Getting the foundations right
Movement is medicine. If you take only one thing away from reading this guide, I hope it will be inspiration to get your body moving in a way that feels good. Vigorous exercise, dance, stretching, and even simply taking a walk are some of the most effective and immediate solutions for feeling better fast. Regular movement should be a part of every individual's self-care when it comes to addressing depression and anxiety. Try to reframe your daily movement as a treat and not a chore or punishment, make it social so you benefit from social interaction and are held accountable.
Sleep The difference between how you feel when you get enough sleep and when you don’t is profound. Most people feel best when they get between eight and a half and nine and a half hours of sleep each night. Start by simply getting in bed half an hour earlier than usual or allowing yourself to stay in bed a half hour longer. Once you see the difference, in your mood and your ability to focus – you'll be highly motivated to make more time in your life for sleep. And if you struggle with sleep there are many ways to re-set your circadian rhythm and support better sleep so please get in touch.
Real food is grounding, satisfying, and eaten in a relaxed manner. Making time to eat regularly is essential to feeling well. Getting enough high-quality protein and fats in your diet is essential to maintaining mental health. Low intake of key nutrients like magnesium, calcium, zinc, and b-vitamins can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Skipping meals and relying on sugar, caffeine and alcohol may provide short term relief but will exacerbate symptoms in the long term due to their effects on the nervous system and the liver. Keeping it simple especially when you feel low is key, choosing
whole foods will provide the most nourishment and identifying if you tend to over eat to deal with emotions or if your low mood leads to avoidance of food, seek appropriate support when needed. Seaweed, bone broth, high quality animal protein, leafy greens, and oats are all excellent foods to incorporate into your diet if you struggle with anxiety or depression.
We are social creatures and we need to feel close and connected to one another. Make time to really connect with someone you love and let them know what’s going on with you. It can feel impossible to reach out when you’re in a hard place, but by doing so you’ll be deepening your trust with whomever you choose to spend time with. We all go through hard times and when we are courageous enough to ask for support, we give others permission to do the same.
Time in Nature
When we spend too much time indoors, our nervous systems tend to go haywire, responding to a lack of external communication and connection. Spending time in Nature is the most basic and healing thing that anyone can do for themselves. We are not separate to Nature we are part of it, it's just that the our modern technologically driven worlds keep us separate from it much of the time. Think of somewhere nearby that you love. It can be a park, or a forest, or even just a patch of grass outside your work – anywhere outside that you feel connected to the elements will do. Try to spent some time outside every day, and pay attention to your surroundings, walk to work, go outside at lunchtime, put your hands in soil, tending for a plant even one in a pot if you don't have access to a garden can really support a sense of wellbeing. Take a day trip to the coast, and look at the ocean and breathe in the fresh air, taking yourself outside of your daily routine can shift stagnant emotions.
I speak from personal experience when I say no one thing will cure your depression, it will take a toolkit of practices that you slowly embed over time, the practice is ongoing and benefits are cumulative, don’t be disheartened when you experience setbacks. Try to get curious and explore your feelings and low mood, what preceded it, have you let the foundations slip, can you gently put them back into place without being critical? Over time you will get skilled in the art of quickly coming out of a low phase with your own personal set of tools.
Why is what we eat so important?
In order to experience emotions, we need a release of many different chemicals in our nervous system known as neurotransmitters, these chemical messengers are responsible for feelings like elation, contentment, motivation, fear or anxiety.
The key neurotransmitters are acetylcholine, serotonin, GABA, adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, glutamate, PEA, hormones can also act as neurotransmitters. Some of these biochemicals are stimulating and some are calming or aid focus. Each of them requires certain key nutrients for production, release and delivery.
This why low intakes of certain nutrients can be a common cause of low mood and depression and restoring these vital nutrients is the first place to start.
Key Nutrients for Mood
Omega 3s the human brain is 60 percent fat, and this fat is functional, meaning it has a bioactive role in brain function. In order to function properly the brain needs a steady supply of the right kinds of fats known as essential fatty acids, the two most important for mood are the Omega 3s, EPA and DHA.
There are three forms of omega 3s, ALA found in seeds like flax and chia, EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish- salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring (think SMASH). Human can convert a very small amount of ALA to EPA but we really need to eat some oily fish or supplement to get enough to support healthy brain function.
B vitamins work as cofactors enabling essential processes in the body to function. They are water soluble so easily excreted from the body and many of us struggle to get adequate intake in our diets.
B1 (Thiamine) helps turn the food we eat into energy so low levels can leave us feeling tired and sluggish, affect concentration and mental performance.
Best food sources: leafy greens, oily fish, pork, squash, sunflower seeds, whole grains.
B3 (Niacin) deficiency is directly linked to low mood, apathy and depression.
Best food sources: Brown rice, chicken, mushrooms, prawns, salmon, tuna.
B5 (Pantothenic acid) required to make acetylcholine which is needed for memory and learning.
Best food sources: Broccoli, eggs, liver, mushrooms, squash, sunflower seeds.
B6 (Pyridoxine) probably the most key B vitamin for mental health, its required to make myelin which protects nerve cells, and for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter. There are many clinical trials on the benefits of B6 for treating depression.
Best food sources: Bananas, spinach, sunflower seeds, sweet potato, tuna, turkey.
Folic acid low levels are linked to depression, and can lead to low levels of SAMe a substance required for neurotransmitter production.
Best food sources: think foliage- Broccoli, kale, lentils, beans, spinach.
B12 involved in neurotransmitter production, in combination with B6 and folate reduces inflammation which is linked to depression.
Best food sources: eggs, liver, red meat, salmon and shell fish.
Magnesium involved in over 1000 biochemical processes in the human body, its often called the ‘relax’ mineral as it hits GABA receptors in the brain which are calming and is also required for muscle relaxation, it plays an important role in nerve transmission and energy production. It can ease tension and aid sleep.
Best food sources: cashew nuts, leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, quinoa.
Vitamin D low levels are linked to low mood and depression. Technically a hormone our bodies synthesis vitamin D from cholesterol under our skin when its exposed to sunlight, so spending many hours inside or living in the northern hemisphere and using high factor sunscreen can lead to sub optimal levels.
Best food sources: Sardines, salmon, mushrooms (exposed to sunlight)
In terms of supplements, starting with Omega 3s, a B complex with high B6, Magnesium and vitamin D can make a profound difference.
Balancing blood sugar
As well as ensuring a steady supply of key nutrients for brain health, it’s important to regulate the release of glucose into the blood. If we eat too much or too little blood sugar levels can vary rapidly swinging from high to low and when low this signals an emergency and the release of stress hormones.
Gut dysfunction, including food allergies and sensitivities, intestinal permeability and inflammation may be promoting low mood and anxiety, with many digestive problems commonly presenting with symptoms of anxiety and or depression. There is a clear gut brain axis, and the gut is often called the second brain with more nerve signals travelling from the gut to the brain than the other way around. Ever had a ‘gut feeling’ or been told to ‘listen to your gut’? 70% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is synthesised in the gut, and if there is an imbalance of bacteria is switches neurotransmitter production to a more excitatory pathway which can leave you feeling on edge and anxious. Supporting gut health with fermented foods, lots nutrient dense foods, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, beans, pulses and lentils, nuts and seeds and essential fats like extra virgin olive oil and avocados will also go a long way in supporting brain health.
Ruling out underlying factors- if you suffer from persistent unexplained low mood, I recommend getting a blood test to asses your hormonal balance, thyroid function, rule out anaemia- iron or B12 and assess your blood sugar and Vitamin D status as all these things can lead to low mood and anxiety. This is best done in conjunction with a Naturopathic practitioner like myself as often the GP will tell you everything is normal, as they are looking at ruling out overt disease states whereas we look to support optimal health and often work with tighter ranges.
A Naturopath is not in the business of treating depression but in treating the person with depression so each prescription will be unique to the individual, below are some of the common herbs I may call upon to formulate a prescription:
St John’s wort (Hypericum)
Saint John’s Wort is a relaxant nervine, most widely known herbal remedy for depression. Its mechanism for helping to lift a heavy mood is due to its ability support the liver and decrease systemic inflammation. It is indicated for those whose depression does not stop them from carrying on with life, but which takes all of the joy from those things which they once loved.
Saffron (Crocus sativa)
A strong history of traditional use in Asia with more recent body of clinical trials to support its use as an effective antidepressant. Rich in antioxidants it seems to protect brain cells for inflammation. It promotes a positive mood and emotional balance, concentration and calm.
Damiana (Turnera diffusa)
Damiana is great for anyone who feels cold, stuck and isolates themselves due to social anxiety. It improves circulation to the periphery of the body, increasing our ability to sense the world around us in a way that is safe and pleasurable. It increases sensation in all areas of the body, for the times when we are stuck in our head and disconnected from bodily awareness. Damiana is most often used as a warming aphrodisiac, but works at a deeper level enabling you to feel pleasure and joy again.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Growing lemon balm is really easy even for the most un-green fingered of us, a member of the mint family is grows really well with little care and attention. Picking the leaves releases an uplifting lemony scent and deep green of the leaves will lift your mood every time you interact with it and makes a simple at home mood enhancing tea. Most helpful in the earlier stages of depression, it works well if you experience short term bouts of low mood which are made better by exercise and sunshine. It is also indicated for depression which alternates with anxiety and may include disturbed sleep. Indicated for those whole feel cold, and whose depression is marked by lack of interest in sex, social withdrawal and low appetite.
Oatstraw (Avena sativa)
Oatstraw is an incredibly grounding, soothing and mineral-rich herb which helps to regulate the nervous system, improve mental clarity, and impart a general sense of well-being. Calming frayed nerves when we feel a pervasive sense of anxiety and uneasiness. If you don't have access to Oatstraw for whatever reason, you can also simply eat Organic Oats. Oatstraw nourishes and rebuilds the body slowly over time and is often used for fatigue after illness or long intense periods of stress. It is also helpful when taken during acute periods of intense stress such as a break-up, a move, or during exams.
Other herbs commonly used include adaptogens like Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococus sentinosa). Nervines like Skullcap (Scutellatria lateriflora), Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Vervain (Verbena officinalis) along with specifically indicated herbs to support sleep, stress, immunity, detoxification, hormonal or blood sugar balance. Herbs can be taken as tinctures, teas or tablets. For more information or to book a consultation please get in touch.