Nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton reveals how the foods you eat can have a big impact on your mood
More than three million people in the UK are currently being prescribed anti-depressants and the list of side-effects of these drugs can range from gut problems, drowsiness, insomnia and painful menstruation to hives, tremors, confusion, anxiety and impotence. But research has shown that antidepressants aren’t necessarily the only solution to the problem. In the last few years, nutritional medicine has made substantial developments to explore the link between mental and physical health. Research shows us that depression occurs more frequently in those experiencing compromised immune function.
Gut as the ‘second brain’
Functional gastro-intestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), are commonly linked to anxiety and mood changes. The GI tract has over 100 million neurons and the largest collection of neural tissue in the body (after the brain) called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The mucosal tissues found in the gut represent the body’s innate immune system. It is argued by some experts that one reason for the increase in depressive disorders in recent years may be a result of a failure to develop a fully functional and appropriately matured mucosal immune system. And this may be sometimes due to our exposure to antibiotics from an early age.
Our brain and immune system talk to each other constantly using specialised ‘cell-messengers’ called cytokines which come in two varieties: proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory. The gut and colon are the principle sites for the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and therefore if gut health is compromised, so too may be the innate immune system and the ability to regulate these two varieties of cytokines.
An inflammatory subject
Researchers have identified that consistently raised levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body will cause lack of energy, sleep disturbances, changes in mood and loss of interest. If we cannot produce appropriate anti-inflammatory cytokines to restore the balance in response to a psychological factor like stress, or a physical threat in form of a virus or bacteria, some people may develop depressive episodes. This type of depression is not just a reaction to the illness, but is caused by cytokines provoking an immune system that has lost its ability to return to a state of equilibrium. Anti-depressant drugs may further inhibit the production of these crucial anti-inflammatory cytokines thereby exacerbating the cause.
Prevention starts from conception
Growing evidence shows that our sensitivity to stress, anxiety and depression as adults is already programmed in infancy. Essentially, the level of stress encountered in early life sensitises us to a certain level of adversity. High levels of stress can result in hypersensitivity to stress as well as adult depression later due to changes in our stress response network. Of great clinical interest is that this group of inflammation-sensitive depressives tend not to respond well to anti-depressive medication.
Supporting your nervous system
Following a nutritional programme tailored to you, which includes an anti-inflammatory and gutsupporting diet, has been shown to have significant clinical benefit, and improving gut immunity with specific bacteria can promote anti-inflammatory cytokines both locally and systemically. Essential fatty acids are also required to help these ‘friendly’ bacteria stick to the gut wall, reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines and improve brain function. More recently a large body of research has highlighted the link between ‘gluten sensitivity’, gut health, inflammation and depression. Gluten sensitivity can not only reduce absorption of nutrients from the diet but increase the inflammatory process.
The B vitamins
The B vitamins are essential for energy creation and for the normal functioning of the nervous system, and vitamin B5 in particular is key for production of the glucocorticoid hormones in the adrenals, such as cortisol. Good sources include whole grains, eggs, beans and lentils, a wide range of vegetables, fish and meats (choose good quality or organic meat). Taking a B vitamin complex (such as The Wild Nutrition B Complex Plus) can be very supportive.
Magnesium is essential for energy production and the formation of neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. It is quickly used up when we are stressed. The best examples of foods rich in this nutrient are nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin and hemp seeds), buckwheat groats or flour (buckwheat is actually a seed and not related to wheat), greens such as spinach and kale, and fish and seafood. If sleep is an issue then taking an additional 80mg of food-grown magnesium at night can be a great support.
Foods to keep your gut and mind happy
Eggs – These are rich in both zinc and tryptophan to boost serotonin levels. Use steamed asparagus to dip into boiled eggs as a morning mood booster.
Avocado - Avocados are rich in healthy omega 3 fatty acids which have an array of health benefits for our bodies. The acids DHA and EPA may help to improve brain function, regulate vision and contribute to normal heart function. Not only this, but they are also used as ‘taxis’ to ferry hormones around the body, including the libido-charging testosterone in men and women. For an extra boost of healthy fats, slice chunks of avocado into your salad or onto your morning toast, drizzle over virgin olive oil and add flakes of wild salmon.
Wild salmon – This is full of healthy fatty acids to support hormones and libido. Mix with horseradish and plain yoghurt to make a salmon pate for a quick mood-supporting snack.
Quinoa - Full of protein, minerals such as magnesium and B vitamins needed to produce anti-anxiety brain chemicals including GABA, quinoa can be used an alternative to rice or wheat pasta for managing anxiety and stress.
Lean proteins (fish, chicken, lamb) – These provide a complete mix of amino acids required for the building blocks of neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine.
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