Enough is enough: no more lies about vitamins and antidepressants

Regain Body Wisdom

AntiDepressants-FE01-wide-horizontalI was not surprised when three recent studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested people are wasting their money on multivitamins and minerals to no avail.

“In conclusion, β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases (…) supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.” (Annals)

Pharmaceutical companies such as Baxter (Oneaday multivitamins) or Pfizer (Centrum) haven’t precisely proven impeccable ethics or that they truly work for the benefit of their clients.

Instead, they have excellent lobbying, public relations and marketing skills. They have pushed vitamins on us for decades, convincing the public…

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The intelligent immune system

Sports-Nutrition-runner
Living healthy can prevent almost any illness. Healthy environment, diet and stress reduction strategies are key to health.

Fifty years ago, we knew little about the immune system. Back then, only a handful of illnesses were classified as autoimmune conditions where the immune system doesn’t recognize proteins normally present in the body and attacks its own cells. Today, researchers have found that autoimmune responses explain about at least 10 percent of the diseases that affect the planet’s population; among them, diabetes (type I), lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name only the most common ones. But other conditions such as ulcerative colitis and even schizophrenia are possibly linked to autoimmune responses. Furthermore, coronary disease has been related to the efficiency of the immune system in clearing up plaque deposits in the arteries of the heart.

By the end of the 19th century, when vaccines were invented, Louis Pasteur discovered germs as the cause of many illnesses and later bodily reactions to specific microorganisms, like the tuberculosis Koch’s bacillus, were identified, confirming the existence within the body of the immune system. Initially, immunity was conceptualized as a defense army in charge of destroying an enemy, concept that reflects a predominantly martial mentality in society. Mainstream western medicine still holds this concept. However, a holistic approach will more accurately reflect the amazing immune system.

Researchers Koch and Pasteur inaugurated a craze where most illnesses started to be explained as caused by germs. In the early 1940s, viruses were found capable of generating illness, and the sixties and seventies saw a great boom in virology, when researchers tried to establish a causal relationship between viral infections and cancer. This causal relationship has however not been confirmed. In some cases, like the infection by papilloma virus (HPV) there seems to exist a strong correlation to cervical cancer in women. However, scientific evidence points to chronic inflammation (not the viral infection) as the precursor of cancer. Take into account that inflammation is modulated by the immune system and that our inflammatory response depends on our lifestyle.

Science has advanced  a great deal. Studies have established that human bodies continuously produce cancer cells but thanks to an immune system capable of recognizing misbehaving cells, cancer can be prevented. By isolating, reeducating and/or destroying those crazy cells, the immune system can keep us cancer free. A clear relationship between cancer and the immune system has thus been established. When the immune system is not working optimally, cancerous cell growth might go out of control.

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, investigators have plunged into studying what exhausts the immune system, contributing very interesting insights into its multiple functions.

Beyond this concept of the immune system as an army that chases, confronts and destroys invaders, the immune system is a self-governing network that participates in the body’s learning process, and is responsible for both its molecular identity and the biochemical communication between organs. That’s why author Fritjov Capra deems it our second brain.

Different from other bodily systems, which are confined to a precise anatomic location, the immune network penetrates each tissue of the body. It is made of a number of tissues and organs (lymphatic organs) and specialized cells (lymphocytes and macrophages or white blood cells) that swim back and forth along the circulatory system during surveillance missions, gathering data to ensure the organism’s accurate functioning.

This extraordinary system learns and evolves with experience! From the moment we are born, the immune system learns how to react to unfamiliar agents. It learns to discriminate which molecular features typify bacteria that are usually not present in mammals. It also recognizes the body’s idiosyncratic proteins. Vaccines are developed based on the immune system’s capacity to memorize how to react to alien proteins.

There is also a kind of natural selection taking place in the thymus, where only T-cells (a specific kind of immune cells) that have learned to unite harmoniously with other cells in the organism can survive.

The thymus is one of the most important organs of the immune system. It is a small gland situated behind the breastbone (sternum) and is fundamental in shaping the way in which the body responds to infections. Half of the white blood cells, which originate in the bone marrow, go directly to the blood stream and interstitial fluids. But the rest of them have to go through the thymus where they become T-cells. These have three main roles: to stimulate the production of antibodies and other lymphocytes, to stimulate the growth and function of phagocytes that ingest and digest viruses and bacteria, and to identify foreign or abnormal proteins.

Many immune system organs function as gatekeepers. This is the case of the lymph nodes (in the neck, armpit and groin), the tonsils and the Peyer’s patches in the intestine. The lymphatic fluid, or lymph, goes through these customs checkpoints where lymphocytes capture particulate matter and microorganisms and decide if they should be granted admission to the system or not. Another lymphatic organ, the spleen, is in charge of recycling old and dysfunctional cells.

This amazing system only uses its defensive resources when facing a massive invasion of foreign agents.

Recent research shows that the brain, the endocrine glands and the immune system cooperate and share functions. Moreover, the borders that science had delineated between these systems start to blur, bringing opportunities for new understandings of the body’s functioning. Candace Pert used the term net to describe these systems, because their function encompasses a constant exchange, processing and storage of information. Most substances in charge of transmitting information in the body are peptides, and recent research has shown they are multifunctional; they accomplish different functions for different systems.

For example, the brain produces neuropeptides that are antibacterial precursors; the immune system has perceptual functions, and the endocrine system produces substances that work as neurotransmitters. Initially deemed exclusive to the nervous system, the neurotransmitters have also been found in the bone marrow, where the immune system cells are produced.

The three systems are thus, multifunctional. They form a network that exchanges, stores and passes on information, using peptide molecules as messengers. But, also, our physiology is modulated by emotions. Popular wisdom, which results from observations transmitted from generation to generation, has always correlated emotional stress with vulnerability to illness, and science has proven that our thoughts, mood and emotions influence the functioning of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

In a nutshell, science is telling us that we can regulate the production and efficiency of our inner messengers (peptides) by adopting healthy lifestyles. It’s telling us to eat healthy, have fun (to reduce stress) and exercise.

On Mothers, patriarchy and false expectations

When, many years ago, I read Funerales de la Mamá Grande by Nobel Prize García Márquez, the figure of the ‘Big Mama’ the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” didn’t sound like a hyperbole to me. I had already lived in Colombian towns where mothers were idolized and motherhood overrated to extremes.

Idolization of the mother figure, presented as a glorification of the feminine, is rather an inheritance from patriarchal times. Overstretched images of female beauty or saintly motherhood, a strategy used to cover up oppression, has contributed to patriarchy burying women’s voices and dominating social action to the benefit of men and detriment of women.

The more I traveled and met people, the more I witnessed how among Hispanics, moms respond to the supermom myth by overdoing their maternal role. We don’t have to go very far to find the overprotective, the intrusive, the co-dependent or the abusive mothers. And maybe, because we were immersed in such culture, all of us bear at least traces of each of these. Mea culpa! I confess my sins.

Many Latino mothers’ lives revolve around their offspring, and their ‘care’ can become asphyxiating. Which explains why it’s not infrequent to find awfully dependent adult children in our culture.

We also often find mothers overwhelmed with guilt, blaming themselves for their children’s shortcomings, feeling pushed to behave up to impossible expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ be.

If we were to be totally truthful to ourselves, Mother’s Day could each year be the perfect timing to examine unfinished business with moms, assess our current relationship with them and even quit seeking the impossible ideal of a mother that only has existed in our minds.

‘Good-enough’ mothers

To help average moms overcome guilt and shame about not being perfect, English psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mothers” in 1953.

Those were the days when psychology research started to support earlier Freudian thoughts that interactions between mother and child during the early years were central to the development of the child’s inner world. Mothers, paralyzed with uncertainty about the extent to which their deficits could affect their brood, flooded pediatricians’ offices.

Providentially, psychology also discovered that it’s the frustrations stemming from mother’s impossibility to attend her child’s every need what challenges the child’s forcing him to adapt to reality.

So, in a way, what Winnicott was telling moms was: dare to err. Your children might even learn to appreciate those mistakes as opportunities to mature and grow!

I’ve seen mothers doing sacrifices that children should acknowledge and praise. Many mothers proffer unconditional love; their hearts healing from wounds caused by insensitive accusations or blaming by their offspring, made in a moment of rage.

No doubt. Exemplary women, who forgive faults that only their mother’s heart could forgive, also exist. And, yes, many moms are available when things go oops! for their children.

But there are also dark sides to this story.

‘Good children’ and ‘not good-enough’ mothers

Let’s take the times of the infamous Colombian narco Pablo Escobar, when sicarios justified horrible crimes as means to meet the terms of their ‘duties’ as good sons. They were determined to take their moms out of poverty. Sadly enough, many of these mothers gladly and gratefully or at least silently received dirty money not even asking where it came from, as if ignoring the truth would made the misdeeds right!

Studies showed that most of the above moms were awfully permissive. It’s difficult to believe that Pablo Escobar’s mother herself never thought of his son as a criminal.

History offers many cases of mothers who used their children for profit. Far from being ‘good enough’ mothers, these moms – maybe forced by poverty and lack of methods for birth control -exploited their children. This was common in the early days of industrialization, when parents gave up their 5-year-olds to sweatshops for survival. These children worked 16 hours in a row; tied with chains and whipped to force them work beyond their capacity.

Even to this day, millions of children are exploited or neglected and abused in the world.

Not all moms are created equal

It’s easy to see that motherhood is in no way the same for all moms. While some rave on their experience, others may have trouble bonding with their child.

Many women decide to hand on their child’s care on to another person so they can carry on with their careers. Some openly neglect their children out of lack of knowledge about their parental role, lack of energy, mental illness or deficient love. And there are even moms who consistently say and do terrible things to their children, scarring their lives forever.

But in all truth, we have all been marked in some way by our mother’s mistakes. Moms are human! They will never be up to our idealistic expectations.

The consequences of prizing maternity too highly

I wish that we could from an early age understand that mothers can’t (won’t) be perfect.

Myths about mothers that continue lingering in our society, on one hand promote adoration of mothers and on the other hand allow for all the blaming mothers take for the weaknesses and shortcoming of their offspring.

Another troublesome aspect of valuing maternity too high is that women who decide they won’t have children tend to be seen as unsuccessful by their peers. Pressure comes from their families and friends. The choice of not having children seems unbelievable in a world that thinks a woman finds realization in maternity.