Trailing through the reams of research and stuffy articles on digestive health and autoimmune conditions, the human story can sometimes get a bit lost. For instance, there’s a great deal of focus on symptom complaints and potential remedies but little on the significance and meaning of the struggle and the way it shapes our lives. Join me in this three part conversation with kindred spirit Jonny, as we explore the history and experience of our own gut problems and the change it brought to our lives.
Darren: Hey Jonny! The reason why I was so moved by your story, much like my own, is that we haven’t been passive to the experience of being sick. In fact, it seems to have been very transformational for us in terms of our own research and the different life choices we have had to make in order to heal; essentially changing the way we live and relate to others. I’d like to invite people into that perspective through our conversation – looking at the experience of two people that have become active in social change around health and their story as it relates to healing the gut.
Jonny: Yeah – let’s do it!
Darren: So – tell me a bit about your story? I would like to hear about where you are now? What’s your perspective on the history of your illness and recovery?
Jonny: There were a number of significant events leading up to my getting ill – it’s only recently become clear that they contributed in a big way to my illness. For instance, when I first got ill, I had no need to question my lifestyle. I just thought that it was a dose of antibiotics that destroyed my gut.
When I was younger everything was so easy for me. I was an Olympic athlete, I went to grammar school and I had perfect results in everything; I was very popular and played every sport under the sun. I went to America on a scholarship to play sport – but unfortunately things didn’t work out. I returned to the UK after that to work in a corporate bank. I earned a lot of money and lived the 9-5 lifestyle, spending a lot of money on drugs at the time.
I think the antibiotics that fucked up my gut were the straw that broke the camels back in a way. You know, there are people that stay on antibiotics for years and yes they have health problems, but they don’t enter the virtually psychotic states that I entered into after an initial six month treatment.
When I first embarked upon the holistic path to healing I focused solely on healing my gut and I found that I did make a lot of progress through diet; doing the candida protocol; doing the iodine protocol, having my mercury amalgams removed, going on a heavy metal detox, juicing etc – I did a lot of meditation too.
But it wasn’t until I went down the route of self-reflection through psychotherapy… I would say my actual gut health, ironically, seems to have improved more after looking at why I got to that point of complete overload. Why did the antibiotics tip me over? It was that whole prelude of looking at my life up until that point that became very significant to my healing.
Now I can see that in the time leading up to when I got ill I had turned off from the world – every year I was becoming more and more self absorbed in my bubble of what was becoming patterns of terrible behaviour – mindless consumerism, a poor relationship, living in a house which was a terrible environment for me. So yes, there’s a lot of things that have gone wrong in my gut, but my gut is very much connected to so many aspects of who I am, who I am as a person, my psyche – trauma, anger, regret, passion, love.
Darren: Resonates completely.
Jonny: Personally, I’ve had a few experiences with DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) in previous years. Every time I use DMT I get this incredible surge of pain in my stomach and I feel like there is a monster lurking there. I enter a bit of a battle when I do DMT. When I see friends on it they’re transfixed by colours and beauty – but I’m writhing about in pain? It’s only through self-reflection and psychotherapy that I’ve started to explore this ‘monster’ in my gut; It’s related to things that have happened to me in the past, things that I’ve internalised over the years and things that have been passed down the line from my parents and my family.
Such intense pains are a bit strange as I don’t tend to get digestive pains anymore. They’ve subsided – they come back a little if I drink milk, eat gluten or have some yeast. My gut is generally quite stable compared to where it was, which is why I believe I have done an incredible amount of healing on the physical level but I have much deeper psycho-spiritual levels to delve into.
Darren: I think you raise two important points. This notion that you inherit the pain and suffering of your parents – there is certainly some residue of that at both the cognitive and somatic level for all of us. In regards to the psychedelic and entheogenic experience as a way of tuning in and understanding what’s being held in the body, my own experience is also of very intense sensations and feelings whilst being in that state of consciousness. My experience is of some kind of blockage, of there not being adequate ‘flow’ or movement energetically within the body. Essentially I think this relates to some early trauma and is what underpins to some extent the digestive issues I have. The health of my gut is linked completely to the way I relate to the world, the emotions I carry – the fear, anxiety, anger and so on. I think this is borne out by work in the field of psychotherapeutic bodywork. For example, Welhelm Reich’s work around character structure and armor is a good place to start.
I think healing the gut demands a truly holistic approach and demands that we stretch the limits of what we currently understand and practice as ‘holistic’. There clearly isn’t one way into healing the gut – and even colleagues in alternative health circles need to be challenged on this point sometimes, not just biomedical practitioners who work through a very narrow lens. There’s obviously so much more going on than what happens at the level of biology.
What I’d like to hear though – is a little bit more about the actual experience of when your gut became compromised post antibiotic use and a little bit more on the awakening to a more holistic perspective on health and healing?
Jonny: Cool. Back to when I was working in a bank and consuming mindlessly – things that I would class as escapism – I was spending a lot of money on stimulants and partying. When I was about 21 I suddenly developed acne which was very surprising – as there was no history of it in my family and I had perfect skin as a child and a teenager. It was really unusual to get really deep sebaceous cysts which were like horns on my head. Very painful. The doctor at the the time took one look and didn’t seem very interested. He prescribed me antibiotics and said that would get rid of it. I trusted the doctor at that time – I had no reason to question medical science as I’d had very little engagement with the field. I had a very healthy childhood. The acne disappeared within three weeks – however, after about four months, I began displaying various symptoms whenever I ate cereal, which at the time was apparently a healthy diet as far as I was concerned – you know, low fat, don’t eat butter, wholegrains and all that stuff!
Darren: haha! It’s terrifying isn’t it! The mainstream advice on what correct nutrition is! Especially when you contrast it with what is appropriate nutrition – where the main precepts completely challenge mainstream dietary advice.
Jonny: Yeah, anyway – my normal breakfast of oats, honey and milk would start to cause me bloating, terrible wind and pain on the way to work. There was also a real change in my energy too. This developed to where I would get sweats after having cereal and milk in the morning. I’d basically feel like shit. After a month of this I went out for some beers with friends and woke up the next day with the most horrendous diarrhea compounded by an awful panic attack. The only way I can describe it is as if my brain was on a treadmill – my thoughts were racing at a speed I’d never experienced before. I had a terribly hot core but my limbs were freezing. The panic attacks continued and I had to take time off work; my appetite declined and my mental health spiraled. I finally went to the doctors who said I had a virus and to stay on the antibiotics that I was on. I started to loose lots of weight in the following weeks, my mood dropped and all my social activities stopped too. I ended up going to my Dads for a weekend of rest and recuperation – it was when I was with him that I started to have suicidal thoughts for the first time. I’d never had any mental health problems up until this point. It really threw me. My mental health continued to decline until I became completely delusional – I’d lost the plot. I didn’t know what was happening, I struggled to talk – my parents had to take me to the doctors as I was incapable of driving. He put me on antidepressants.
It was my parents who did the initial bit of research online and said that there were lots of testimonies from people who had taken antibiotics and ended up with stomach problems, IBS and depression.
Darren: Which antibiotic were you on at the time?
Jonny: Lymecycline. Part of the tetracycline class of antibiotics. Total broad spectrum nuclear bomb – it’s like putting a nuclear bomb in a fish pond to kill a bit of algae overgrowth.
I was on SSRI’s too – you know, they usually say that you get worse before you get better on SSRI’s. Well at this point I was very sick, I lost so much weight I looked liked a holocaust victim. I was totally cut off from the world – it was like being in an acid trip that was the most horrendous trip you could imagine. I slept for twelve hours a day and couldn’t get out of bed. I struggled to be in a room without my mum because my anxiety was so bad. After six months of this – after having to do CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) just to leave the house and see friends again, my digestion improved slightly and I went back to work but still left with residual anxiety and also OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I couldn’t handle any stress though and began to experience real fatigue and exhaustion. I slowly realised that my job wasn’t fulfilling me – I started to ask what I was doing with my life.
Darren: Before we get onto that… I wanted to pick up on the parallel. My own experience was very similar. I spent four months on antiobiotics as prophylaxis when I went travelling in the East four years ago. The specific antibiotic was Doxycycline I think. My mental health immediately suffered after returning from the trip. I’d had mental health problems in the past – I’d also had a lot of other courses of antibiotics in the past too. But not to the severity after returning from the trip. The first insight of my medical doctor at the time was to prescribe SSRI’s, much like you – totally missing the point that the mechanism that was causing the distress – the depression, the OCD and related anxiety was a disturbance in gut ecology.
Jonny: Yeah, I mean the concept of serotonin – that in itself is flawed in many ways. Two things come to mind with serotonin – you can measure serotonin levels in the body via a blood test. That’s no indication of what is actually going on in terms of the brain and then the gut and then the serotonin neurotransmitters that are throughout the body.
As far as I am aware you can’t measure what the efficiency or the use or the level of serotonin is in the synapses of the axons – you can measure what the levels of serotonin are in the blood, which the NHS don’t do anyway – but if they did do it, it doesn’t relate to the levels of serotonin that are in the brain or in the gut. Secondly, the SSRI works as a selective re-uptake inhibitor. It allows the serotonin to cross over into the synapse of the axons but stops the re uptake; the theory being that within the synapse the serotonin is allowed to stay there and somehow that improves our mood because the re-uptake of it is stopped. Again, this seems flawed. Why wouldn’t you concentrate on increasing the serotonin through nutrition, which you can do by encouraging more tryptophan in the diet which is an amino acid that converts to serotonin. You can find huge amounts of tryptophan in bananas, chicken…
Darren: There’s also 5HTP..
Jonny: Yeah! That’s the pre-cursor, proven to cross the blood brain barrier..
Darren: I guess, remarkable effects of 5HTP on conditions like IBS too?
Jonny: Yeah, there’s been some really interesting published research on 5HTP too – a lot of it compiled into a great book called 5HTP: the natural way to overcome depression, obesity and insomnia by Michael murray. I think the serotonin theory is massively debatable – there’s a complete disparity of correlation in levels of serotonin in the blood and peoples quality of life or mental health. For example, some people have very low levels of serotonin levels and may be absolutely fine but someone who has depression may have normal levels of serotonin – one of the first studies to show this disparity was published in in 1976 by Asbert (1). Serotonin levels are just part of the picture, a very small aspect – there’s an incredible amount of things going on, whether that’s toxicity in the body, energetic imbalances due to trauma, nutritional deficiencies, other neurotransmitter deficiencies – you know serotonin is just one aspect.. you have dopamine, gabareceptors…
Darren: Which all perform and act synergistically I guess. The body it seems is an ecological system – you can’t look at one unit of the body and try to map from that exactly what is going on?
Jonny: You’ll find in orthodox medicine a lot of the drugs are obviously patented – but they are for conditions they will make money on. You can’t patent 5HTP, it’s an amino acid and it’s made for peanuts. You can buy 100 pills for between £10-15 and it will last you a couple of months. Compare that to Zoloft and Prozac / Sertraline – they were really expensive when they first came out. They are still riding out on the fact that people don’t have access to this information. I had to deal with the side effects of all of those drugs. I remember having terrible insomnia for example after going on SSRI’s. I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep and it completely disturbed my energy system – like a sensation of electricity running thought the body. When I did get to sleep I wouldn’t wake refreshed. They also effected my erections – when I got an erection, I couldn’t orgasm.
Darren: That’s really interesting – the point about orgasm. Would you say that your overall sensitivity was reduced too?
Jonny: It’s a very common side effect of SSRI’s actually. Even after coming off the SSRI’s my sex drive has returned – but my sensitivity has been compromised still definitely. There seems to be some lasting damage in that area in terms of decreased sensitivity. I found when I did some research years ago and found out about quite a number of law suits that had been taken out by a number of males that were experiencing lack of sensitivity and also impotence. A good book out at the moment is the ‘Emperors New Drugs’ by Irving Kirsch – it’s basically about the SSRI ‘hoax’; basically the terrible hypothesis and flawed research that they are founded on. When you look at the media support for products like this, you can usually trace anything supportive back to someone who has an invested interest.
Darren: Yeah – I mean if you look more broadly at clinical trials – the much vaunted ‘randomised control trial’ that is seen as the gold standard of scientific ‘proof’ – they are nearly always backed by pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in them, with the outcome usually being in their favour. I mean this is pop research – easily findable. I think Ben Goldacre mentions it in one of his books.
Okay Jonny – let’s catch up soon in the next segment!
- Asbert, M. (1976). Serotonin depression: A biochemical subgroup with the affective disorders?Science,191, 478-80; Asberg, M., (1976). 5-HIAA in the cerebrospinal fluid.Archives of General Psychiatry33, 1193-97.