Gut it Out

I don’t finish every book I start. I can look at my bookshelf at this moment and see three of them that I started and yet – I have left them for the future. Does that make me a book gigolo? Nope, just ADD, with a big dose of ASD, and some plain old “bored quickly” mixed in.

Finally, I finished a book last month. Brain Maker by David Perlmutter, contains a fascinating collection of studies on gut health and its relationship to brain function. He hammers home what I’ve been learning for years now: the gut is the second brain, and what we feed the gut has a tremendous influence on how the brain works. Most of us can agree that brain runs the body, but it is scientifically proven more and more that the gut runs the brain.

I tend to think the brain and the GI system work in a symbiotic relationship. (Like that word, symbiotic? Spider-Man taught me that word as a kid…with great power comes great vocabulary.) Our bodies deal with the macro side of basic intestinal discomfort (how would YOU act if you felt sick in your belly ALL the time?) to the micro side – our flora and fauna of trillions of bacteria – some good, some bad, and all in need of constant balance. Perlmutter takes great pains to show how science is proving that we need to style our lives to handle the onslaught of incorrect inputs to our guts.

Perlmutter devotes a huge portion of the book discussing autism. With one exception (don’t chase that squirrel right now, Bart…), I agreed with and am benefitting from his ideas and recommendations. Backed by numerous studies, he advises anyone who wants health, happiness, and peace of mind to focus on diet. Mice freak out on gluten. I don’t know exactly how a scientist determines which mice are autistic, but I don’t need to know. It works for me.

I was at lunch with two alumni friends this week, and I was describing how I was starting to piece together how my nerves influenced my ADD. If I am extremely excited, anything can catch my eye and lead my brain – and my mouth – down a rabbit trail. “Wow, I’m having such a great time! I remember this emotion when I told a funny joke in front of a bunch of people, maybe I should tell it now; oh look, she’s got pretty eyes; this tuna is rarer than I thought it would be; I need to see the score of the basketball game on the screen behind me….” All those thoughts rush through my noggin in about 0.4 seconds. Ebulliance. Exuberance. Smart aleck. Previously having called it “my personality,” this pattern of brain function has gotten me into so much trouble – since about 6th grade. Which was over 45 years ago if you’re keeping score at home.

But I did eat the tuna. It was excellent. I probably should have avoided the fried pickle chips appetizer.

While my brother-in-law was in town a couple of weeks ago, I thought I behaved pretty well. I let him finish his stories. He’s a culinary graduate, and he loves to feed a crowd, whether it’s food, the history of his food expertise, or any opinion that comes to his mind. I ate everything he made that week, thinking, “it’s basically a holiday, I’ll eat whatever shows up and I’ll recover next week.” Oof. Rough weekend. Do NOT ask, but the struggle was real – and was in my gut.

One thing about his visit that I didn’t parse out until now – I could have been influenced in a few of my responses to him by my lack of food discipline. I know I shouldn’t eat most commercially-produced breads. Whether it’s the gluten, the corn starch, the seed oils, or the glyphosate used in the farming of the wheat, I know better. But, but, but…oyster po-boys? i could not resist.

A day or so later, he was going on about his recently purchased biscotti from a local deli – complaining that this treat he had picked up on a whim was not really a classic biscotti. I chimed in with my pronunciation of the word from my Italian studies, and explained how it is the Italian word for cookie. The Brits call cookies “biscuits,” related to similar etymology.

I should have left the conversation at that point. All my work on holding my tongue, all my understanding of Polyvagal theory, my Christian training – none of it was “front of mind” when he uttered his next sentence. He had been to Italy, and he claimed there were two pronunciations based on whether classic biscotti, or simple cookies were being enjoyed.

I reacted, and I shouldn’t have. I said, “I don’t believe you.” Where did that come from? Pent up frustration? A need to prove that my experience and education was superior – to my brother-in-law – who I usually get along with?

Maybe it was the extra junk I had eaten that tanked my executive function in that moment. Perlmutter wouldn’t have a problem with that. But that didn’t clear my conscience, or give me an excuse that most people would swallow. He shrugged his shoulders, and we peacefully moved on to other conversations.

I’m not giving him a total pass – he has his idiosyncrasies, too. But, I really didn’t want to act that way to a family member when he was a guest in my home.

Just like I’m working on my gut health, I’m working on removing the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” scripts from my wheel of revolving thoughts. I’m not obsessing about this lapse. Too much life to live. I’m very experienced in asking for forgiveness.

If I give the Mini the right fuel – avoiding trashy gasoline, supplementing with the best fuel additives I can find, she will last. She will perform, maybe even purr. It’s the same deal with this “chassis” I walk around in – brain and body. Keep the junk out – and I’ve got a fighting chance to avoid “gut punches.” Garbage in, garbage out, but that garbage owly processes its way out, through the brain, and other organs, keeping them from doing their jobs at their peak effectiveness.

I have not found a more effective therapy to help me cope, and to help me perform – to LIVE with my autism — than controlling what goes in my mouth. Is this a cure for autism? No, but life is better for many on the spectrum when they, or their caregivers, study and change their food habits.

Don’t just take my word for it. Read Perlmutter’s book. Hear former Mrs. Universe Heidi Scheer talk about moving her autistic son from some of the severest autism symptoms to very few symptoms with nutrition. He went from extreme detachment and not speaking at all – to mainstreaming in elementary school and living a very close to normal life. All from doing away with consuming bad stuff, and eating only good stuff.

I’m a believer. That may be half the battle – believing that autism symptoms can improve. I hope this post does not condemn you, but encourages you that another option may be opening for you. Got a “gut instinct” all of a sudden? I hope so.

Published by Bart Shoaf

Blogging about victories and challenges as a middle-aged man with a late diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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