Monday, February 29, 2016

Book review: The Eclipse of a Mind

The Eclipse of a Mind () is a 722-page book published in 1942 that describes the life of Alonzo Graves. Alonzo is also listed as the author of the book, even though the narrative is not that of a typical autobiography.

The book is an in-depth study of manic depression. Alonzo is the sufferer. He is a very intelligent college dropout journalist who narrates his lifelong struggle for mental balance. We are taken through World War I, the great Great Depression (iconic photo below: ), the various treatments of bacterial diseases prior to antibiotics, among a variety of other topics; all through Alonzo’s eyes.

This book is rather “dense”, and not very easy to read in a linear fashion – i.e., from beginning to end. Since it is annotated, with comments by various psychiatrists and medical doctors who examined and treated Alonzo, the book is fairly repetitive at points. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read.

Alonzo delves into important historical events that many today are likely unaware of, such as the Bonus Expeditionary Force movement in the 1930s. World War I veterans had been issued paper money that they could not exchange for real money until 1945. Out-of-work veterans revolted during the Great Depression, demanding early payment. Alonzo was right in the middle of this movement, acting as a journalist and taking the side of the veterans. The ensuing stress caused a manic episode that eventually led to Alonzo's hospitalization.

Manic episodes are characterized by euphoric states and increased levels of activity. The episodes are often triggered by stress. Some people become creative and highly productive during manic states, whereas others become irritable and prone to engaging in risky behavior. Frequently manic episodes are followed by debilitating depression ().

Alonzo’s falls into manic states usually started with benign increases in work-related activity. However, as that high-energy state was maintained for various consecutive days, causing periods of very poor sleep, it often led to psychotic or near-psychotic episodes. This produced a total of five hospitalizations, all of which are described in detail in the book. The book ends with Alonzo moving to Russia, whose government ideology he admired, and never being heard of again.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Alonzo’s insights into other people’s mental illnesses, some of whom were manic depressive, combined with his inability to recognize the signs of his own illness. Notably, Alonzo was unable to recognize early signs, or “prodomes” (), which made it difficult for him to avoid entering manic states.

As noted earlier, this book is not an easy read. And it is an old book, copies of which are probably difficult to find today. Nevertheless, it is unique in its tell-it-all style, with detailed narratives from both the patient and doctors about a mental illness that is widespread today. Manic depression is an eminently treatable condition that tends to be highly correlated with creative intelligence ().

A frequently unrecognized reality is put forth by this book. Manic depression is not a “new” condition, even though it may be a “disease of civilization”. The levels of sustained stress found in urban societies are probably much higher than those experienced by our ancestors during most of our evolutionary history, and stress is a trigger of manic depression symptoms. The Eclipse of a Mind is a goldmine of insights into this condition.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How much dietary protein can you store in muscle? About 15 g/d if you are a gifted bodybuilder

Let us say you are one of the gifted few who are able to put on 1 lb of pure muscle per month, or 12 lbs per year, by combining strength training with a reasonable protein intake. Let us go even further and assume that the 1 lb of muscle that we are talking about is due to muscle protein gain, not glycogen or water. This is very uncommon; one has to really be genetically gifted to achieve that.

And you do that by eating a measly 80 g of protein per day. That is little more than 0.5 g of protein per lb of body weight if you weigh 155 lbs; or 0.4 per lb if you weigh 200 lbs. At the end of the year you are much more muscular. People even think that you’ve been taking steroids; but that just came naturally. The figure below shows what happened with the 80 g of protein you consumed every day. About 15 g became muscle (that is 1 lb divided by 30) … and 65 g “disappeared”!

Is that an amazing feat? Yes, it is an amazing feat of waste, if you think that the primary role of protein is to build muscle. More than 80 percent of the protein consumed was used for something else, notably to keep your metabolic engine running.

A significant proportion of dietary protein also goes into the synthesis of albumin, to which free fatty acids bind in the blood. (Albumin is necessary for the proper use of fat as fuel.) Dietary protein is also used in the synthesis of various body tissues and hormones.

Dietary protein does not normally become body fat, but can be used in place of fat as fuel and thus allow more dietary fat to be stored. It leads to an insulin response, which causes less body fat to be released. In this sense, dietary protein has a fat-sparing effect, preventing it from being used to supply the energy needs of the body.

Nevertheless, the fat-sparing effect of protein is lower than that of another "macronutrient" – alcohol. That is, alcohol takes precedence over protein and carbohydrates for use as fuel. Protein takes precedence over carbohydrates. Neither alcohol nor protein typically becomes body fat. Carbohydrates can become body fat, but only when glycogen stores are full.

What does this mean?

As it turns out, a reasonably high protein intake seems to be quite healthy, and there is nothing wrong with the body using protein to feed its metabolism.

Having said that, one does not need enormous amounts of protein to keep or even build muscle if one is getting enough calories from other sources.