It is estimated that over 264 million people globally suffer from depression and it is a leading cause of disability as well as a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease (1). Since Covid-19, it is reported that mental-health prescriptions have risen exponentially. Taking medication to mask symptoms of anxiety and depression or to help you sleep is not ideal but what else can you do?
First of all, understand the mind-body connection. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are often seen as entirely psychological in cause. However, there is now a host of research showing that is not the case, that making changes in our diet, our lifestyle and working on techniques that can alter the way we perceive stressful events can bring powerful results.
So how does the mind-body connection work? This is quite complex but I will cover a few of the mechanisms to give you an idea of some key concepts and how you have some control over them:
- There is a part of our brain called the hippocampus which receives our ‘stress signals’ – be they psychological, physical or physiological, they are all received in the same area and the brain does not discriminate between them. So this is the first connection as physiological stressors are often nutrient deficiencies. If you are not getting what you need through your diet (or supplementation) you are creating a physiological stress for the brain and the body.
- The hippocampus in the brain receives these stress signals which it then sends on to the pituitary gland and onwards to the adrenals which produces our primary stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol, when chronically elevated for a long period of time however, can impact the function of the hippocampus (think brain fog, lack of concentration, low overall sense of wellbeing) as well as causing elevated inflammation, leading amongst other things potentially to an altered immune function – a second key mind-body connection. A dysfunctional immune system is not something you want in the middle of a pandemic!
- These stress signals we produce impact gut function as, from an historical perspective, our brain thinks: ‘Cortisol → danger! → run away from tiger → don’t eat or digest food as this is not the time!’. Thus, gut function and digestion can become impaired as food is not digested as it should be, PH values are altered, the gut microbiome is altered and a host of downstream effects can occur – including altered neurotransmitter balance. A third connection.
- Fourth is the fact that very single neurotransmitter in the brain also exists in the gut. Did you know that 70% of your serotonin, your happy hormone, is produced in the gut? In order to fall asleep we need melatonin which is made from serotonin but if we don’t have enough iron, vitamin C, B6 or an imbalance in a pathway called ‘methylation’ (which needs B6, B12 and folate), this may not work well. As well as considering the fact that melatonin is a circadian hormone and so lifestyle habits that disrupt this cycle will impact sleep, leading often to a vicious cycle of poor food choices (due to other hormone imbalances from lack of sleep), leading to imbalanced blood sugar leading and on to inflammation and mood swings! Thus, it is clear our food choices and behavioural habits can impact our mood and equally our mood can impact our food choices.
- Any factors that increase inflammation in the body can increase an individuals’ predisposition to depression (3). The link between inflammation and depression is now well researched and bear in mind that they can both drive each other. One of these sources of inflammation that you have control over is blood sugar balance. Eating a highly processed diet or even one that is high in quick release sugars even if unprocessed can drive drive inflammation. I’ve written more about other common sources of inflammation here.
- Fifth, is the gut microbiome. You will have probably have heard of the gut being referred to as the ‘second brain’ and the ‘gut-brain axis’ is one that is strongly influenced by the balance of our gut flora. Candida overgrowth is strongly associated with increased anxiety as well as overgrowth of certain strains and species of bacteria (4). Stress, in its various guises, is a big driver of microbiome imbalances, increased intestinal permeability with evidence showing that this can lead to altered brain development and neural pathways (5)
- Social enrichment – this is a very important aspect considering today’s environment. We are social creatures by nature and it has been shown that the brain fails to thrive without social enrichment. There are proteins in the brain called neurotrophins which help translate our feelings of social enrichment into structural improvements in brain hippocampal region (5) and the stress of social isolation can lead to reduced levels of a key hormone called BDNF and associated increased anxiety and depression (6).
So what can you do?
- Learn how to balance your blood sugar – for example, avoid processed foods and make sure you have good quality sources of protein and fat with each meal to slow down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream. Remember alcohol is not your friend here. Timing of food is also important particularly around sleep and exercise.
- Ensure you are not deficient in core nutrients. Get tested! Please read here to understand more about functional testing and what it can tell you.
- Practise good sleep hygiene including getting to bed on time and avoiding electronics after say 8pm. If you must work late invest in some good blue-light blocking glasses.
- Get a good routine in place and stick to it. This provides comfort in times of uncertainty.
- Learn behavioural techniques to help change your perception of stress. NLP therapy is a great tool here and I cover much more on this in our Workplace Webinar series with Executive Coach Louise Otton which you can find out more about here. The workplace environment has changed beyond recognition and recognising this and the role this is playing in mental health statistics is important.
To SUMMARISE: A key area in our brain, the hippocampus, is vulnerable to high levels of stress, a nutrient-poor diet and lack of appropriate levels of exercise leading to poor growth or damage to the hippocampus which has been shown to lead to increased risk of depression. Many of these factors are under our control and understanding the mechanisms at play can help us make the right choices and provide motivation to make the necessary behavioural changes to improve overall wellbeing during these challenging times. It is necessary to ADAPT to THRIVE.
If you would like to contact Katherine to find out how she can help you further please click here.