By: Cat Ebeling, RN, MSN-PHN, co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen, The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix
We all get down occasionally, and that’s ok. This is a normal part of life’s ups and downs. Kids grow up and move out, a parent dies, a relationship ends, the seasons change, disappointments in career, etc. Luckily, these things can and should be transitory, and we can help this by being good to ourselves: exercising, getting out in the sunshine, spending time with friends—especially those who make us laugh, getting good rest and eating healthier.
But sometimes depression and/or anxiety can have you in its grips and it just won’t go away. When depression and anxiety start to interfere with your home life, your career, your ‘get up and go’, your sleep or just robs you of your joy, it’s time to take some steps to FIX it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean running to your doctor and asking for a prescription for depression and anxiety. Many conventional medical doctors are more than happy to oblige. However, prescription medication for anxiety and depression are not without side effects—weight gain, loss of emotional highs and lows, loss of libido, etc. And on top of that, prescription meds are not a cure; you will most likely be on them the rest of your life.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, naturally, and often, when you go right to the physical source of the problem, you can ‘fix’ it. Once and for all.
Depression and anxiety are often internal signs that something is not functioning properly. It could be high levels of inflammation, low levels of vital nutrients, chemical ingredients in food that mess with your neurobiology, a gut that is way off balance and in need of healthy bacteria, chronic disease, out of balance blood sugar, high stress, not enough sleep, and more.
The roots of clinical depression start with a complex mixture of physiological, environmental, and emotional elements. Much of our mood depends on neurotransmitters that are the chemicals of the brain. The most important ones that deal with mood are serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine. And it may come as a surprise to many people, but diet and nutrition play a huge role in our moods and behaviors.
When looking at both anxiety and depression, inflammation is one of the key factors. Much research has shown that people with depression and anxiety show elevated levels of inflammatory markers.
Other diet and nutritional factors for depression are linked to low omega 3 levels, high omega 6 levels, leaky gut, gut dysbiosis, B vitamin deficiency, and zinc and magnesium deficiencies. There is also a very strong link between depression, anxiety and blood sugar and insulin levels.
For many reasons including brain health, I advocate for an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle. Avoid gluten and dairy as these can often create inflammation in the gut, even if you are not sensitive to gluten or dairy. An elimination diet may be the best place to start—to find hidden sources of foods that may be contributing to inflammatory/sensitivity reactions.
Many people with anxiety/depression are often addicted to a high-carb diet, and it’s possible that this high carb diet which can temporarily raise serotonin levels (a feel-good, calming neurotransmitter) can also contribute to increased inflammation and blood sugar levels. And then there is a crash in serotonin as blood sugar crashes, and the cycle repeats.
Lifestyle Changes that Help Manage Depression and Anxiety
There are ways to get out of this cycle once and for all. Here are a few of my tried and true (and scientifically researched) suggestions.
- Sleep–Get good sleep as much as you can. That doesn’t mean if you feel down to get in bed at 6pm, but get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, and go to bed at the same time each night. Sleep is immensely helpful for managing emotions and stress, and helps your brain create the necessary neurotransmitters it needs for feeling good. I’m sure you all have had experiences where you get a good night’s sleep and your whole attitude feels changed for the better.
- Exercise–Exercise can have a drastically positive effect on mood, all by itself. And if you can exercise outdoors, especially in the sunshine, it’s an even bigger effect. Exercise raises endorphins, lowers inflammation, helps you feel more energetic and helps your body process and remove inflammatory toxins. In addition, being outdoors and filling your lungs with fresh air always makes you feel better, so even if you only have 15-20 minutes to do a brisk walk around the block—rain, snow, or sun—get out and do it and you definitely feel better.
- Cold plunge therapy—Cold water has long-standing benefits that ameliorate depression and anxiety for many people. In fact, the Scandinavians have been using this treatment for many, many years. And even Van Gogh was treated with cold water therapy for his depression. Cold therapy is a very effective non-invasive treatment for anxiety and depression because it changes the brain chemicals. The cold temperatures cause a change in the way the body’s nervous system communicates with the brain. Cold water causes an immediate release of adrenalin, that in turn increases the amounts of dopamine and serotonin. And it’s not just a temporary spike, cold therapy increases your baseline levels of these neurotransmitters. Cold water therapy also helps you burn fat, increase focus and alertness, and stimulates the immune system.
- Social Contact—Getting out and being social may be the last thing on your mind when you are anxious or depressed, but it’s one of the best ways to get out of a funk. Getting out with friends or family, smiling, talking, hugging, and interacting can go a long way towards helping you feel much better. Many studies suggest that increasing social interaction can help lower rates of loneliness and depression. Social connection helps us feel supported, connected, and liked. Even if you don’t have any friends or family, go to your local grocery store, or your favorite coffee shop and engage in a friendly conversation with the people who work there.
Diet and Nutrition for Mental Health
Many people are surprised to learn that diet and nutrition can have a drastic effect on mood—especially anxiety and depression. Because of the strong connection between inflammation and mood, however, it should be the number one thing that is addressed. It’s no surprise that nutrition is involved with the way our body produces brain chemicals, just as it does with the functioning of every other organ. A diet that is healthy for the brain is also healthy for the body and vice versa.
A diet that supports brain health should do these key things:
- Reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar
- Contain essential nutrients that protect and maintain brain and nerve function
- Contain high levels of antioxidants, as in organic vegetables
- Maintain a healthy gut
One of the first things I’d advise people to do is to avoid all sugars, limit carbohydrates—except for vegetable sources and cut out (all) grains. Not only does this help to lower blood sugar and insulin, but it also reduces inflammation. Sugar and inflammation go hand in hand.
The second thing I’d recommend is to eliminate all processed foods—especially foods that contain chemical ingredients, artificial colors or flavors and preservatives. It’s also best to avoid conventional fruit and vegetables as these foods are highly sprayed with chemical compounds that not only interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain, but also kill off beneficial bacteria in the gut. Research shows a strong link between pesticides and depression.
Recommendation number three is to totally eliminate all vegetable oils, except for extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. All vegetable seed oils such as soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola, corn, and cottonseed oils cause widespread inflammation in the body, and can block helpful anti-inflammatory omega 3’s. These vegetable oils are known to cause and increased risk for mood disorders. Best types of oil to use instead of vegetable oils include butter, ghee, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or lard.
Eat meat. Unfortunately, vegans and vegetarians report higher incidences of anxiety and depression. Meat—especially grass fed, naturally raised meat and wild-caught fish contain higher amounts of omega 3’s and lower amounts of omega 6’s. Meat also contains necessary vitamins and nutrients essential for brain health, such as vitamin B12, heme iron, zinc, and vitamin D3. All of these nutrients—if deficient–have been shown to be tied to either depression or anxiety or both. And sorry, vegans and vegetarians, but a good portion of these vitamins and minerals are available in meat but not readily available in plant foods.
Supplements that Help Anxiety and Depression
While anxiety and depression are two separate emotional states, there are many overlapping similarities. Nutrients that help anxiety most often help depression and vice versa. Here are a few supplements I’d suggest:
- A quality multi-vitamin/mineral supplement will fill in dietary gaps, and boost intake levels of key nutrients important for mental health and neurotransmitter balance. Optimal brain s supported by a whole network of nutrients, including amino acids, vitamins, and trace minerals. Be sure to choose a high-quality supplement with proven ingredients and nutrients.
- B Complex vitamins are essential for nerve and brain health, as well as energy, focus and feelings of calm. B vitamins are known to help lessen feelings of anxiety and depression. At least half or more of the population has a genetic variant that will not allow them to assimilate folic acid, the synthetic version of folate and B12. To cover this, be sure to find B vitamins that contain methyl folate and methyl cobalamin. These forms of B vitamins are easily absorbable and usable.
- Vitamin C is a particularly useful antioxidant which not only manages harmful free radicals, but it also is effective at lowering inflammation. Studies have shown that those with low levels of vitamin C feel fatigued, depressed, and often have cognitive impairment. In addition, vitamin C is great for helping the body fight infection and for keeping the immune system strong. Vitamin C is also useful as a synergistic element to build collagen.
- Vitamin D3-As mentioned above, some studies have shown vitamin D3 to be effective in fighting anxiety, and possibly depression as well. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, cardiovascular health, immune health and many other bodily functions. And many people just cannot get out in the sun to get vitamin D, especially in the winter.
- Magnesium has been shown to not only be an essential mineral in the body but it is also quite effective for both anxiety and depression. Magnesium blocks the activity stress neurotransmitters and while binding to more calming receptors, resulting in a peaceful, calm state. It also slows the release of stress hormones like cortisol, helping you become more relaxed. Magnesium is also very effective for deeper, more restful sleep. Best types of magnesium include magnesium l-threonate, glycinate, malate, taurate, asporotate. Of these, my favorite is magnesium glycinate or malate. Least absorbable types to avoid are magnesium citrate and oxide.
- Zinc plays an essential role in many of our body functions, including immune system, and it also affects our brain processes, according to this 2017 study. The study also links zinc and specific hormones or neurotransmitters — especially our “feel good” hormones, serotonin, and dopamine. This study from 2021 shows zinc helps elevate levels of a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the areas that control emotions. When zinc is in low supply, BDNF levels drop, and so does our mood. A 2017 review of several studies found a link between lower levels of zinc and depression. It also found that adding zinc supplementation in combination with other treatments may help improve symptoms of depression.
- Inositol or Myo-inositol is a form of B vitamin and is very effective for relieving symptoms of anxiety, panic disorder and OCD. Inositol affects the neurotransmitters, the which work to govern mood. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that is affected by inositol. Higher levels of serotonin promote relaxation and calm. Several studies have shown that inositol is helpful in reducing anxiety and panic attacks. Other research shows inositol taken daily will reduce symptoms of depression as well as anxiety. In addition, inositol is helpful for managing blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, increasing fertility, and managing PCOS.
- SAM-e is one of my favorite supplements that is helpful for relieving anxiety and depression. SAM-e is a natural substance made in the body, and for some who have a specific genetic variant in the MTHFR gene (about 50% of the population), SAM-e is highly effective, especially considering some people do not synthesize this substance as well as others. SAM-e is also used for improved liver function, aches, and pains, and improving mental function and alertness.
- GABA is a neurotransmitter that can also be taken as a supplement. Gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA blocks specific signals in the central nervous system, slowing down the brain and racing thoughts. This can create a protective and calming effect on the brain and body. In 2020, some scientists found GABA to be a bioactive substance that has benefits of being an antidepressant, a calming agent, anti-hypertensive, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer and an immune system enhancer. Certain hormones in the body also increase GABA, including progesterone.
- Ashwaganda is an herb with a long history of its health benefits. Ashwaganda has been used for for thousands of years to reduce stress, increase energy, improve mood and concentration. Ashwagandha is well-known for its ability relieve anxiety and stress. Ashwaganda is classified as an adaptogen, which is a substance that helps the body cope with stress. Ashwaganda also lowers the stress hormone, cortisol. Other evidence points to the fact that ashwaganda may help with depression and other mental health disorders, as well. In addition, ashwaganda helps increase athletic performance, boost fertility and testosterone in men, reduce blood sugar and reduce inflammation.
- Progesterone is considered a master hormone in both men and women. Progesterone is the basis for other hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. In women, progesterone declines rapidly after the age of 40 and is at near zero around the time of menopause. Women in perimenopause and menopause often report increased feelings of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, heightened stress, and insomnia. Because progesterone has a strong calming effect on the brain and body, it can alleviate depression and anxiety. Progesterone levels also interact with GABA, the calming neurotransmitter. More progesterone equals higher levels of GABA and GABA receptors, and calmer feelings. Progesterone can be acquired as an over-the-counter natural cream which works well at bedtime to promote sleep and a calm state.
Additionally, be sure to talk to your doctor to get necessary lab work done. Often depression and anxiety can be linked to hormone health and some other health disorders. It’s best to get a basic CBC, lipid panel and metabolic panel. Be sure to also check thyroid function—not just TSH, but T3 and T4 as well. Also check levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone for women; and for men, check testosterone, estrogen and DHT. Low hormonal levels will most definitely coincide with some level of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and low energy.
And if you find that your anxiety and depression persist despite taking these steps, seek a qualified professional therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist who can help.
I write regularly about health issues and the natural ways to treat them. What is good for the body is good for the brain, and following healthy lifestyle habits, eating a healthy, low carb, and taking high grade supplements when needed goes a long way to helping your mental state. The above steps can really help you zero on things that may be contributing to feelings of anxiety and depression, and while it’s not necessary to try everything, you may find certain remedies work better than others. I urge you to give this a try and see how you feel. I can almost guarantee you will feel better.
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