There’s increasing interest in nutrition and the link with mental health. What we know so far is that nutrition is associated with being protective for certain diseases, such as dementia and possibly supportive for anxiety and depression. The word to underline here is support, not a cure or an alternative. Despite ‘Dr Google’ and thousands of articles on the internet, clinical anxiety and clinical depression are serious and complex conditions which require multifaceted solutions, medications and support.
What causes depression and anxiety?
We don’t really know what causes depression and anxiety and these two conditions often go hand in hand. Its causes are complex, linked with genetics, neurotransmitters and life events. Fear and worry can trigger anxiety and in turn cause depression, feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It becomes clinical when the symptoms become so overwhelming that an individual struggles to function. Telling someone with clinical depression to get a ‘perspective’, ‘go for a walk’ or ‘eat more kale’ displays a staggering lack of understanding. It’s like telling someone with a compound leg fracture to put a plaster over the wound.
Clinical depression and anxiety require kindness, support and understanding
Some of the confusion might stem from how the labels of depression and anxiety are applied. It’s normal to have moments when you feel sad and anxious. Even moments sadly when you must deal with overwhelming pain and loss. These moments thankfully, though distressing, are generally short term and manageable.
I have curled up in a shell-like position on the floor of my bathroom with my vocal cords so paralysed by grief that my heart has had to take over their wail. I’ve had to grip the cold stony wall of a Parisian metro station for one of the longest 2 minutes of my life while my body took the time to reassure my terrified brain that my heart was not going to explode and my lungs were not going to stop breathing.
But, I always, slowly bounce back. Imagine how it must feel not to bounce back? To be caught up in a long-term web of fatigue, hopelessness and despair. To wake up every day feeling like you are on the edge of an abyss and knowing that you will have to spend the whole day carefully navigating around this, doing the same the following day, and again. It takes a very particular kind of courage which we should all recognise and salute.
The frustration for parents, friends and families is feeling seeing their loved ones going through this. You want to promise them it’s going to be ok and you are desperate to wave a magic wand and make it all better. But, this complex disease takes time to treat and support. The one thing you can do is stand next to them, squeeze their hand and say ‘I am here’.
A healthy diet helps to support overall health, but is not a ‘cure’ for depression and anxiety
In terms of nutrition, a healthy diet helps to support the overall health of someone experiencing depressive illness. It goes without saying that shopping, cooking and eating might be the last things that someone with clinical depression is interested in doing. So, the aim is to encourage them to eat balanced, regular meals which are easy to prepare.
Serotonin Enhancing Foods do not increase levels of serotonin in the brain but are healthy foods to include in your diet.
Serotonin is the feel-good neurotransmitter and some anti-depressants work by increasing serotonin levels. Tryptophan is a protein which is found in certain foods and is used to make serotonin in the brain. ‘Dr Google’ highlights that certain foods can when eaten (such as turkey, soya products, salmon and bananas) can indirectly raise plasma tryptophan levels. Studies show however it is very difficult for tryptophan to pass through the blood brain barrier and raise brain serotonin levels.
You can certainly eat these foods as most of the tryptophan containing foods are healthy ones, but don’t expect them to increase serotonin levels.
For more information on Serotonin, click here
Wellness Strategies which are helpful for supporting depression and anxiety – exercise, fresh air and balanced meals
Exercise and Light do possibly increase serotonin production
On the positive side, there is evidence from studies that light increases serotonin synthesis as does exercise which seems to increase the firing rate of serotonin neurotransmitters https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/
Balance blood glucose levels to support fatigue, mood swings and anxiety
Blood glucose levels are managed by several hormones. There is insulin, which is responsible for ensuring our blood glucose levels don’t get too high. Insulin is the hormone triggered after we have eaten and its role is to ‘ferry’ glucose in the blood to body cells where it is used for energy or stored for late use.
Glucagon and cortisol are two other hormones which play a role in doing the opposite of insulin. Cortisol is one of the ‘stress management’ hormones and its other main role is to help us manage our responses to stress. When blood glucose levels fall, these hormones work together to release energy stored in the cells and place glucose back in the blood stream.
If your blood glucose levels are swinging wildly, it can exacerbate fatigue, mood swings and mild anxiety as the body reads this as a ‘stressful situation’. Fibre and protein rich foods can all help to prevent fast swings in blood glucose levels. So, ensuring that your diet contains whole grains, vegetables and fruits and balanced quantities of protein is a reasonable support strategy.