It may well be the time for good cheer and festivities, but if you are prone to ‘the blues’, to feeling down, where even the smallest things require an enormous effort and you carry with you a heavy sense of hopelessness; if all you really want to do is crawl in to bed and never come out, then the thought of putting on your glad rags and partying the night away can be utterly overwhelming, never mind revving yourself up for a house full of family for Christmas day.
Depression can take many forms. Clinical depression is a serious mental illness that usually requires long-term medication to maintain a healthy balance of brain chemicals to keep the levels of depression under control. Other, less severe forms of depression can sometimes respond well and be managed by using some nutritional interventions.
Mild to moderate depression can be triggered by a difficult life event; by prolonged high levels of stress or anxiety; a poor diet lacking in certain essential nutrients; an excess of alcohol and/or recreational drugs or a genetic predisposition. Symptoms include episodes of sleeplessness, low sex drive, loss of appetite, or a craving for high-carbohydrate foods, low mood, obviously, poor concentration, and a real lack of motivation and self-belief.
What many people do not realise is how food can affect brain chemical balance. In just the same way as any other organ in the body requires specific nutrients for optimum function, so too healthy brain function can be maintained through healthy food and lifestyle practices.
With this is mind, I was at a Christmas party last night and when asked about my work I explained what nutritional therapy is and gave the example of how eating certain foods can help with certain cases of mental illness. The woman I was speaking with found this utterly remarkable and was keen to hear more. I gave the example of depression. She failed to understand why people didn’t just go the gym to get a hit of endorphins, the way she does. I explained that once depression takes hold it can be extremely hard to find the energy and motivation to do anything very much, never mind going to the gym.
It struck me as interesting though, as this woman had clearly found her own strategy for coping with her stress and anxiety levels by thrashing it out at the gym. I am well aware that depression is far more fickle and pervasive than feeling a little stressed out, wound up or jaded, but I wanted to run through some healthy guidelines for helping to keep your brain chemicals in good order:
- Omega 3: yes, yet again, this essential oil, woefully lacking in most Westerners diet, is utterly critical for healthy brain function including ensuring the feel good chemicals and well balanced.
- Vitamin D: another nutrient severely lacking in many people, especially during the winter. Low vitamin D levels are strongly correlated to low mood depression.
- Tryptophan: this an amino acid, found in certain proteins and is the precursor to the manufacture of serotonin, one of the main ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain. Interestingly, there are high levels of tryptophan in white meat, especially turkey, so it makes sense to feast on turkey during holiday times when tensions can be high with all those visitors and demands on your time.
- Whole grains: especially brown rice and whole oats. These foods contain good levels of various B vitamins essential for supporting adrenal function (helping with feelings of stress and anxiety) and good for supporting the nervous system and getting a good nights sleep.
- Organic, free-range eggs: containing great levels of protein and, if organic and free range, will also contain lots of omega 3 and vitamin D.
- Stable blood sugar: ensure regular, well-balanced meals with good levels of protein, whole grains and fresh veg. This will help maintain steady blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar can trigger low mood, energy slumps and feelings of anxiety.
- Stay off the refined carbs: sugar, white bread, processed snacks, cakes, biscuits etc. play havoc with blood sugar levels and can negatively affect brain chemical balance.
- Manage your stress: easier said than done, but high levels of stress over a prolonged period can result in serious levels of depression due to the stress hormone cortisol – a well studied depressant.
- Get outside! A good brisk walk can significantly lift a low mood. Even if you don’t feel like it, force yourself to get outside. It doesn’t matter if the sun isn’t shining, you’re brain chemicals will still benefit from revving up your body and being out in the daylight.
I appreciate that this is a somewhat simplistic approach to depression and I in no way wish to trivialize what is often a very debilitating, misunderstood and under diagnosed problem. Equally, please do no underestimate the power of healthy eating on certain mental health issues.
There are some specific supplements that can significantly boost serotonin, dopamine and melatonin levels, all involved in mood regulation, stress management and sleep. If you feel you need some help with managing your depression naturally, please get in touch.