February 27, 2009

By Rosie Shelley Saturday February 28th, 2009

Rosie Shelley

MOOD disorders are known to affect many, many people worldwide. At least one in five women and one in ten men are thought to suffer clinical depression at some point in their lives, and yet some are still reluctant, in countries like Ireland, to speak up about it.

Problems can range from low mood and self-esteem to crippling anxiety and even despair, and studies have shown that full-blown depression can do at least as much damage to a person’s overall health as long-term physical diseases. Thankfully, attitudes are changing all the time, and there really is a lot that can be done now, both in terms of medication and of lifestyle changes.

Medication proves very effective for some people, especially in getting them to a place where they feel more able to take control of their own lifestyles. And natural nutrients have been shown to work very well alongside it, to boost mood by helping to restore normal brain function.

A GP should always be your first port of call if you are feeling seriously depressed. He or she can also offer invaluable help by ruling in or out factors that often contribute to depression, such as low blood sugar or blood pressure, low adrenal or thyroid function, drug or alcohol abuse, lack of employment or social problems, candida or digestive disorders, food allergies or general under-nourishment.

The single most common biochemical cause of depression is a lack of the brain chemicals that help to regulate how we feel. Deficiencies cause all of the symptoms from low mood, comfort eating and weight gain, exhaustion and oversleeping on the one hand, to anxiety and irritability, weight loss, (social) phobias, restlessness and insomnia on the other. These brain chemicals are made up, to a large degree, of the foods that we eat, so it’s easy to see just how important diet is when it comes to boosting mental health.

Just as important is avoiding the things that knock these brain chemicals out – alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks, nicotine, and processed carbohydrates like white sugar/flour/pasta/rice. Of course, these quick fixes are just what we crave when we’re feeling low or tense, but I can’t stress enough just how much damage they do to the delicate balance of your brain chemistry. It can be hard at first to wean yourself off, but by gradually replacing them with whole plant foods and healthy proteins you’ll soon start to feel much better. A cup or two of tea is fine, but otherwise try out herbal teas: chamomile, rosemary and limeflower are soothing, relaxing and uplifting.

Apart from the foods that act directly on receptors in the brain, there are others that are just as vital in a supportive role, most importantly the B Complex family of vitamins working together with zinc. Many of us aren’t getting enough (processing foods removes these crucial nutrients). So make sure you’re eating plenty of nuts and seeds, chicken and eggs, beans, brown rice, greens, oily fish, bananas and yoghurt. A very calming and uplifting mineral that many of us are also lacking is magnesium, found in many of the same foods. A deficiency in vitamin C can lead to chronic depression, tiredness and irritability, and if you have this problem you might need more than you can get from food alone, so it might be worth trying a supplement of 500mg, once or twice a day.

Also found in the oily fish and seeds (especially linseed/flaxseed or flaxseed oil) are the essential fats known as omega oils. A huge amount of research has been conducted into how these oils work to improve mood and mental function, and it’s so important that we get them from our diet because the body can’t make them itself, and the brain is as dependent on them as much as the rest of our cells are. Working together again with the B vitamins, they are needed for the brain to make its feel-good chemicals from the food that we eat, and regularly eating oily fish or taking an omega oil supplement has been shown to give major improvements in as little as three weeks.

Eating small, regular meals that combine protein with unrefined carbohydrates will help to balance blood sugar levels, which is vital in staving off mood swings, tiredness and cravings. And of course breakfast is the most important meal of the day: you couldn’t do better than porridge topped with banana, a teaspoon of cinnamon and some plain yoghurt, with added freshly ground seeds or a boiled egg for brain-boosting protein.

We know now just how much mood disorders have to do with ‘simple’ brain chemistry, and just how much can be achieved by rebalancing it, but in some cases there may of course be powerful underlying emotional factors. Experts would always advise exploring these with a trusted counsellor or therapist, and other measures can be just as helpful – regular exercise has a potent, proven effect, and you might combine it with a chat by going for a walk with a friend. Take more time for yourself too, perhaps trying out something creative like writing a journal or taking up painting, gardening or meditation, and generally practising loving kindness towards the self as well as others.