In our last blog we discussed light hygiene in relation to mental health. One of the most frequently occurring features in my practice as a performance coach and professional biohacker, is the instance of clients who suffer from serious mood swings, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, a diminished ability to think, concentrate and focus. This is often coupled with feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, loss, immense guilt and exaggerated anger. The impact of this on relationships and daily functioning is severe and can further the spiral of hopelessness, self-blame, inner turmoil and what feels like comparative inadequacy.
The term ‘depression’ often carries with it a stigma of shame and secrecy which results in many people suffering in silence. In addition to this, the very definition of depression as a mental state or feeling, is difficult to quantify in relation to its intensity comparative to the relative pain or discomfort the person is experiencing. This furthermore complicates a diagnosis or objective assessment of the challenges a person is experiencing. Depression is a serious condition that requires medical intervention coupled with a supportive treatment protocol however far too easily, our frameworks turn to prescription medication for psychiatric drugs (the most popular being anti-depressants, closely followed by anti-anxiety drugs in a close second). In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study revealing that a frightening 1 in 6 Americans have fulfilled a script for psychiatric medication.
Whilst these drugs have their place in a treatment protocol for critical cases, the root cause of the depression and/ or side effects of the drugs are often not considered.
So what is at play here?
As mentioned, depression is a medical condition that needs to be taken extremely seriously and we encourage you and your family to seek medical advice if you suspect you or a loved one may be suffering from depression. In today’s society of instant gratification and the masked colourful exuberance that social media profiles flout, it is no wonder that we question any feelings of doubt, dissatisfaction, inadequacy or sadness. It is normal to go through cycles of sadness, grief, loss or to question your energy and purpose. Where this becomes a problem, is when it persists for an uncomfortable period of time.
Recent studies are exploring a new theory of depression- one that explores the role of inflammation in the body due to stressors such as infection. These studies reveal that depressed people have higher inflammatory markers in their blood and this inflammation slows down the growth of new brain cells. The cohorts of these studies also showed higher oxidative stress levels and lower levels of anti-oxidants– 2 key factors to which the brain is exceptionally vulnerable.
Nutrient deficiencies of zinc, magnesium, vitamin D and B as well as omega 3 fatty acids have also been linked to lowered levels of brain function, impacting the potential to experience depression. Add to this what we’ve covered about light hygiene and sleep and its role in mental health, and we are armed with some good insights to apply to our daily lives to either explore alternative ways of treating/ avoiding depression or to lessen the intensity with which we may experience the ‘down cycles.’
1. Nutrient levels
Understanding your current nutrient levels is critical in order to address if supplementation is required. You can test your nutrient levels by booking an appointment with your functional medicine doctor or book a consultation here.
2. Food and our guts
A 2018 study published by Doctors’ Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey from the University of Toronto and Columbia University respectively, revealed the role of high nutrient-dense foods that can prevent and reduce the symptoms of depression. Dr. David Perlmutter, MD has consolidated this list into an easy to follow table, graphically represented below. Animal foods, oysters, organ meats, spinach and watercress are some of the most beneficial depression-fighting foods. The researchers noted that the intake of the most important nutrients f B12 and Omega-3 fatty acids may be inadequate in purely plant-based diets, but that said, it is worth noting that these can be obtained via supplementation.
3. Light hygiene
4. Eliminate triggers of inflammation
Whilst it is important to put the good foods into our bodies, it is equally important to avoid those that can trigger inflammation. Sugar, gluten, dairy, caffeine and alcohol can all trigger an inflammatory response. Be cautious of foods that may be beautifully packaged and purport to be ‘dairy or sugar free’- if these contains words that are difficult to pronounce, its best to stay clear of them. Preservatives, colourants and flavourants should be avoided. Different people have different responses depending on their sensitivity so you’ll need to embark on a process of abstinence and slow re-introduction whilst dialing into your body to monitor for adverse responses that could point to sensitivity or inflammatory response.
5. Gut health
The nerve cells in our gut manufacture up to 90% of our body’s serotonin. In addition, our guts are home to a complex collection of bacteria which research is showing, impacts are mood. Our guts are often referred to as the second brain.
It is important to clean up your gut and consume prebiotic foods like artichokes, onions, leeks, dandelion and garlic and consume probiotic foods like active-culture yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles and other fermented foods (e.g. sauerkraut). Avoiding antibiotics is critical.
Therese Borchard covers 10 easy ways to cultivate good bacteria health and reduce depression.
6. Stress, mindfulness, meditation and yoga
Ultimately, depression is a stress disorder where stress is poorly managed by our bodies. It is very easy to say ‘reduce stress in your life’ but we live in hugely stressful environments and the requirements of daily life are demanding in and of themselves. Rather, it is about managing stress. Research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine has shown that practices like mediation, yoga, deep breathing, massage and prayer can engage the parasympathetic nervous system, altering our gene expression tied to inflammation, metabolism and insulin production.
Movement lifts the mood as it boosts the brain’s dopamine levels, flooding the system with endorphins. Some kinds of exercise are more healing than others- especially for those who have been depressed for decades or who have been operating in a state of adrenal fatigue. High intensity exercise can raise cortisol levels, further wearing the body out. Rather, walking, hiking in nature, easy swimming or cycling and yoga are better forms of movement to lower stress responses and regulate blood sugar, central nervous system response and immune system activation.
In conclusion, whilst drugs can serve an important purpose, many people are not responding or only receive partial relief. There are other components, such as those listed above, that can be critical to avoiding the devastating effects of depression or to aiding recovery.