By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
It’s no secret that this winter has been especially brutal. But the bitter cold isn’t the only problem many of us face. Paired with a bad economy, it’s no wonder the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression has skyrocketed.
Americans today fill more than 232 million prescriptions annually for antidepressants – up fourfold from a decade ago. But as rates of both clinical depression and more transient day-to-day mood problems climb, some mental health experts say evaluating diet, lifestyle choices, and your attitude could be the key to kicking a persistent bad mood.
It isn’t just a hunch that these factors play a role: For decades scientists have believed that depression arises from deficiencies in brain chemicals like serotonin. But researchers now realize that blue moods can also be a product of an unhealthy brain structure made up of withering brain cells that, consequently, have trouble communicating. One primary factor that contributes to cell atrophy? A poor diet.
While there isn’t a specific diet to ease the symptoms of depression, the Mediterranean diet – a balanced, healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and fish – has been linked to lower levels of depression. A recent study using data from 4,211 men and 5,459 women found that rates of depression tended to increase in men – especially smokers – as folate intake decreased. The same increase occurred for women – especially those who smoked or were physically active – but with a decreased intake of another B-vitamin: B12
Folate is found in Mediterranean diet staples like legumes, nuts, many fruits, and particularly dark green vegetables. B12 can be found in all lean and low-fat animal products like fish and low-fat dairy products.
Filling your plate with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can also thwart damaging free radicals that contribute to aging and dysfunction. Studies show that the brain is particularly at risk for free radical damage. Although there’s no way to stop free radicals completely, we can reduce their destructive effect on the body by eating foods high in powerful antioxidants like beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E.
Foods rich in lean protein, like turkey, tuna, or chicken, can increase alertness, thanks to an amino acid called tyrosine. Tyrosine boosts levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine – both of which aid concentration. Try to include a protein source in your diet several times a day, especially when you need to clear your mind and kickstart your energy.
Fishing for Serenity
New evidence from a Canadian clinical trial has found that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish – can soothe psychological distress in middle-aged women. The researchers at Laval University in Quebec enrolled 120 women between the ages of 40 and 55 with moderate to severe psychological distress. The group was randomized to receive either 1.05 grams of EPA plus 0.15 grams of DHA in divided doses or a placebo daily for eight weeks. Self-rating of symptoms, the Psychological General Well-Being Schedule, and a depression scale symptom checklist were completed at the beginning of the study and again at the end of four and eight weeks. Those who received the EPA-DHA combo were found to have significantly improved symptoms after eight weeks compared to the subjects who received the placebo.
The study authors noted that polyunsaturated fatty acids are needed by brain cell membranes, and that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids can impact transmission of serotonin, a brain hormone involved in mood. EPA and DHA have anti-inflammatory and other effects on brain biochemistry, including an ability to alter the expression of enzymes. But to consistently get these benefits, it’s wise to eat fatty fish like salmon twice a week and add a fish-oil supplement to your routine. Opt for a pure marine fish oil and take 2,000 to 3,000 mg. daily.
In the Weeds
If diet doesn’t do the trick, you may need to bring out Mother Nature’s heavy artillery. St. John’s wort is a common roadside weed that has gained a huge following for its ability to ease anxiety and depression – and for good reason. A meta-analysis of 22 randomized controlled trials shows that St. John’s wort is significantly more effective than taking a placebo and just as effective as standard antidepressants for relieving mild to moderate depression.
The recommended dose is 300 mg. of a standardized extract containing 0.3 percent hypericin three times a day. Much like pharmaceutical antidepressants, it could take up to a month before you start to notice improvement.
One Last Thing …
If you are fatigued, irritable, and crave carbohydrates during the shorter, darker days of winter, your body may simply be trying to make up for low serotonin levels. Serotonin levels tend to be lower in the winter – and this can be the reason behind your winter blues.
The connection with carbohydrates is this: Eating carbohydrates will increase serotonin production, which should elevate your mood – at least temporarily. So, those comfort food cravings may be your body’s way of self-medicating. In fact, a small study in 2006 found that a twice-daily carbohydrate drink relieved symptoms of the more extreme version of the winter doldrums – seasonal sffective disorder (SAD).
But the problem with these blues-soothing carbs is that the effect only lasts for a few hours – then you need another fix. By the time winter is over, you may have packed on a lot of carbohydrate-fueled pounds. A better way to stimulate serotonin is to exercise regularly. Exercise stimulates serotonin production with no carbohydrate hang-over. Instead of gaining winter weight, you might even trim down. If you struggle with low moods and/or carbohydrate cravings at this time of year, why not give this a two-week trial: Get 30 minutes a day of moderate- to high-intensity exercise. If weather and schedule permit, take your exercise outdoors and get the additional benefit of some natural light therapy.
Research Brief …
Caffeine is almost certainly the country’s most popular drug, with American adults consuming more than 300 mg. of it every day. Caffeine is a natural component of chocolate, coffee, and tea and is used in most colas and energy drinks. It’s also found in diet pills and some over-the-counter medications.
Over the past 30 years, there have been more than 19,000 studies on caffeine and coffee – all trying to determine its exact effects on the human body. And, while caffeine can have some negative effects – increasing anxiety, stress, and food cravings, as well as inhibiting sleep – increasing the overall risk of breast cancer isn’t one of them, according to a recent study.
Scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, along with colleagues from Tokyo Women’s Medical University in Japan, studied the diets of 38,432 women between 1992 and 1995. The researchers found that about 25 percent never drank coffee, and another 25 percent drank one cup or less per day. Almost 30 percent consumed two to three cups per day, while slightly more than 15 percent drank four or more cups daily.
Within 10 years of follow-up, 1,188 of the study participants developed invasive breast cancer. But, after taking the women’s dietary information into account, the researchers concluded that consuming caffeine in any of its forms wasn’t associated with overall breast cancer risk.
However, before you head for your nearest coffee bar, take note: Women with a history of benign breast disease who routinely consumed large amounts of caffeine do have an increased risk for developing the malignant form of the disease.
Clement K, Covertson CR, Johnson MJ, et al. “St. John’s wort and the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a systematic review.” Holististic Nursing Practice. 2006;20:197-203.
Ishitani K, Lin J, Manson JE, et al. “Caffeine Consumption and the Risk of Breast Cancer in a Large Prospective Cohort of Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2008;168:2022-2031.
Sánchez-Villegas A, Henríquez P, Bes-Rastrollo M, et al. “Mediterranean diet and depression.” Public Health Nutrition. 2006;9:1104-1109.
Wurtman JJ. “Depression and weight gain: the serotonin connection.” Journal of Affective Disorders. 1993;29:183-192.