The Mood Switch

While your emotional landscape is predetermined by genetics, there is a lot you can do about it

By Richard Labaki

Driving on the highway at the breakneck speed of 180 km/hour, George was in hyper-focus mode and all psyched up as he maneuvered his BMW between lanes. Heavy metal music bursting through the speakers, the scene could only be likened to that of a Jason Bourne car chase. Amidst this intense and potentially-dangerous situation, George glances briefly to his right to assess how I’m coping in the passenger’s seat. As he later described it, what he saw was not someone wide-eyed, physically tense and filled with fear but a person in a state of Zen savoring a grilled cheese sandwich. This took place a few decades back. And for as long as I remember, my reaction to stressful or highly charged situations was always one of calmness. When everyone around was getting all worked up over a given crisis, there I was keeping my cool under fire. This is in no way due to years of practicing deep meditative techniques on a mystical mountaintop, but simply a matter of character. And only recently have I begun to understand the genetic foundation of my inherent response to stress in general.

Breakthroughs in the realm of genetic research are revealing how certain genes could impact mood and play a major role in the predisposition to disorders such as anxiety and chronic depression. I have, for example, a certain gene that operates at a faster rate than usual, quickly clearing out “fight-or-flight” stress neurotransmitters like adrenaline and noradrenaline from my system. So in essence, my mind and body are able to remain calm most of the time, easily returning to normalcy after experiencing a nerve-racking event. But there is a downside to this as well. This gene, which is functioning at a rapid speed in my case, could also clear out dopamine very quickly, leaving the person unmotivated and low on energy. Dopamine, as you may know, is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter involved in excitement and thrills (you probably experience its uplifting effect after a workout, when falling in love and others.) The fact that all the aforementioned neurotransmitters do not stay for long in my system partially explains why I had been a classic daydreamer in the classroom during my schooldays. I was in essence the poster child of attention deficit disorder or ADD.

Breakthroughs in the realm of genetic research are revealing how certain genes could impact mood and play a major role in the predisposition to disorders such as anxiety and chronic depression

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have this same gene operating at a slower rate than normal. Consequently, they have ample focus, energy and enthusiasm. But they also have a hard time kicking back and relaxing – so much so that they cannot sleep well in most cases. Stress neurotransmitters stay in their system for far too long, causing them to be more prone to anxiety. So apparently, what could be the source of a certain strength (be it mental, psychological or physiological) could also be a form of kryptonite. Luckily, I have managed to strengthen my focus and boost my energy levels over the years – without letting go of my calm demeanor. But with the continuous research concerning gene expression, I can even go further now. You see, genes are not static. There is an interplay between our genetic makeup and the food we eat, the lifestyle we adopt and the environment in which we live. This science is called epigenetics. And while each one of us has a variety of genetic tendencies to certain characteristics, behaviors and health conditions, understanding those predispositions helps immensely. As a result of this understanding, we could then customize our way of eating and living to become a better version of ourselves. In other words, we could always tip the “genetic” scale in our favor: turning off or balancing the “bad” genes while keeping the good ones switched on.

While we all harbor psychological traits that stem from how we were raised and our individual experiences (both good and bad), our mood is largely affected by our genetic makeup, health status, and other influencing factors

And this is the basis of a recent discussion I enjoyed with a psychologist friend of mine. I argued that while we all harbor psychological traits that stem from how we were raised and our individual experiences (both good and bad), our mood is largely affected by our genetic makeup, health status, and other influencing factors. Treatments in the form of cognitive therapy and the likes are sure to help you become more aware of your psychological flaws and blind-spots, but you will not attain perfect mood balance by simply becoming more cognizant. If you suffer major nutritional deficiencies, if your gut flora is disrupted (90 percent of dopamine and serotonin is produced by the good bacteria in your intestines), and if your body is burdened with toxins then your mood will always be disrupted. Working with a qualified shrink to address psychological and mood issues could help a lot. But this alone remains insufficient if your diet, lifestyle and environment are not in tune with your biochemistry and genetic makeup. My friend could not agree more.

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Why You're Chronically Fatigued

By Richard Labaki

Imagine how much more productive your day could be if your body generated ample energy and was able to sustain it from morning till evening – think of how much more you could accomplish at the workplace and in your personal life as a result. The sad reality is that many people’s goals, dreams and aspirations are simply hindered by a lack of physical and mental energy.  "Fatigue" is a common complaint I often hear from people visiting for a consultation. This symptom seems to be pervasive regardless of the health condition – be it digestive, hormonal or any other. And the way most individuals attempt to address this problem is through the over-consumption of caffeine and energy drinks or through the intake of generic multivitamins. But the truth is none of these approaches ever work, especially over the long run. Why? Simply because “fatigue” is only a symptom that could emerge from a myriad of root causes. And unless these root causes are properly diagnosed and resolved then no amount of espressos or energy drinks will ever tackle the issue.

Fatigue is only a symptom that could emerge from a myriad of root causes. And unless these root causes are properly diagnosed and resolved then no amount of espressos or energy drinks will ever tackle the issue

Tired, exhausted, depleted    

Most people suffering from debilitating symptoms like chronic fatigue seek out a wonder drug, a “superfood” or a promising supplement they read about online. Their hope is that by taking a pill, eating some nutritious food or drinking a smoothie they would somehow put an end to their misery. However, this rarely makes any difference. To understand why you feel tired and lethargic all day long, you need to accurately pinpoint what is depleting your energy reserves (or impeding your body from generating the required energy in the first place.)

If, for example, you suffer from insomnia then resolving this matter should be a priority. The root cause of your fatigue in this case is the lack of proper sleep. You are just not sleeping deep enough or long enough to “recharge your batteries”. Solving this issue entails a holistic approach in terms of modifying your lifestyle habits and nightly rituals, improving your diet and probably ingesting a sleep-inducing supplement like Melatonin or Valerian.  

If you are deficient in certain nutrients like vitamin B12 (due to an imbalanced diet or gastric bypass surgery) then surely you will be feeling exhausted for most parts of the day. And the solution in this case is to supplement with a good vitamin B12 formula, modify your food choices and empower the digestive system to assimilate properly this crucial vitamin. So as you can see, for a solution to work it needs to factor in the root cause of your fatigue. 

Bear in mind that it is not always a matter of improper sleep or nutritional deficiencies. Others causes behind chronic fatigue include hormonal imbalance like hypothyroidism (a sluggish thyroid gland), heavy metal toxicity brought about by environmental and nutritional factors, chronic infections due to a weakened immune system, low levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut, high levels of oxidative stress and various other contributors. And for each of the aforementioned root causes is a specific healing approach. 

Engine at full throttle

It is often said that a problem defined is half-solved. Through a series of lab tests and in-depth questionnaires, a clearer picture will begin to emerge. And once it becomes apparent as to why you are constantly low on energy, a plan could be then put in motion to address whatever root causes are contributing to your fatigue. One of the most gratifying responses clients report after following a customized plan is how much more energy they have to conduct their best work, how much more time they are able to spend playing with their children and how much more confident they are in their mental and physical abilities. Many seem fixated on maintaining youthful looks nowadays and that is just fine; we all wish to look young for as long as we can. But what good would that do us if we look 10 years younger yet our energy levels continue to decline as we age. There is no point in looking youthful without being able to spring out of bed every morning and engage life with all our might!

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Only this “Diet”

By Richard Labaki

Bet the term “Diet” in the title is what caught your attention and drove you to read this article in the first place. And this is a clear indication of how important it has become for people to decide on what nutritional plan to adopt – be it for weight loss, health issues or both. Mind you, not always will a diet induce both body-fat burn and improved well-being. Many follow a specific diet that made them lose weight, their health and their mind simultaneously (mostly women fall into this trap.) And many become healthy adopting a certain diet, but weight loss is relatively slow to occur. Bear in mind that when I say “diet” I mean one that you manage to maintain indefinitely and not just for a few weeks or months. In other words, a “diet” is an element that should be part of your lifestyle. 

Keto, Paleo, Pegan, Vegan, Vegetarianism and on and on….

There is a tendency among those who follow a certain diet to become militant-minded in defending its principles while attacking other diets and their followers. We see this pattern especially in veganism/vegetarianism, since its followers entangle a scientific topic (nutrition) with their spiritual and moral beliefs. Killing animals for our nourishment is wrong, they argue. But scientific evidence that the human brain evolved only after humans started hunting and cooking animal meats is strongly established. Not to mention the fact that many nutrients detrimental to our health could only be found in animal meats/products like CoQ10, bio-available Vitamin B12, bio-available iron (plant-based iron is inferior and barely absorbed by the body) and other vital compounds. An argument I always use is why it is acceptable for a lion or a wolf to hunt and eat another animal but is ethically wrong for humans to do so. But before vegans/vegetarians vilify me and claim that Satan has my name tattooed across his chest, I wish to point out that I have an issue with almost every established diet that has been coming out over the past few decades.

But before vegans/vegetarians vilify me and claim that Satan has my name tattooed across his chest, I wish to point out that I have an issue with almost every established diet that has been coming out over the past few decades

Low-Fat, Low-Carb, Atkins, Paleo, Ketogenic, Raw and various other diets all have their strong points and their blind spots. Low-fat diet means limited supply of essential fatty acids that are crucial for cellular function, hormonal balance, mental performance, mood regulation and others. Low-Carb diet, though helpful at first in reducing one’s weight and safeguarding against cardiovascular diseases, leads to thyroid dysfunction, lethargy and other symptoms. High-Protein diets like Atkins and Paleo overload the body with too much protein causing digestive discomfort and kidney imbalances (not to mention that too much protein intake is linked to cancer.) Ketogenic diet, which is very high in healthy fat and low in carbohydrates, causes renal stones, intestinal disturbances (especially for those with dysfunctional gallbladder), arterial stiffness in some cases and other issues. And Raw-Food diet, which I refer to as the “Bloat Diet”, causes severe digestive discomfort for most. 

Those are just some of the symptoms and imbalances that each diet could cause. Now before you bombard me with emails claiming how great you feel on any of the aforementioned diets remember what I said in the beginning: A “diet” is one that should be sustained over a lifetime and not just over weeks, months or even a year. If your “diet” is currently working for you that doesn’t mean it will continue to do so forever.

A “diet” is one that should be sustained over a lifetime and not just over weeks, months or even a year. If your “diet” is currently working for you that doesn’t mean it will continue to do so forever.

The probability is your system will be taxed by the diet that you have been following at some point – not to mention that many diets, like Ketogenic, are so tough to maintain over a long period. A proper diet is simply one that a) is practical enough to be sustained for life and, b) balanced enough to provide you with all the necessary nutrients and in the right ratios that your body requires to function properly. And so far, no established diet could claim to do both – despite what the diet creators and adherents say or believe. 

The “You” Diet

A rule I have been applying ever since I started in this field is to decline taking on weight loss cases. And the reason is simple: Most of those aiming to bring down their weight are so fixated on this objective that they miss out on the important issues, which are vitality and well-being. They are willing to do whatever it takes to see those figures drop on the weight scale, even at the expense of their physiological and psychological health.

Another principle I believe in is that every individual requires a customized diet – one that takes into consideration his/her genetic makeup, health issues, digestive capacities, taste preferences and others. Some people are surprised when I tell them that certain “superfoods” that they have been reading about and ingesting are not suitable for them (whether temporarily or for life.) For example, artichokes are amazing for health and liver function but could cause discomfort for some with gut ailments. Spinach, while very nutritious, is very high in oxalates which are a source of trouble for those with kidney stones.

So as you can see, one-size-fits-all diets could be utterly disruptive and should be avoided. What you need to do instead is work on a nutritional plan that perfectly matches your genetic makeup and tackles your specific health concerns. It is a diet that will ultimately become part of your lifestyle while making you look good (more muscle tone and less body-fat and water retention) and feel good (heightened energy, better mood and increased mental sharpness.) And this should be the only diet that you abide by for life!

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