Anyone who has ever struggled with depression understands the sense of hopelessness that comes with it. We all have days when we’re feeling a bit down, sad or not in the mood to be social. However people with depression experience these feelings constantly, for long periods of time, and sometimes without any apparent reason. It’s not particularly helpful when people offer the advice to “Snap out of it” or “You’ll be right – just pull yourself together”. It’s not quite as simple as that. It feels like drowning in a pit of despair and no amount of positive suggestions seems to provide any solutions at the time.
So what is the difference between being a bit blue and depression? Depression may be diagnosed if these feelings of sadness and hopelessness last more than 2 weeks and coincide with a loss of interest in work, hobbies, social events and a withdrawal from close friends and family. It has the highest burden of all diseases in Australia affecting 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men in their lifetime, and yet in a recent national survey, more than half of those who had a depressive disorder in the previous 12 months did not receive any professional help.
Symptoms of depression can include lowered mood, reduced self esteem, loss of interest and enjoyment in life, reduced libido, bowel disturbance, excessive sleep or insomnia, and fatigue. Feelings that may be experienced include guilt, irritability, frustration, overwhelm, disappointment and sadness. Stressful life events, endocrine abnormalities, such as thyroid imbalances, drug and alcohol use, serious illness, food allergies, chronic stress, genetic predisposition, cancer and side effects of medications can all give rise to depression.
Approaching depression from a holistic perspective includes looking at the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social and environmental influences that contribute to depression. Depression is complex and may come about from a multitude of different factors.
From a physical perspective, deficiencies or imbalances in neurotransmitters are sometimes present, which is why the pharmaceutical industry targets this with antidepressant medication, however depression is not quite as straight-forward as a chemical imbalance. We need to look at why there is an imbalance in the first place. Depression is also linked with chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which may come from lifestyle choices such as poor diet, alcohol and drug use or environmental factors. Stress is a major contributor which affects hormones and neurotransmitters, with emotional trauma and long-term stress having a significant impact on mental health.
Digestive and mental health is inextricably linked via the Brain-Gut Axis and the gut microbiota, where exposure to stress can modulate the microbiota, and vice versa, the gut microbiota can influence the nervous system response. There is a stronger association with nervous system disorders such as anxiety and depression in patients with IBS with up to 70% of people with depression or anxiety also reporting digestive issues. Food allergies, malabsorption of nutrients, parasites and imbalances in the gut microbiota all contribute to fatigue, mood disturbances and mental health issues.
How naturopathic medicine can help
Diet and nutrients are incredibly important to supporting mental health. Nutrition is the foundation of our health and certain nutrients are essential for the maintenance of neurotransmitters and neuronal structures of the nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids improve symptoms of anxiety and depression via their anti-inflammatory properties, as well as involvement in the structure and function of neuronal membranes, receptors and signal transmission. Magnesium is required to control inflammation, reduce nervous tension, mood swings, irritability and to manage stress. Folate and the B vitamins are needed for the synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters, with deficiencies in these nutrients linked to mental health issues.
It is also important to eat real food on a regular basis to stabilise blood sugar levels. Ever heard of the term “hangry”? That combination of hungry and angry? Blood sugar irregularities have a major impact on our mood and behaviour. It’s a good idea to limit or eliminate any “white” products such as white flour, white sugar, white pasta, white rice etc. These refined carbohydrates, alongside of sugar (including soft drinks) create a sugar spike, which then causes your energy and mood to crash alongside of your blood sugar within the hour. These foods also deplete your body of essential nutrients for mental health such as your B vitamins and magnesium.
Herbal medicine offers significant support for mental health issues with herbs such as St John’s Wort providing effective relief in the treatment of depression, with relatively minor side-effects in comparison to synthetic anti-depressant medication. Rhodiola reduces stress-related symptoms such as irritability, cognitive dysfunction and fatigue due to its ability to regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and inhibit cortisol secretion. Ginkgo biloba is also a useful herb in the treatment of depression and minimises the side-effects of pharmaceutical treatments for depression. An individual herbal mix can be formulated to address the whole picture, including addressing any digestive and immune issues that may also be present.
Flower essence therapy is effective to address underlying emotional, psychological and spiritual disturbances that may be contributing to the depression, and an individual flower essence prescription can be formulated. Also having a bottle of rescue remedy or emergency essence handy is highly recommended for those times where you may feel that you just can’t cope with how you’re feeling.
Other tips to cope with depression –
1. Exercise of any type is helpful to encourage circulation to the brain and provide enkephalins and endorphins, the body’s natural mood boosters. Start with walking 15 to 20 mins in the morning, which also improves serotonin, the “happy” neurotransmitter.
2. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs, as these substances create disturbances in the neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain, which contribute to imbalances. They also contribute to inflammation and oxidation which is linked with depression and anxiety.
3. Yoga and meditation can be helpful to encourage vitality and connection to the Self, as well as to learn to control the negative thought loops that occur with depression.
4. Social connection is incredibly important to our wellbeing. Even though you may not feel like socialising, reach out to those friends or family members that you know will be supportive. You do not have to act “happy” all of the time. It’s okay to talk about the things that are troubling you. If you don’t feel that you can speak with family or friends, there are quite a number of support organizations that provide counselling and support 24 hours a day. Please see the details below.
5. Know that this moment in time will pass, and even though the world seems like a dark place, it won’t always be this way. Change is inevitable. People come and go. Jobs come and go. The river of life is constantly flowing, and there will be relief from the pain you are experiencing at some point.
6. Connect with nature. Our way of life is so far removed from where we are meant to be. We are constantly linked to computers, smart phones, television, living indoors, breathing in chemicals from man-made furniture and don’t always have the connection to the Earth that we need to survive. Get into the forest, go to the beach, or even a short walk in your local park to get your feet on the ground and recharge.
7. Go out in the sun for 15 minutes every day. Vitamin D deficiency is linked with depression, and even though it is important to be sun smart, we still need the rays for our health and wellbeing.
8. Try to have a little fun. Embrace your silliness, dress up, dance, watch funny movies or comedy. Laughter also boosts endorphins and helps to lighten the load.
9. Use supportive Self-talk. Be kind and loving towards yourself. You are a child of the Universe and deserve to be here. You are loved and special exactly the way you are.
If you would like to book a naturopathic medicine appointment to explore options to support your mental health, I am available on Tuesday through Kangaroo Point Naturopaths and Wellness Centre –http://kpnwellnesscentre.com.au/bookings-naturopath-brisbane/ or call 07 3105 2875 and ask to book in with Cathy Vanzanden.
Where to find additional help and support:
· Beyond Blue – PH: 1300 22 4636 – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support
· Mind Health Connect – http://www.mindhealthconnect.org.au/depression
· Black Dog Institute – www.blackdoginstitute.org.au