DIY Brain Chemistry

I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

I don’t want to call it “research,” because looking up a bunch of studies isn’t really the same as designing an experiment or compiling a meta analysis, but it’s a lot of reading nonetheless.

See, for years, I’ve been trying to find ways to mitigate some Brain Things. It isn’t purely panic disorder, because there are some very evident physiological aspects to that aren’t really adequately explained by anxiety. It also isn’t purely physical, either.

The first doctor I ever discussed it with was my pediatrician. I was thirteen, had begun experiencing regular panic attacks, and my mother was tired of it.

“It’s anxiety,” he said. And that was it.

It went untreated for years — I was told it was all in my head, that the liver absorbs adrenaline in under a minute (lol what), and there was no reason for any panic attack to last longer than that. This left me with two things:

  1. A raging, untreated panic disorder.
  2. A diagnosis of anxiety.

Getting diagnosed with anxiety is a curse in its own right, particularly if you’re medically female. Women’s pain is often ignored as it is, particularly for black women. If you have a history of anxiety and depression, it is downright impressive how many medical conditions it’ll get blamed for. (Like the time I was given SSRIs to treat a symptomatic hemangioma. Fun!)

SSRIs didn’t do much for me, and I want to stay away from benzodiazepines. I’ve got a bottle of generic alprazolam for emergencies, I’ve tried CBT, I meditate, I carry a charged amethyst, I’ve got a bottle of magnesium oil in my nightstand, I consume more chamomile than the entire Roman empire, and I spend most days smelling like Provence in the spring. They help, but not enough.

There's gotta be a better way!
There’s gotta be a better way!

Someone I knew briefly talked about his luck with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). He had a lot of odd theories attached to it, so I didn’t pay it much mind at the time, but lately I’ve wanted to give it another look. As someone with some extremely excitable neurons and a diet that’s pretty naturally high in glutamate, the GABA-glutamate balance caught my interest.

Glutamate is excitatory, where GABA is inhibitory. When people talk about being sensitive to MSG, it’s possible that they are really feeling what happens when increased uptake of free glutamate throws this balance out of whack. There are medications that increase GABA activity, like tranquilizers, but I’m trying to avoid using them on more than an emergency basis if I can manage to. A lot of them have a high potential for abuse, and some have extremely nasty withdrawals.

So, is there another way to reconfigure my GABA-glutamate balance? There’s eating less free glutamate, but that’s not necessarily going to increase GABA levels or activity on its own. Some people take GABA as a supplement, but there is not enough evidence to conclude that this is actually effective.

This leaves me with one question: how can I increase my endogenous GABA? Without relying on tranquilizers to boost its activity, or by taking questionable exogenous GABA supplements, what do I do? Some foods are purported to be sources of GABA, like mackerel and wheat bran, but these might run into the same issues as exogenous GABA supplementation when it comes to actually getting GABA where it needs to be. There are foods (like chamomile tea) that contain flavonoids that influence how GABA works, but that doesn’t really correct a deficiency in it.

What’s left? Germs.

As it turns out, they’re really good at pumping it out. There is some evidence that the GABA from certain strains of lactobacillus might be a better bet, for me, than tranquilizers or exogenous GABA. I don’t think any human studies have been conducted thus far (the only one I could find used mice), but it sounds promising. If nothing else, probiotics don’t really hurt, right?

What was most interesting to me about the mouse study was the fact that it used L. rhamnosus. I’ve been collecting studies on L. rhamnosus because, as someone with allergies, it’s really interesting stuff. I was also pretty excited to read about L. rhamnosus’ potential effect on the vagus nerve — as anyone who’s ever had to perform a Valsalva maneuver to slow their heart down in the midst of a panic attack, it works, but giving yourself a brute-force nerve massage is not a super good time.

L. rhamnosus has some other advantages, too. For one, I’ve never heard of anyone suffering from addiction, withdrawal, or unwanted side effects from a probiotic, other than gas. It’s also cheap and pretty readily available. Best of all, it’s not likely to interact with my already-broken brain in any unique and terrible ways. (The list of medications you can’t take when you have idiopathic intracranial hypertension is long and ridiculous. I’m not even allowed to have Tums, for crap’s sake.)

Will a capsule full of gut germs be the answer? I don’t know, but I’m willing to give it a shot.










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