Heidi Luerra on Stigma, Having Family That is Mentally Ill and Educating Employees on Mental Health

Name: Heidi Luerra
Title/Role: Founder & CEO, RAW Artists Inc. 
Author, The Work of Art 
Based in: Los Angeles, CA 
Age: 35

On this week’s chapter of exploring holistic wellness at ATEM, we interviewed Heidi. Heidi Luerra is the Founder & CEO of the world’s largest independent arts organization, RAW Artists Inc. She’s also authored the book, The Work of Art, A No-Nonsense Field Guide for Creative Entrepreneurs, which speaks to tips to fellow or aspiring entrepreneurs and her personal journey as an entrepreneur.

1. In your words, describe who you are.

I’m half creative and half business with a knack for bridging the gap between both worlds. I am determined to spend my short and unknown amount of time on this planet on worthwhile projects that make a difference, and I’ve applied the quote “be the change you want to see in the world,” to my life quite literally. When it comes to my entrepreneurial endeavours I’ve grown projects from nothing and no funding into thriving organizations. 

2. Give us a day in your life.

The day starts with coffee. I have meetings with our technology and marketing departments, as well as an employee performance and management meeting. I spend some time getting tax prepared. I coordinate some industry invites to a few people to attend our RAW Hollywood showcase. I get on a call with our agency contractor in regards to some murals we’re contracting artists to paint. I then jump on another conference call with my board members to discuss projections and ship a few of my books (This all happens before lunchtime). 

3.   How did you discover an interest in mental health? 

I’ve come to realize the importance of sharing our personal stories and the ways in which we’re all affected by mental health. While writing The Work of Art, I wrestled with whether or not I should write about it. Not just because of the sensitive nature of the topic of mental health, but also because I was guilty of contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness. My mother was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder (“Schizoaffective disorder is a chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression” – NAMI.org) when I was seven years old. Very few people in my life knew this (up until the book was published), and this was intentional. Seeing my share of the battles this affliction has brought in, in every aspect of her life, was and has been difficult. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or me, and I didn’t want anyone presuming I might be at risk of having the disorder too as her daughter. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I was largely mum about my close relationship with mental illness for a long time. In general, I have been on the supporting end of my mother’s illness in many ways, which has its own set of challenges. As the conversation has started to bubble up, it’s encouraged me to be more vocal about my own experience with having a mentally ill mother.  What I do know and believe is that more people need to discuss mental illness. It’s so much more prevalent than we as a society currently dares to admit. Which simply means, it’s up to this same society to speak up and to be advocates for awareness and initiatives that offer mental health support.

4. Do you think popular culture romanticizes, caricaturizes or accurately portrays mental health illness (ie. Amazon Prime’s Modern Love Series’ episode E03: Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am ). Any signs of progress you find encouraging?

I think Hollywood has romanticized just about everything, and mental illness is no exception. I do appreciate the growing interest surrounding it. Regardless of how well the subject is packaged, the more we talk about it or “watch it,” the more we’ll ultimately be able to better understand it, and the better we’ll be able to begin our work in actively breaking down barriers we’ve built to exacerbate the stigma and misunderstandings against a very serious health concern, with very real and often debilitating symptoms. At the very least though, I will give it to popular culture for adapting art, memes, etc about mental health and raising its awareness.

5. What is a common misconception about mood disorders, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophrenia that you believe should be corrected? 

That these illnesses are in some way within the individual’s control. That they could do something about them if they just “ate this diet” or “tried this natural organic drug” or “snapped out of it”. This kind of misconception and stigma that’s encouraged by people in our communities actively prohibits people affected by mental illness from seeking out treatment that can help like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or medication.

Food for thought. Consider these words by world renowned neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, on the interesting idiosyncrasy existing and dominating our cultural understanding, that the brain and mind is separate, when in fact, the faculties of the mind (and one’s emotions thereof) cannot act independently from the influences of the brain on the basis of science; Let us move one step further then, and think about the way we perceive health: how body (and skin: hello ATEM!), mind, and emotional health is for some reason, discussed, approached, and valued differently, as if they move independently from each other. What does this mean about the way we currently stigmatize mental health? :

The distinction between diseases of “brain” and “mind,” between “neurological” problems and “psychological” or “psychiatric” ones, is an unfortunate cultural inheritance that permeates society and medicine. It reflects a basic ignorance of the relation between brain and mind. Diseases of the brain are seen as tragedies visited on people who cannot be blamed for their condition, while diseases of the mind, especially those that affect conduct and emotion, are seen as social inconveniences for which sufferers have much to answer. Individuals are to be blamed for their character flaws, defective emotional modulation, and so on; lack of willpower is supposed to be the primary problem.”

Antonio Damasio, neurologist and author of Looking for Spinoza (translated in over 30 languages) and Descarte’s Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

6. Was there ever a time you felt like you had to bear the burden of your mother’s mental health illness alone? What factors limited your or your family’s ability to receive support (mental, emotional, or financial)?

Absolutely. I’m the eldest of four children. My parents are divorced and my mom is not married. In addition to running a company, being a wife and just a regular adult, I had to be her emotional support structure and that was a lot to balance. It was lonely. My mom’s well-being and health was constantly on my mind. Most people don’t experience having a family member that is mentally ill to the point where he/she is unable to work and make an independent living– having a family member needing government assistance, and essentially being forced to live off an impossibly low monthly income… and that this results in having financial + care responsibilities fall on the affected family member’s family. 

Living in a place like downtown Los Angeles which is rampant with homelessness, you can see the severe impact that mental illness without a support structure or financial stability creates. It’s evident just walking down the street. If my mother didn’t have me or my siblings, she could very well have been one of those people. That is a heavy load to carry at times. 

This paints a more dramatic picture of the effects of mental health, but the following is a record detailing an encounter with a patient named Elliot who struggled with a neurological condition too– the casualties resulting from a lack of support for a very real health problem are similar to that from the experiences of Heidi’s and her family’s struggle in caring for their mother and the failure of current health policies to make treatment and support of mental health and mental health illness accessible: “His wife, children, and friends could not understand why a knowledgeable person who was properly forewarned could act so foolishly, and some among them could not cope with this state of affairs. There was a first divorce. Then a brief marriage to a woman of whom neither family nor friends approved. Then another divorce. Then more drifting, without a source of income, and as a final blow to those who still cared and were watching in the sidelines, the denial of social security disability benefits.” 

7. What can others do to support? 

I think people can be of support by simply and actively offering an ear or shoulder for friends and family affected. People can vocally support the issue amongst their communities, or help find aid or resources for those they know that are affected by it. On a more macro level, there needs to be legislation changes: more funding, and more treatment and rehabilitation programs– more resources put towards mental health and wellness.

8. As the CEO of RAWartists.com, a large events and discovery platform that showcases and highlights independent talents of all creative disciplines, you are exposed to creatives touching all points of work. What does the wellness/health landscape look like from your end?

The statistics in the creative and entertainment industries in regards to mental health are quite staggering. It’s a big part of the culture we work with, and my team and I are sensitive to these aspects of the artistic mind. Last year we brought in cognitive behavior therapist Dr. Rosy Benedicto (who also contributed to The Work of Art) to speak to our team about  how to handle and approach situations with someone that might have a mood disorder, be suffering from depression and/or suicidal. Educating ourselves on mental health is fundamental for best communicating and supporting our fellow creatives.

9. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically)?

My best self works out 4-5 times per week, drinks plenty of water (mainly La Croix) and meditates daily. However, just like most everyone else, I have office “weeks” (months). I walk to work, love spin class and am most recently experimenting with kickboxing. I think physical activity really does balance out the rest. When all that fails, a nice glass of wine with a close friend is the ticket!

10. Letters to my Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

You’ve got this more than you believe you do. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. 

Learn more about RAW Artists here and follow its Instagram here.

Interviewed and edited by Susan Yoomin Im

Follow us here and subscribe here for the latest insight on wellness, mental health, and self-care. Check out our company at ATEM or ATEM skincare.

Alyssa Petersel on Startup Founder Mental Health, the Culture-Generational Move Towards Vulnerability, and Finding Good Therapists

On this week’s chapter of exploring holistic wellness at ATEM, we interviewed Alyssa. Alyssa Petersel, LMSW is a therapist and the Founder + CEO of MyWellbeing, where she and her team connect people with the *right* therapist, while helping therapists build and manage their business. Alyssa graduated from Northwestern University in 2013, New York University in 2017 with her Master’s in Social Work, and The Writer’s Institute non-fiction program at CUNY Graduate Center in 2017.

1. In your words, describe who you are.

I am defining and re-defining who I am every day. By training, I am a therapist, writer, and entrepreneur. I am also a sister, daughter, friend, and dog-lover. I identify as someone who leads with empathy and optimism. I embrace new opportunities and deeply appreciate connecting with other people, learning more about their story, and helping them find meaning in their lives.

2. Pick a random day from last week, and give us a day in your life.

Last Wednesday, I woke up around 6am to meditate and go on a brief run. I returned, showered and dressed, and got to work. I spoke with a therapist in our community to learn their perspective on one of our current features and to gain insight around which features the therapist would most love to see developed next. I met with a brand partner to explore content and panel collaborations to mutually promote both of our likeminded brands. I discussed with a national mental health organization how we could collaborate together to bring more access and awareness to mental health resources.  Around 9:30pm, I drank a hot cup of chamomile tea and journaled for about 30 min before reading a few chapters of Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. I then went to sleep!

3. How did you discover your passion for mental health? 

Throughout my life, I have always felt drawn to helping people to relieve suffering. Over the years, with the support of my own therapy and reflection, I’ve come to hypothesize that this stems originally from my grandparents’ experience of the Holocaust and craving more power and agency to prevent and reduce suffering. In high school, I volunteered to babysit children of women going through recovery while the mothers attended clinical groups. My first job after college was working in violence prevention in Chicago. I also published my first book, Somehow I am Different, about third generation Holocaust survivors in Budapest redefining contemporary Judaism After that, I decided  to become a therapist and enrolled at NYU for my Master’s in Social Work. It was only then as I trained to become a therapist supporting others that I finally prioritized my own therapist search and began therapy myself. 

4. What benefits have you seen of therapy? 

Therapy has given me consistent time and space to be honestly and authentically myself. As an empath, one of my strengths is being able to read a room and adjust my demeanor and offerings to best serve the people around me. From a professional perspective, I am proud of this skill and it brings me a lot of joy and growth opportunities. From a personal perspective, this tendency can blur the lines of what I am doing because I want to or because it nurtures me, and what I am doing because I am caring for someone else, or because I think I should be. Therapy has helped me identify this tendency in itself and has given me the perspective and tools to recognize my own wants and needs and communicate those to others, setting boundaries when necessary to ensure those needs are met. This is incredibly powerful both at work and at home. Moreover, as I go to therapy at the same time and place every week, therapy helps me maintain productivity and focus during my work week. I know that if something particularly stressful arises, I have allocated time during my week to process that. I know that if my mind continues to circulate around any particular thing, I have designated time in my week to process that. The regular, consistent catharsis and regulation is invaluable.

“I wish more people would talk about therapy.”

Selena Gomez, Vogue

5. Do you think our culture still stigmatizes therapy?  If yes, are there any signs of progress do you find encouraging? 

I do believe that our culture continues to stigmatize therapy and vulnerability. However, I believe we are at an inflection point during which things like vulnerability are finally being celebrated and encouraged. Leaders like Brene Brown and celebrities like Beyonce, Selena Gomez, Kristen Bell, and more, are speaking out about the power of expressing our vulnerabilities and embracing them as what makes us human. We finally recognize that mental health is as important as physical health, if not more important. Employers are offering appropriate benefits and resources, and speaking to their teams about the importance of creating safe spaces. Millennials are 3x more likely than their parents to pursue therapy. At MyWellbeing, we have seen groups of friends and families encourage each other to pursue therapy and strengthen their mental health, not only if they are wrestling with a deep-rooted problem or crisis, but as a proactive means to grow and become the best possible version of onself.

“Everyone thinks there’s some shame in it.”
“But if they see Kristen Bell, who projects — even sitting right here — she’s happy, she’s smart, she’s bubbly,” Willie finished.

“I’m like ‘bubbles, glitter!’” she joked. “No, it’s not always that way. I am someone who takes a medication for her anxiety and depression. I am someone who has to check myself and sometimes — if I’m feeling really low — make a checklist of good and bad things in my life to see if it’s my mental state or if we really have a problem. “

Kristen Bell, Interview by Francesca Gariano, Today

6. How is My Wellbeing innovating the mental health space? 

At MyWellbeing, we help people who are interested in beginning therapy find the right therapist for their needs, while helping therapists build and grow their business. MyWellbeing is bringing compatibility to the mental health space and reducing choice fatigue in an otherwise overwhelming search. Rapport and chemistry between the therapist and the therapy-goer are responsible for more than 70% of why therapy works, so we have created a system that optimizes for exactly that. 94% of our therapy-seekers who book a phone consultation with one of their therapist matches go on to book a first appointment, and 90% of first appointments go on to book a second, which suggests to us that our matching is a needed support and is working really well.

Moreover, we are on a mission to foster sorely needed community and to eliminate stigma. The product we build, content we write, resources we share, and events we curate are all in the interest of broadening the conversation around mental health and bringing resources to everyone who is interested, in whatever capacity they are ready to engage.

Courtesy of My Wellbeing

7. What is your goal for MyWellbeing as it grows? 

MyWellbeing will be where the world comes to be well. We look forward to expanding our network and building and creating additional resources to support people through their mental health journey, from start to finish.

As MyWellbeing grows, we hope to continue to chip away at the problem of accessibility for mental health care. Currently, MyWellbeing is available in NYC. Matching is completely free and therapy sessions start at $100/session. We understand that the need for stronger mental health services extends beyond NYC and not everyone can afford to pay $400/month toward their mental health. We are committed to connecting with communities across the country to strengthen our collective mental health as well as to launch initiatives that heighten accessibility through partnerships, special initiatives, and policy change.

8. As an entrepreneur yourself, how do you think the startup founder community needs to address its mental health crisis? (note to readers: see this article on why entrepreneurs are one of the most susceptible communities for mental health illnesses)   

Entrepreneurs are under an extraordinary amount of pressure (often with extremely limited resources) to be “the best”; this makes them particularly vulnerable to a superhero complex that is very unforgiving of mistakes and can be very challenging for one’s mental health. Entrepreneurs are 56% more likely to experience mental health obstacles than the general population. I encourage all entrepreneurs to pursue therapy (and support groups of other entrepreneurs!), and to consider it an investment in their business and their professional future. The more you understand yourself and the better you become at understanding and managing your stress, the better leader, founder, co-worker, and partner you will be.

9. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, spiritually, and emotionally)? 

I journal often. I surround myself with people who lift me up and bring me joy. I go to therapy every week at the same time and day. I exercise at least 2 times per week. I set goals and I time block. I eat as healthy as I can and meal prep when possible. I practice patience with myself when I am not as good or fast as I want to be. I meditate in the mornings. I gather monthly with a group of entrepreneurs who have become some of my best friends. When I wake up, I lay in bed an extra 2 minutes to breathe and smile. Seriously. Get those neurotransmitters flowing in all the best ways.

10. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

You wouldn’t be the person you are today if you hadn’t gone through everything you did. Laugh more. Do more that brings you joy for the mere purpose of experiencing more joy, especially if that thing is not “productive.” Remember: the only thing we cannot buy is time. Maintain perspective around what your overall life goals are and ensure they are tended to. Just be, more. Every one of us has inherent value just for being who we are.

Learn more about My Wellbeing here and follow its Instagram here.

Interview by Theophila Lee

Edited by Susan Yoomin Im

Follow us here and subscribe here for the latest insights on wellness, mental health, and self-care. Check out our company at ATEM or ATEM skincare.

Amy Shapiro on Balancing Probiotics and Prebiotics Intake & Tips on Foods That Help with Mental Health & Wellness

1. In your words, who are you?

I am a Mom, Sister, Friend, Wife and Registered Dietitian with a private practice called Real Nutrition based in NYC, a NYC “lifer” raising 3 kids downtown and am all about health, wellness and active living, and I love cooking, walking, farmers markets, mom and pop health food stores and my new Puppy Hershey. Yes, she’s named after the chocolate bar because who doesn’t love chocolate?

2. How would you define your approach as a nutritionist? 

It’s all about real food, real life and real solutions.  I work with my clients to teach them how to eat in a way that meets their desired goals but also fits into their life.  This allows for optimal nutrition but also long term success. Education is a big part of it, as is consistency.  We focus on whole foods, lots of plants and limiting processed foods. We also emphasize the importance of always having a plan.  

3. More specifically, do you believe there are certain foods that increase overall mental wellbeing?
Yes, I believe keeping your blood sugar balanced helps with mental well-being and therefore a high fiber, heart healthy diet full of omega 3 fatty acids and lots of plants with antioxidants are very important.    (find out how food affects mental wellbeing, here).  

4. Are there foods and diets that might be more appropriate for people struggling with different mental disorders (anxiety versus depression, for example)?

A lot of this can be helped by balancing blood sugar, limiting processed foods, watching caffeine and alcohol intake and eating plenty of plants. Again, it is all about being consistent.  Many supplements such as magnesium and lemon balm can also help. Herbs are very powerful.     

5. Can you share certain fruits or vegetables that are especially beneficial for skincare?

Anything with vitamin C (strawberries, red pepper, kiwi, citrus), omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, chia, flax, hemp), greens for lutein and nuts and seeds for healthy fats that will help your skin glow.  

6. What do you think of the importance of adding more prebiotics or probiotics into your diet? 

They work together. Prebiotics are essential to keeping your health on track.  If you need to feed your gut flora then you can take a probiotic, but prebiotics are important to keep new and already established microbiomes on track.  Bacteria make up most of who we are and we want the good types to stick around!  Probiotics help with everything from skin inflammation to digestion and elimination, which are all huge parts in health and wellness.

7. If so, what foods do you recommend as good sources of prebiotics or probiotics?

Kimchi, sauerkraut, greek yogurt, kombucha, lots of fruits and veggies for prebiotics.  Whole foods always!

Learn more about Real Nutrition here and follow its Instagram here.

Interview by Theophila Lee

Follow us here and subscribe here for the latest insight on wellness, mental health, and self-care. Check out our company at ATEM or ATEM skincare.

Part III. Microbiome and Maintaining Skin Health: Prebiotics and Probiotics

By Theophila Lee & Susan Yoomin Im

This is the third in a three-part series on the microbiome. See Part One for a discussion on the microbiome in general and Part Two for a discussion on the microbiome and mental health. 

Skin microbiome diversity 

Your skin, the largest organ in your body, is also characterized by its own diverse microbiome community. It is an epidermal lawyer that primarily functions as barrier to protect your body against impacts and pressure, temperature variations, harmful microorganisms, and damaging radiation and chemicals. Researchers estimate that there for every one square centimeter of skin, there are multiple trillions of bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, and yeast present

The skin microbiome is very site-specific. Think about the different textures of various places around your skin: above your cheeks, under your armpit, in the crease of your leg. Each of these sites have different properties: your face and scalp are oilier, your arms and legs are drier, and your feet and armpits are moister. As you might expect, because of these differing compositions, different sites on your skin have different microbiome community compositions.  This has implications on disease, as skin ailments generally occur in site- specific manners: acne on the face, foot fungus on feet, eczema in arm and leg creases, etc. 

Furthermore, your skin’s microbiome is also constantly changing. It can be affected by many factors such as: environmental factors such as UV exposure and pollution; hormonal changes like those that occur during puberty; workplace humidity or dryness levels; and even skin-on-skin contact between mothers and infants or between partners (yes, your significant other can influence your skin health!) 

Skin microbiome and disease 

Already, researchers are learning more about the link between microbiome imbalance and skin health disruption in a variety of conditions including: early skin aging, heightened skin sensitivity, atopic dermatitis, rosacea, eczema, redness, psoriasis, and dryness. For example, a recent Johns Hopkins study showed an increased abundance of a specific facial bacteria strain among rosacea patients as compared to healthy controls. These identified bacteria may prove useful in looking for new therapeutic targets for rosacea.  In another recent study studying mice with eczema, researchers identified an abundance of a specific “bad” bacterial strain known to release toxins and break down skin barriers and a dearth of “good” bacterial strains that fight off these toxins. When researchers applied “good” bacteria to the mice’s skin, it prevented flareups. Thus, more research into microbiome diversity can help us to better overall understand its potential to treat various skin ailments.

Skin microbiome and skincare 

Scientists and dermatologists are investigating whether certain topicals incorporating healthy microorganisms on skin can help create a stronger, healthier, and more diverse skin microbiome.  Too often we see harsh facial cleansers and soaps, full of sulfates, parabens, and antibacterial ingredients, stripping our skin of healthy microbial strains and damaging our natural microbiome ecosystem. Just as eating foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics can enhance the diversity of your gut’s microbiome, so too can prebiotics and probiotics help to enrich your skin’s microbiome. 

Think of prebiotics as the water and fertilizer that help your microbial garden flourish. They allow probiotics to thrive and feed “good” bacteria. In skincare, prebiotics are typically found in fiber-rich, vegetable- derived, or pectin-derived ingredients, including: prebiotic thermal water (La Roche- Posey Double Repair Face Moisturizer), colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno Eczema Therapy), algae (Alive Prebiotic Balancing Mask), and beta-glucan (ATEM Super Age Defense Facial Cream). However, while they are beneficial, prebiotics need to work in concert with probiotics to achieve full benefit to your microbiome (and vice versa) 

Probiotics, on the other hand, are the seeds that help your microbial garden grow. Probiotics are live, helpful bacteria naturally created in the process of making fermented foods. “Probiotics in skincare optimize the healing benefits of our skin’s good bugs,” explains Dr. Whitney Bowe, NYC-based dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. “This includes acting as a protective shield against bad bacteria, dialing down inflammation, and preventing premature aging in skin, among other things⁴.” Like probiotics in our gut, probiotics in the skin promote growth of good bacteria and eliminate bad bacteria.

When fermentation occurs, yeast produces a plethora of helpful enzymes such as amino acids, vitamins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories that are beneficial to skin. This leads to super-charged ingredients that have higher potency in creating gentler, more nourishing ingredients can break down particles in a more calming and non-irritating manner. Probiotic ingredients in skincare include fermented damask rose (SU:M37 Rose Cleansing Stick… fun fact, the 37 refers to the optimal temperature for fermentation), fermented milk (ATEM First Milk Facial Treatment Mask), and galactomyces ferment filtrate (SKII Facial Treatment Essence). Note that the probiotics need to be live in order to help rebalance the microbiome. Probiotic skincare ingredient that say ferments (i.e., lactobillucs ferment) or lysates (i.e. bifidia bacteria lysate) at the end might hydrate the skin but will not re-cultivate the microbiome. 

Try mixing up your skincare routine with some prebiotic and probiotic cleansers. Let us know in the comments below if it lives up to the hype!


  1. “What Is the Skin Microbiome?” YouTube, Jackson Laboratory, 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6ImOen5etU.
  2. Rainer, Brian. “Skin Microbiota in Rosacea Differs from Healthy Skin.” Healio Dermatology, 19 Sept. 2019, www.healio.com/dermatology/skin-care/news/online/%7Bfe853d7b-79eb-481f-a0b4-86578cfa76d7%7D/skin-microbiota-in-rosacea-differs-from-healthy-skin.
  3. Reynertson, Kurt. “Anti-inflammatory activities of colloidal oatmeal (Avena sativa) contribute to the effectiveness of oats in treatment of itch associated with dry, irritated skin.” J Drugs Dermatol, January 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25607907
  4. Yirka, Bob. “Study Shows Skin Microbiome Imbalance Likely behind Eczema Flareups.” Medical Xpress – Medical Research Advances and Health News, Medical Xpress, 2 May 2019, www.medicalxpress.com/news/2019-05-skin-microbiome-imbalance-eczema-flareups.html.
  5. Nazish, Noma. “Why Probiotic Skin Care Is Worth The Hype, According To Experts.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Apr. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/nomanazish/2019/03/30/why-probiotic-skin-care-is-worth-the-hype-according-to-experts/#16b7f5641aa1.

Follow us here and subscribe here for the latest insight on wellness, mental health, and self-care. Check out our company at ATEM or ATEM skincare.

Part II. Microbiome and Mental Health: The Gut – Brain Axis

By Theophila Lee

This is the second of a three-part installment on the microbiome on the microbiome and mental health. For an introductory overview, see here , and for a discussion on the microbiome and maintaining skin health, see here.

Have you ever had a gut feeling? Felt butterflies in your stomach when nervous? Gotten sick to your stomach when stressed? A growing body of research is showing that our gut and our brain are in fact inextricably linked. This communication occurs via the gut- brain axis, a bidirectional pathway that links the cognitive and emotional centers of the brain with the intestinal functions of the gut. Furthermore, research is increasingly demonstrating that maintaining a healthy, diverse environment for your gut bacteria has wide ranging implications on your mental health.  

Bacteria and Behavior: Neurotransmitters in your gut 

What do eating that chocolate bar you’ve craved or experiencing a winning gambling streak have in common? They release dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that contributes to pleasure and satisfaction in our reward system. Similarly, eating foods with high levels of tryptophan or sweet and starchy carbohydrates boosts serotonin, the “contentment” neurotransmitter that curbs cravings, suppresses appetite, and leaves you feeling satisfied and full.  Close to 60% and 90% of all your dopamine and serotonin respectively is produced in your gut, and microbes regulate levels of these mood-regulating neurotransmitter production.

Because of this gut-brain axis, neurotransmitter levels in the gut and brain mirror one another. A low level of neurotransmitters in the gut leads to constipation and indigestion, while a low level in the brain can manifest in depression. Conversely, an abundance of neurotransmitters in the gut leads to cramping and diarrhea, while an abundance in the brain can manifest in anxiety

Microbiome and mental health: Research experiments  

Researchers have used mice models to investigate the link between the microbiome and mental health in several fascinating research studies.  They found that stressed mice, such as those that had an aggressive cage mate or restricted access to food and water, had elevated levels of unhealthy bacterial strains and depressed levels of healthy bacterial strains in their gut. Gut bacteria from these stressed mice were transplanted into another strain of calmer mice, and, as a result, these calmer animals appeared to become more anxious. Conversely, mice injected with healthy bacterial strains were shown to have reduced levels of stress-related hormones and increased perseverance when subjected to a series of stressful situations, including a test measuring how long they continued to swim in a tank of water. These mice also had higher levels of a protein associated with learning, memory, and higher order thinking and exhibited more curiosity in exploring their surroundings. Researchers hypothesized that these healthy bacterial strains helped mice to more effectively manage and regulate their stress levels. Several studies in human have also demonstrated the impact of microbes on brain chemistry. A study of 77 toddlers found that children with the most diverse types of gut bacteria more frequently exhibited behaviors associated with curiosity, sociability, positive mood, and impulsivity. Toddlers with less diverse microbes exhibited more fear and self-restraint. In another study, 25 healthy women were recruited for four weeks; 12 ate a cup of commercially available Greek yogurt containing strains of four probiotic live bacteria, while the rest didn’t. Participants were given brain scans to gauge their response to a series of facial expression images- happiness, sadness, anger, etc. The results were stark – the yogurt eaters reacted more calmly to the images than did the control group. Researchers hypothesized that probiotics in the yogurt altered the subject’s gut microbiome, which modified production levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters.  

Mealtime and mental health: Importance of food 

We saw in the this article how important eating a wide range of plant-based, probiotic, and prebiotic foods were to maintaining a healthy microbiome (among others). Given the microbiome’s impact on mental health, diet can play a role for those struggling with depression or anxiety. 

Consider breakfast, the most important meal of the day. For individuals with anxiety (i.e., high levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, also associated with cramping and diarrhea), a high protein breakfast like eggs or sausage can reduce neurotransmitter levels by 35%. For individuals with depression (i.e., low levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, also associated with constipation or indigestion), a starchy, fibrous, and well- balanced breakfast of sweet potatoes, steel cut oats, or quinoa can raise serotonin levels by 10%. For this individual, a high protein breakfast could actually bring serotonin or dopamine levels down even further, exacerbating depression and triggering cravings later in the day. Play around and experiments with different diets, fruits, and vegetables. Your body might just thank you for making small, easy dietary changes by making you feel better! 

Understanding how something as simple as food can affect our mental health can be a catalyst for self-care. As humans, we are wired for connection. Mental health illnesses like anxiety and depression spur disconnection. By taking better care of ourselves, we’re able to build the foundations of a stronger community that will enable us to reach out and take care of others as well. 


  1. Kilgore, Lisa. “Microbes, Mental Wellness & Mealtime.” YouTube, Ted Talks, 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghAmkVMYkPw.
  2. Gordon, Olivia. “Your Microbiome and Your Brain.” YouTube, SciShow, 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ycHwcV9MvM 
  3. Robertson, Ruairi. “Food for Thought: How You Belly Controls Your Brain” YouTube, Ted Talks, 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=awtmTJW9ic8 
  4. Kohn, David. “When Gut Bacteria Hijack the Brain.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Aug. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/gut-bacteria-on-the-brain/395918/.
  5. “Toddler Temperament Could Be Influenced by Different Types of Gut Bacteria.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 27 May 2015, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150527091438.htm.

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Part I. Microbiome and Mealtime: Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Plant-Based Food

By Theophila Lee & Susan Im

This is the first of a three-part series on the microbiome. See Part Two for a discussion on the microbiome and mental health and Part Three for a discussion on the microbiome and maintaining skin health.

A diverse community 

Imagine a collection of 100 trillion bacteria, yeast, viruses, fungi, and parasites of different strains and varieties living in diverse, ever- changing environments around your skin, mouth, and gut (although the majority reside in the gut). This is your microbiome, a dynamic community of microorganisms that outnumbers nine times the number of human cells. Through new scientific advances, researchers are beginning to better understand the microbiome’s composition and implications on human health. 

Scientists believe that the microbiome, weighing as much as our three-pound brain, is a “second brain” just as important to understanding who we are. The organisms comprising the microbiome aren’t simply passive passengers in our body or disease-causing entities. They are integral to digesting food, educating our immune system, and resisting disease. An increasing number of studies are demonstrating that a diverse, balanced microbiome promotes health, longevity, and positive behavioral traits. Conversely, individuals with less healthy and diverse microbiomes have been shown to be more susceptible to a wide range of physical and mental illnesses. 

Microbiome impact 

Microbes around our body contribute to many of our differences. We leave traces of our microbial DNA on everything we touch, and scientists can match the palm of someone’s hand up with the mouse of the computer they use regularly with 95% accuracy. Your microbe has wide ranging implications including determining what drugs will be toxic to your system, whether your skin produces chemicals that attract certain mosquitos, and even influencing who you’re attracted to. 

Although the microbiome influences many diseases, particularly interesting is it implications on obesity, a conditioning affecting nearly 35% of adult Americans. In one study, obese mice were shown to have less diverse gut microbes than skinny mice. When gut microbes from obese mice were transplanted into the skinny mice, the skinny mice grew heavier and had more body fat. Furthermore, when microbial strains from skinny mice were transferred to the obese mice, these obese mice soon developed healthier weights. Researchers found that the microbiome of these obese mice were missing key gut bacterial strains integral for maintaining healthy metabolism that were present in the microbiomes of skinny mice. 

A healthy microbiome 

So what can you to do create the healthiest and most diverse microbiome? For one, sleep. When you don’t sleep, neither do your hard-working microbes. Give them the rest they need and make sure to get proper sleep each night. Secondly, exercise. It’s integral for stimulating a healthy balance of microbiome, so incorporate a range of strength and cardio exercises in your workouts. Thirdly, stress management. The gut and brain are inextricably linked, as will see in following article. Prolonged stress breaks down the lining of your gut and leads to inflammation and infection. Finally, limit antibiotic use. Antibiotics have been shown to decrease the richness, diversity, and evenness of the gut microbiome.  

Even more fascinating, however, are the implications of microbiome health on nutrition. Individuals with the most diverse diet have the most diverse gut bacteria. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. If you don’t eat the food, then your gut bacteria can’t access it. Here are some tips: 

  • Plant-based. Variety is key to creating a balanced microbiome. We typically regularly incorporate only 5-10 fruits and vegetables in our diet regularly, not giving our bodies access to a wider range of nutrients found in other plant-based fruits.  Try buying a new fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried before once every couple months. You might find something new you like sticks!
  • Prebiotic. Think of prebiotics as the water and fertilizer that help your microbial garden flourish. Prebiotic fiber is found in the non-digestible part of foods like garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, barley, oats, cocoa, flax, seaweed and apples. They are fermented when they reach the large colon in a process that feeds microbiome communities and augments the number of healthy bacteria.  
  • Probiotic. Think of probiotics as the seeds that help your microbial garden grow. Probiotics are live, helpful bacteria naturally created in the process of making fermented foods like Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, and kimchi. Probiotics like lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium help fermentation, seed the gut with new bacteria, and provide a boost to the immune system. 
    • Fermentation is a normal digestive process that occurs when bacterial break down food in the colon, producing short chain fatty acid crucial for digestive health. Fun fact- the colon actually produces the equivalent of a can of beer every day, which the liver detoxifies! 

Founder of Real Nutrition and NYC based dietician, Amy Shapiro, describes how probiotics and probiotics must work in harmony to maximize health and wellbeing: “They work together. Prebiotics are essential to keeping your health on track.  If you need to feed your gut flora then you can take a probiotic, but prebiotics are important to keep new and already established microbiomes on track.  Bacteria make up most of who we are and we want the good types to stick around!  Probiotics help with everything from skin inflammation to digestion and elimination, which are all huge parts in health and wellness.”

In short, respect your microbiome. Prioritize better stress management, proper sleep, sufficient exercise, limited antibiotic use and a varied diet full of different types of plant-based, prebiotics and probiotics foods. See if having happier bacteria leads to a happier you! 


  1. Wallis, Claudia. “How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 June 2014, www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-gut-bacteria-help-make-us-fat-and-thin/.
  2. “Prebiotics vs Probiotics: What Are the Key Differences & Health Benefits.” Prebiotics vs Probiotics: What Are the Key Differences & Health Benefits, www.prebiotin.com/prebiotin-academy/what-are-prebiotics/prebiotics-vs-probiotics/

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Ronald Kamdem on Meaningful Living, Wellness & Work, and Advice To Live By

Name: Ronald Kamdem
Role: Vice President of Equity Research, Morgan Stanley
Based in: New York
Age: 31

Ronald Kamdem is a Vice President in Equity Research and has been at Morgan Stanley for 9 years and based out of New York City. Prior to this, he completed his studies at Harvard University with a degree in Economics and Statistics.

On his free time, Ronald is a passionate community builder and spends his free time volunteering with STREETSQUASH, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing consistent, long-term, and reliable support to the children, families, and schools in Harlem and Newark, so that the students can realize their academic, athletic, and personal potential, of which he was formerly the Co-Chair for its Young Leadership Committee.

1. In your words, who are you?

I’m a very passionate person full of optimism and big dreams. I grew up believing that education or investing in human capital was the key to happiness and success for oneself and for others, and today that still rings true. But I also believe in leadership and the power of getting things done. I am just like everyone else, a collection of experiences and I’ve been fortunate to have many good ones. Other things to know is that I’m vegetarian by choice, and tennis, squash and volunteering are very close to my heart!

2. Give us a day in your life on a weekday.

Typically I’m up at 6am and at work by 7am. I usually spend two hours reading relevant research and articles as well as catching up on emails. Then I generally have a few hours of meetings and client calls until noon. Then there are a few more meeting and calls in the afternoon, but generally I spend time writing research, building financial models or creating presentations. My day usually ends at around 7pm and I try to catch up on whatever emails and reading I didn’t finish in the morning.  

3. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually)?

I’m very routine about physical exercise– 2 or 3 times a week. Usually Thursday, Saturday and Sunday are filled with squash, tennis, or weight lifting. I find an hour or two of exercise and a shower usually does the trick for me. 

4. Do you feel comfortable talking about your mental health (emotional and mental wellbeing) with friends?

I do feel very comfortable as I think just like physical health, mental heath is something to also be worked on and strengthened. I generally consider my mind to be just like my body, in constant need of some exercise so I’ve gotten comfortable having those conversations. 

5. What is the wellness policy at Morgan Stanley? Are you given mental health days? Is therapy covered by your company’s insurance? 

All the above; it’s a very important part of overall wellness. 

6. What is something you are passionate about outside of work? 

Volunteering and community building. 

7. You were the former co-chair at Streetsquash, a non-profit organization dedicated to youth development in Harlem and Newark and are still actively involved as a volunteer for its various works, whether it be in after school sports programs or in tutoring. What motivated you to work with Streetsquash?

Meeting the students and seeing with my own eyes was a life changing experience for me and I knew right away this is something I wanted to do. Never looked back since really it’s almost as if I was a part of STREETSQUASH even before I knew it existed. 

8. Work and happiness – do you think they come hand in hand?

Definitely. They definitely should. There are certain periods in your career that may be more challenging than others but for the majority of your career they should. 

9. Do you hold any life philosophies currently as it applies to your life, in work or in personal life? 

In my office I have two quotes: « one team one dream! » And « control what you can control ». Think that sums me up nicely. 

10. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had advice to give to your younger self, what would it have been?: 

Ha I love this question. Firstly I would say thank you for steering the ship in the right direction! Then I would say never lose the fire in your eyes. 

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im