Depression is a physical illness, as well as a mental illness.
Diet and lifestyle changes can help alleviate not only the symptoms, but also increase physical AND mental resiliency.
What can be done?
To cope with, or even prevent depression, we need to give the brain and the body the opportunity to heal itself. That means creating an environment to enable the brain to engage in its adaptive process and become more resilient.
An effective treatment for depression would therefore focus on two aspects:
For the MIND: Psycho-social care - A good psychologist or psychiatrist should have the training and experience to help you get to the root of what is happening in the mind – to treat the situation, and prevent future relapses.
For the BRAIN and BODY: Reducing the strain on the body's adaptive physiological systems, and opening windows of opportunity for the brain to repair, adapt, and improve resiliency.
How prevalent is depression?
What if change feels really hard?
Depression can rob us of the energy we need to make dietary and lifestyle changes. If this is how you are feeling – then just take small steps, as you feel possible. Consider a good fish oil supplement. Do what you can to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Give yourself permission to take more rest. Small steps add up.
At the lowest point of my depression, it was all I could do to feed myself. So I just focused on that. I worked with a nutritionist, who ran lab tests on me and told me what kind of supplements I needed. I reduced alcohol, caffeine and sugar. I slept – all the time. When I had the energy, I walked in the forest. And I continued with psycho-therapy. It all helped.
Here are our TOP TIPS for helping the BRAIN and the BODY deal with depression and improve resiliency.
The food we eat affects every cell in the body. It can be either poison or medicine – choose wisely! Good nutrition as medicine provides an excellent opportunity to dampen the immune and stress responses associated with depression, and balance the gut-brain axis.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids have a protective effect on the brain, particularly with depression.
Opt for oily fish, such as salmon. It is important that it is wild, rather than farmed – as farmed salmon is fed omega-6, which tends to be inflammatory, rather than anti-inflammatory omega-3.
Supplementation of fish oil could be useful.
Antioxidants help to mop-up free radicals and prevent tissue damage which can be caused by the stress response and inflammation associated with depression.
Berries are packed with antioxidants - think: blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.
Cut back on sugar
Sugar depletes the body of nutrients, and can negatively affect mood, the immune system and gut microbiome. Refined sugar, and particularly sugary drinks, has been associated with increased cortisol production and risk of depression.
Avoid processed foods
Processed foods rob the body of needed nutrients. They can trigger an immune response, which can damage the body’s cells. And they can feed the gut’s “bad” bacteria – considering that nearly all of our serotonin is produced in the gut, it is important to keep the microbiome happy and healthy.
Bask in some vitamin D
Vitamin D has been shown to be an important factor that may have significant health benefits in the prevention and the treatment of many chronic illnesses, including depression and other mental disorders. Most people in northern countries are deficient in vitamin D. While small quantities can be ingested with food, most of our vitamin D comes from our direct exposure to sun on bare skin. Supplementation may be advised, following lab testing.
We are what we repeatedly do. Making lifestyle changes is a process that takes time and support. Healthy lifestyle habits are essential to one’s well-being, and are instrumental in developing resilience - which is key to treating depression and preventing relapses.
Depression can disrupt sleep, and poor sleep can contribute to depression. By improving your sleep hygiene, you help your body and your brain to defend itself against depression.
A bedtime snack containing tryptophan can help to produce serotonin - the happy neurotransmitter - which then can produce melatonin. Food sources of tryptophan include: nuts, eggs, milk, cheese and beans.
Foods which naturally contain melatonin include: cherries, walnuts, bananas, oats and tomatoes.
Chronic stress leads to elevated cortisol, the stress hormone, and reduced serotonin and dopamine – both of which have been linked to depression. When these neurotransmitters are working properly, they regulate biological processes such as sleep, energy, moods and emotions.
An 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention has been shown in to significantly reduce perceived stress, which correlated positively with decreases in amygdala (responsible for fear) gray matter density.
Move your body
Mild exercise can be a powerful antidote to depression. Walking and yoga are examples of mild activities which can be tailored to your level of fitness and energy. It’s probably not the right time to run a marathon or do Cross-fit – think: gentle. It’s important to use only the energy you have.
Reconnect with nature
A recent study found that people living more than one km away from green space (forests, parks, beaches, lakes) were 42% more likely to report high stress and had the worst scores on evaluations of general health, vitality, mental health and bodily pain.
How Functional Nutrition can help
Functional Medicine is a science-based, client-focused approach that aims to restore optimal health by identifying and addressing the root causes of illness, rather than just the symptoms.
Functional Nutrition is a branch of Functional Medicine that considers every aspect of one’s health, diet and overall lifestyle, giving nutrition recommendations designed towards optimal health.
Don’t guess, test!
Functional lab testing can give an in-depth view of what is happening in the body – for example, to see how your hormones are fluctuating over a 24-hour period, or having insight into your gut microbiome. Such testing is ideal for depression-related issues, as it can help to identify sub-optimally functioning systemic pathways and navigate an effective treatment. A Functional Nutritionist can help determine which biomarkers to analyse, and can then order the tests you need.
Work with a Functional Nutritionist
A Functional Nutritionist can help to unravel the extensive information obtained through detailed functional lab testing and a thorough medical history. S/he can help to plan a course of action, potentially including diet and lifestyle recommendations. Supplements may be considered, for example: nutrients, enzymes, amino acids, neurotransmitters, plants and herbs.
Join the Brain Health Programme
The Brain Health Programme aims to optimise brain health and cognitive function using a multi-modal nutrition and lifestyle approach that the human genome requires for optimal health.
This programme is a nutrition and lifestyle coaching package comprised of two nutritional therapy consultations with Kerry Fugard – which can be done in person or online. These are accompanied by six online workshops, watched at your convenience.
For further information about joining the Brain Health Programme, click here
Author: Scotti McLaren, a student of Functional Nutrition at CNELM. Scotti has both technical and personal knowledge in the area of depression.
Written in collaboration with Nutri-360.
Kerry Fugard, Nutri-360
Registered Nutritional Therapist, psychologist, NLP coach
Switzerland, South Africa