flwyd: (spam lite)
My friend Zooko has shared some very personal stories about mental health and diet, tied together with the narrative of his relationship with Aaron Swartz, who the Internet is still mourning. My comment on his second post may be of interest to readers of this journal.

I don't remember if it was my N.D. or the book she gives to new patients who said it, but the biggest insight I've ever heard about diet is "It's essentially impossible to lose weight while you're eating something you're allergic to."

I've learned that food and mood are connected in a way that's far less intuitive to us than food and physical sickness. If we eat a bunch of clams and then throw up the next day, we blame the clams. But if we eat a bunch of bread and then feel mopey the next day, we don't instinctively blame the bread.

When I stopped eating dairy products 20 years ago, I had an immediate (well, over a month) improvement in both mood and focus. I wasn't anything resembling bipolar, but I would often get pretty depressed about things. I attempted suicide by dehydration (a method which allows one to back out at any time). I frequently stayed home from school because I was just feeling "bleh." If one detail of a homework assignment didn't make sense, I might end up lying on the floor for hours crying about it. I'd start all sorts of passive aggressive fights with my brother.

Once milk was out of the picture, I became vastly more productive. I hardly missed any school. I rarely got upset. The pain and suffering in the world didn't make me want to kill myself. I stopped fighting with my brother. I got elected vice president of student council. I don't think my carbohydrate balance changed significantly, then or now. I eat a lot of whole grains and a mild amount of sweets.

My ex had a similar experience when she found out she was allergic to corn. She stopped picking fights about stuff that didn't matter. She was able to focus on reading. She didn't let things like a messy kitchen bother her. She stopped having bowel issues. She didn't have super-painful periods (and stopped taking pain relievers with corn as the inert ingredient). She spent a lot less time being sick in bed. She lost some weight. In recent years she's lost a lot more weight, possibly from cutting wheat from her diet. She still eats plenty of carbs; she's just picky about which.

For a subculture that loves delving deep into complex systems, a lot of us nerds and hackers don't know a lot about our own bodies. We've each got an amazing personalized work of distributed engineering with very limited documentation.

I don't know if Aaron had problems with too many carbs, like Amber. Or if he had problems with dairy, like me. Or if he had problems with wheat, like so many in the Venn diagram of Asperger's Syndrome and Geek Focus. Or if his brain didn't play well with some pervasive modern food additive. Nonetheless, there may be something to the theory that Aaron's gut-brain network was compromised.

Update, the next day: I just finished the thorough and interesting bio of Aaron Swartz in Slate. Near the end, it describes his last twenty-four hours:
Though Stinebrickner-Kauffman was feeling tired, Swartz was in high spirits, and insisted that they go meet some friends at a Lower East Side bar called Spitzer’s Corner. Swartz treated himself to two of his favorite foods: macaroni and cheese and a grilled cheese sandwich. The mac and cheese was mediocre, but Swartz and Stinebrickner-Kauffman agreed that the grilled cheese sandwich was among the best they had ever eaten.

On the morning of Jan. 11, one week after he’d insisted it would be a great year, Swartz woke up despondent—lower than Stinebrickner-Kauffman had ever seen him. "I tried everything to get him up," she says. "I turned on music, I opened the windows, I tickled him." Eventually he got up and got dressed, and Stinebrickner-Kauffman thought he was going to come with her to her office. But instead, Swartz said he was going to stay home and rest. He needed to be alone. "And I asked him why he had gotten dressed," says Stinebrickner-Kauffman. "But he didn’t answer."

Again, I have no idea what Aaron's gastrointestinal situation was like that. But if I had that kind of dramatic mood swing, I'd blame the cheese.
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