubble over and I am talking so fast I no longer make sense.

Flights of Ideas… I have a million ideas I want to accomplish and as they keep coming they get more and more unpractical, sometimes even dangerous.

Impulsivity…I do and say reckless things.

Explosive anger…I confront people who I perceive have hurt me and scream at them

Hearing voices… inside my head start a running dialogue with me, constantly criticizing me as I go about what I’m doing

Paranoia I think the world is out to get me. I think people are doing bad things to me behind my back. I was bullied as a child and I think I have some PTSD from this.

Excessive Energy…I could exercise for hours or write pages and pages most of it psychotic crap

Grandiosity…I have inflated sense of self-esteem and of my accomplishments. Sometimes I can tell people I have skills that I never even studied.

My Depressions… Most of the time I can function but function barely. Forget the make up or a nice dress, I’ll wear yoga clothes everywhere. Voices beat me up inside my head and my ability to self-talk becomes a beat myself up opportunity. Old regrets become dark and dangerous. Cutting leads to suicidal feelings. I’ve been suicidal but never had the means to finish the job. Thank God.