Mental Health

Depression: Why you’re not crazy & what it means for your health

Note:  If you’re here because you have depression, please consult a doctor or call the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 if you need help or medicinal treatment. Depression is serious and real, and your life is valuable.

The conversation about mental health has gotten louder in recent years. Celebrity losses due to mental illness, such as Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Robin Williams, have helped increase the spotlight on getting our culture emotionally and mentally healthy. Depression & anxiety are among the most common mental health struggles and has historically had really poor treatment options available. I’ve spoken about my issues with stress, anxiety, and adrenal health before and absolutely believe that the taboo must be lifted so we can speak openly and without judgement about what’s going on. Mental health is so serious and real, and the only way we will heal is opening up the floor to conversation.

What is depression?

Depression is far more prevalent in women than men, which is why I want to use this post to really zoom in on depression specifically. Depression isn’t just more likely to burrow into our female brains but it’s actually the leading cause of disease burden in women [1].

It may look a little different in each person, but generally the symptoms of depression include negative thoughts (up to and including suicidal thoughts and/or actions), low mood, fatigue, feeling sad, appetite changes, and restlessness. Depression is more than just feeling a little down — it’s a real, debilitating syndrome that impacts millions of women every day.

Stress, genetics, and medications such as hormonal birth control pills can all contribute to depression. Many times depression is the result of compounding factors that all contribute to the end result. Other factors include trauma, hormonal imbalances, poor nutrition, mold or heavy metal toxicity, and lack of sunlight [2].

If you haven’t experienced depression yourself, I’d bet you know someone who has. The beast can take different forms. Some people have acute, shorter bouts of depression called an episode. Relapse occurs if depression strikes within 6 months of the most recent episode. If it takes more than 6 months for depression to return, it’s called recurrent. And chronic depression (lasting 2 years or longer) is called dysthymia [3].

The Usual Meds

Depression is all in your head. Or is it?

Historically, scientists have thought that depression is a result of decreased levels of serotonin (the happiness neurotransmitter) and norepinephrine (a fight-or-flight neurotransmitter). While 90% of antidepressants target these neurotransmitters only 30% of people taking these meds feel any different [4]. Those odds aren’t great.

And on top of that, one study shows that a majority of the success in that 30% are due to the placebo effect! [5]

These drugs comes with a price, too. The side effects can get pretty nasty [6]:

  • nausea
  • weight gain
  • lack of sex drive
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • irritability

Definitely not something you want to be taking if it you don’t have to.

So if boosting low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine isn’t actually treating all depression, what else could actually be causing the problem?

Why You’re Not Crazy

Let’s dive into what’s going on in your brain and body that causes the syndrome we call depression.

New research coming out of Hiroshima University showed in a rodent experiment that the hormone receptor MCHR1, involved with sleep, mood, and feeding, was controlled by a protein called RGS8. They showed that when there was more RGS8 to block MCHR1, the mice showed less depressive behavior. For this type of depression, serotonin and norepinephrine had nothing to do with it [7].

If we kick out the neurotransmitter model, the leading model of depression points the finger at inflammation [8, 9].

I know, I know. You’ve heard that word “inflammation” a gazillion times to the point that it’s lost all meaning.

Well I’m here to tell ya that inflammation is like the mob boss of health problems. In the case of depression, higher levels of inflammation correlate directly.

Higher levels of inflammation markers in the blood appear in depressed people. This marker is called a cytokine. According to studies, dosing with cytokine interferon-alpha resulted in depression in 50% of the patients! Inflammatory cytokines can also interact with physiology that has historically been linked to depression, like the neurotransmitters for metabolism and neuroendocrine function [10].

Depression also occurs in higher rates in people with an inflammatory-based disease such as cancer or autoimmune (although this could be in part to the emotional toll of having this kind of illness). Depression is correlated to lower levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent oxidative stress which causes chronic inflammation [11].

What Not To Do (& what to do instead)

Depression is tricky to treat because so many factors contribute to the condition. Nutrient levels, stress, environmental toxins, and lack of sleep can in combination trigger depression. This means that to truly reign in depression from a holistic approach, you’ve got to get a handle on all of your triggers.

One of my favorite metaphor from Dr. Mark Hyman makes a good visual for this. If you have a tack in each thumb, taking out only one tack won’t make the pain go away.

Now, lemme be clear. If you have clinical depression and/or if you need help, get professional medical help. Don’t quit taking your meds without consulting your doctor. And don’t interpret anything I say here as medical advice. I am not a doctor.

With that being said, if you want to avoid prescription drugs, you should dig deeper. Tune into your body and your life. Figure out what your triggers could be. And fight. Your depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

Let’s Talk Nutrients

Before we get to food, let’s talk about which low nutrient levels have been linked to depression. Studies show low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D can result in decreased brain function and increased chance of depression [12].

Some of these can easily be gotten through food, while others may require supplements, especially if you’re trying to make up a negative balance.

Let’s Talk Food

Food is information. Every bite is telling your body how to respond the the environment, such as whether food is scarce (even if it’s not), what to build your brain with, and whether it should store fat. When you eat bad fats, lots of sugar, and/or don’t gets enough nutrients, your body doesn’t have the right building blocks for things like proteins.

Sugar vs Fat

Sugar triggers your brain to keep eating just in case that’s all the food you’re gonna get for a long time. Bad fats are basically like the styrofoam balls of building materials — and fat is used to build cells.

If you’re battling with depression, making sure your brain is supported with good fats like grass fed butter, avocados, and coconut oil is important. This is where those Omega 3s are coming from.

Keeping the sugar levels low also balances brain chemistry — that includes carbs like bread and pasta, not just candy!! And unfortunately, you might want to keep your fruit intake low. More like one piece a day instead of per meal.

Put your fat on this…

Load up on veggies. As much as you want to eat in the most variety you can find. Veggies are low in sugar, high in nutrients, and are highly anti-inflammatory. While you can get B and D vitamins as well as zinc and magnesium from veggies, modern food is less nutrient dense than food used to be. If you’re nutrient levels are still low after veggie-loading, this is where supplements are helpful. Make sure your supplements are high quality. I also would not recommend a multivitamin because sometimes the vitamins included actually interfere with each other, and you don’t necessarily need boosted levels of all the vitamins included. Slather your veggies in butter and herbs/spices (which are also dense in goodness).

Don’t forget a moderate amount of animal protein from grass fed sources. Organic is the second best option, but grass fed (and grass finished) is the best source.

Other Ways to Reinforce Your Brain

Mediation

Meditation is amazing for the brain. It can reduce anxiety, ground your mind, and calm the body. Studies show that 30 minutes of meditation beat out the results of meds and therapy. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown as a highly effective replacement for medication. After 4 months of only using MBCT, 75% of patients felt good enough to stop taking their prescriptions [13, 14]. That’s some pretty sweet stats for a treatment with no side effects!

Reduce Oxidative Stress

Reducing oxidative stress is also important. This circles back to the food and nutrition again. Oxidative stress causes inflammation. Bad fats such as canola oil and others vegetable oils trigger this. Increasing polyphenols and other antioxidants help counteract the damage done by oxidation. Glutathione is the body’s best antioxidant. Sulfur-rich foods, vitamin C, selenium, milk thistle, and turmeric can boost glutathione production. Naturally glutathione-rich foods include avocados, spinach, asparagus, and okra [15].

Get Outside

Getting outside with the tress and sun are amazing natural therapy. Sunlight increases endorphin and dopamine release which does all kinds of good things for your body. When sunlight makes direct contact with skin, it produces vitamin D — 15 minutes on a sunny day is enough for your entire daily dose! Forest bathing (getting under the trees) reduces stress, blood pressure, and heart rate compared to being in the city.

Exercise

Short, high intensity interval exercise produces new neural networks which makes your brain better. Running can also improve symptoms of depression. Personally, running is where it’s at for me. It can kill stress and anxiety, too. Some doctors are even prescribing exercise instead of meds for mild depression.

A Free Resource for You

Depression is no joke. It’s real and physical and can cause people to lose function in daily life. The good news is that real science is replacing outdated medicinal practices. There is hope and healing if this is your cross right now.

If you’re interested in mediation, I’ve got a short series for you. It takes less than 5 minutes a day on topics like stress and sleep. Just drop your email below, and they’ll hit your inbox starting today!

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