Denver - Design District - Alameda and Broadway
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Denver, CO 80209
The focus of the last few months has been avoiding getting sick—social distancing measures and various stay-at-home orders around the country have been put into place to slow the spread of COVID-19, but one of the unanticipated outcomes is a decline in our overall mental health. Social isolation, anxiety about the future, financial insecurity, children at home 24/7, and a sudden loss of our go-to coping mechanisms has created the perfect storm for a mental health crisis, especially for those who were already struggling, and even for those who were not. According to a public health poll published on April 2nd, nearly half of American adults say the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative effect on their mental health.1
We know that a well-nourished brain is a happy brain, and while it may be easy to get lost in the negative thoughts and lean hard into (unhealthy) comfort foods when you’re feeling sad, anxious, lonely, or depressed, these are the times when it is most important to nourish your brain with healthy foods and supplements. This is the best kind of self-care.
What we eat matters for every aspect of our health, especially our mental health. An analysis of 21 studies published in 2017 in Psychiatry Research concluded that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, dairy, and antioxidants was associated with a decreased risk of depression, while a diet high in processed meat, refined grains, sweets, and low intakes of fruit and vegetables was associated with an increased risk of depression. In fact, one study found that people who eat a lot of junk food were 51 percent more likely to develop depression compared to those who rarely ate junk food. And studies that have compared traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet or traditional Japanese diet, to the standard American diet (that is high in sugar, trans fats, and processed grains, and falls woefully short in veggies) have found that the risk of depression is 25 to 35 percent lower in people who eat a more traditional diet.2 3 4
Research investigating fruit and vegetable intake and depression risk has consistently found that lower intakes are related to a higher risk of depression. 5 6 7 Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are both drivers of major depressive disorder, and fruit and vegetables are chock-full of antioxidants that reduce oxidative damage and inflammation. Two recent studies, published in 2018 and 2019, respectively, reported that higher dietary intake of antioxidants was associated with lower prevalence of depressive symptoms.8 Fresh produce is also a wonderful source of fiber and prebiotics, which help maintain a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and we know that gut health is directly related to mental health. For example, about 95 percent of our serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) is produced in our guts and is strongly influenced by the types of bacteria there.9 Having a healthy gut makes you more resilient to mood disorders. There is a simple joy to be found in eating fresh fruits and vegetables, especially organically grown ones. Biting into a juicy sweet strawberry or popping plump blueberries brings a smile of appreciation for how delicious they are, along with their bounty of good-for-you nutrients. A recent Australian study found that people who previously ate almost no fresh produce who began to eat fruit and vegetables daily reported an increase in life satisfaction and happiness equivalent to what an unemployed person feels after finding work.10 Another study from Germany found similar results, reporting that eating vegetables led to a higher level of happiness over time compared to junk foods. Among 14 different food categories, eating vegetables “contributed to the largest share of eating happiness.”11
Our brains are 60 percent fat, and they need fat to thrive.12 Indeed, research shows that low-fat diets significantly increase the risk of depression, irritability, and anger. For example, one long-term study that included more than 12,000 people assessed over a ten-year period found that women on a low-fat diet were 37 percent more likely to be depressed after one year than women who did not eat a low-fat diet. Our brains need fat, but they need the right kinds of fats. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna (walnuts are another good source) are particularly important for mental health and are backed by a large body of research showing their benefits in depression and other mood disorders.13 Saturated and monounsaturated fats are other types of healthy fats; look for them in coconut oil, dairy from grass-fed animals, grass-fed beef or bison, pasture-raised eggs, nuts and seeds, avocados, and olive oil.
The B vitamins are involved in healthy neurotransmitter production, a healthy stress response, and are necessary for normal central nervous system function. Low levels of thiamin (B1), folic acid, B6, and B12 have been implicated in an increased risk of depression. Sixty days of supplementation with a B-complex has been shown to significantly improve depression and anxiety symptoms and overall mental health in people with depression. Look for a high-potency B-complex formula, which should contain 50 mg of the major Bs as a guideline.14 15 16
Known as a calming mineral, much of the population consumes inadequate amounts of magnesium, and mental and emotional stresses quickly deplete levels. Sometimes called the original “chill pill,” magnesium plays important roles in the nervous system, including modulating the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, our central stress response system. A study published in 2017 found that supplementation with 248 mg of elemental magnesium for six weeks resulted in a “clinically significant” improvement in depression scores among 126 moderately depressed adults. The positive effects were observed within two weeks. The researchers used a patient health questionnaire that is commonly used to make a diagnosis of depression to measure scores of depression; after the six-week trial, depression scores dropped on average by six points, from moderately depressed to mildly or minimally depressed. Anxiety scores also improved.17 Try taking 400 mg of magnesium in divided doses daily. EPA & DHA. Scores of studies have shown that EPA and DHA reduce the risk of depression, anxiety, impulsivity, and aggressiveness (all of which can be aggravated by stress). These fats help the transmission of neurotransmitters, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduce inflammation, and have been found to be significantly lower in people with depression compared to those without depression. Cold-water fatty fish are the best food sources of these important omega-3s, which means most of us don’t consume enough. Try taking 2 to 4 grams of combined EPA and DHA in fish oils daily. 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum).
This herb remains the treatment of choice in Europe for depression. In fact, study after study has shown that it works just as well, if not better, than the leading prescription drugs in lifting mild-to-moderate depression, with fewer side effects. An analysis of 29 studies found that St. John’s wort helps in the most severe type of depression, which is the most difficult to treat, even with drugs. Try 300 mg three times daily for mild-to-moderate depression. For major depression, take 600 mg three times daily.27 28 29 30 31 (Note: St. John’s wort accelerates the body’s breakdown of drugs, including oral contraceptives, and may reduce their effectiveness.) SAMe. “SAMe” is short for S-adenosylmethionine, a natural compound involved in the body’s production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that SAMe can work as well as some anti-depressant drugs, and it also boosts the activity of those meds.32 33 34 35 36 Try 800 to 1,600 mg daily.
Flower essences are infusions made from the flowering parts of plants and are used for their beneficial effects on mood and emotions. They are said to work on a subtle energetic level, but with profound results. One study including moderately anxious subjects who reported personality traits as anxious, impatient, irritable, nervous, and tense, found a 100 percent reduction in anxiety levels after treatment with a blend of impatiens, cherry plum, white chestnut, and beech flower essences. Other research including depressed patients found that an individualized blend of flower essences improved depression symptoms by about 50 percent. There are many flower essences for many emotional states; it is recommended that you create your own personalized blend from several flower essences for your specific emotional state.37 38