Your emotions can have a powerful effect on your physical health and well-being—and vice versa. Happiness can not only protect your body from stressors that can lead to coronary heart disease, it can also boost your immune system's ability to fight off the common cold.
Happy people also tend to live longer, and enjoy more fulfilling relationships. But happiness can be rather subjective. And there’s a wide spectrum between “happiness” and “depression.”
With winter fast approaching and lack of sunlight in the northern hemisphere, which increases the risk for SAD (seasonal affective disorder), this is a particularly timely topic.
Dietary Considerations for Optimal Mental Health
The following strategies are important to consider if you are facing depression and the earlier you address your symptoms the better. These strategies have nothing but positive effects and are generally very inexpensive to implement. Besides using EFT, I strongly recommend addressing your diet as one of your first steps. Foods have an immense impact on your body and your brain, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental and physical health. Avoiding processed foods, sugar (particularly fructose) and grains is particularly important as it will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is an important contributing factor to depression.
Sugar causes chronic inflammation, which disrupts your body's normal immune function and can wreak havoc on your brain. Sugar also suppresses a key growth hormone called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which promotes healthy brain neurons and plays a vital role in memory. BDNF levels are critically low in people with depression, which animal models suggest may actually be causative. Other important dietary recommendations include the following:
- Optimize your gut flora. Mounting research indicates that the bacterial colonies residing in your gut may play key roles in the development of brain-, behavioral- and emotional problems—from depression to ADHD, autism and more serious mental illness like schizophrenia.
In a very real sense you have two brains, one inside your skull and one in your gut, and each needs its own vital nourishment. It’s important to realize that you have neurons both in your brain and your gut -- including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! Perhaps this is one reason why antidepressants, which raise serotonin levels in your brain, are often ineffective in treating depression, whereas proper dietary changes often help.
A recent proof-of-concept study found that probiotics (beneficial bacteria) actually altered participants’ brain function. 9Compared to the controls, the women who consumed probiotic yogurt had decreased activity in two brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation. The implications are particularly significant in our current era of rampant depression and emotional “malaise.”
Fermented foods are the best route to optimal digestive health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions. Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelators of heavy metals and pesticides, which will also have a beneficial health effect by reducing your toxic load. Healthy choices include fermented vegetables, lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink), fermented milk such as kefir, and natto (fermented soy). If you do not eat fermented foods on a regular basis, taking a high-quality probiotic supplement is recommended.
- Supplement your diet with animal-based omega-3 fat. I strongly recommend taking a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat, like krill oil. This may be the single most important nutrient for optimal brain function, thereby preventing depression. DHA is one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and krill oil, and your brain is highly dependent on it for optimal function. Low DHA levels have been linked to depression, memory loss, Schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.
- Get adequate vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people.
- Evaluate your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Make sure you do NOT use processed salt (regular table salt), however. You’ll want to use an all natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
- Make sure your cholesterol levels aren't too low for optimal mental health. I have been educating the public about the underreported, adverse effects associated with lowering cholesterol through drugs like statins for many years, but what many still do not know is that low cholesterol is linked to dramatically increased rates of suicide, as well as aggression towards others.10
This increased expression of violence towards self and others may be due to the fact that low membrane cholesterol decreases the number of serotonin receptors in the brain (which is approximately 30 percent cholesterol by weight). Lower serum cholesterol concentrations therefore may contribute to decreasing brain serotonin, which not only contributes to suicidal-associated depression, but prevents the suppression of aggressive behavior and violence towards self and others.
Other Lifestyle Strategies that Can Help You Rebalance
Next, the following three common-sense lifestyle strategies can go a long way toward warding off symptoms of depression, by helping your regain a sense of health and wellbeing.
- Get regular exercise. Regular exercise is one of the "secret weapons" to overcoming depression. It works by helping to normalize your insulin levels while boosting the "feel good" hormones in your brain. For more information, please review my article about the many ways exercise can benefit your brain. According to Dr. James S. Gordon, MD, a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression:
"What we're finding in the research on physical exercise is that exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed… physical exercise changes the level of serotonin in your brain. And it increases your endorphin levels, your "feel good hormones."Also—and these are amazing studies—exercise can increase the number of cells in your brain, in the region of the brain called the hippocampus... they're very important because sometimes in depression, there are fewer of those cells in the hippocampus. But you can actually change your brain with exercise. So it's got to be part of everybody's treatment, everybody's plan."
- Get regular sun exposure. Have you ever noticed how great it can feel to spend time outdoors on a sunny day? Well, it turns out that getting safe sun exposure, which allows your body to produce vitamin D, is great for your mood. One study even found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to depression than those who received adequate vitamin D. You can optimize your vitamin D either by sunlight exposure or by using a safe tanning bed, or by taking a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement.
- Try “ecotherapy.” Spending time outdoors has been shown to dramatically improve people’s mood and significantly reduce symptoms of depression. Outdoor activities could be just about anything, from walking a nature trail to gardening, or simply taking your exercise outdoors. According to a 2009 report on Ecotherapy by the British Depressionalliance.org:11
“94 percent of people taking part in a MIND survey commented that green exercise activities had benefited their mental health; and 100 percent of volunteers interviewed during an outdoor conservation project agreed that participation benefited their mental health, boosted self-esteem and improved confidence.”
- Make sure you get adequate sleep. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Staying up until the wee hours of the morning is going to have a detrimental effect on your mood, as well as your overall health. Adequate rest has been proven to protect against depression and suicidal thoughts—especially in teenagers.
Your Lifestyle Can Significantly Impact Your Emotional Well-Being
I strongly believe that energy psychology is one of the most powerful tools for resolving emotional issues, but the evidence also clearly points to the fact that outdoor activities like gardening can have a significantly beneficial impact on depression, and exercise in any form is one of the best-kept secrets to preventing the blues in the first place. Strengthening your spiritual faith can be another important aspect of mental and emotional health, as discussed in a previous article.
In terms of diet, dramatically decreasing your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods is very important, as is getting adequate vitamin B12. In fact, vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people. Vitamin D and omega-3 fats are also very important for your mood and brain health. You may also want to evaluate your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Again, make sure you ONLY use all natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
Please remember, your lifestyle can make or break your health and general sense of wellbeing and may be one of the most fundamental contributors to depression, so you’d be well advised to address the factors discussed in this article before resorting to drug treatment—which science has shown is no more effective than placebo, while being fraught with potentially dangerous side effects.
Food and Mood: How Diet Affects Depression