According to the World Health Organization (WHO) by the year 2020, depression will be the number two cause of "lost years of healthy life" worldwide. However, the cost in human suffering cannot be estimated.
Summer time is over, the kids are back in school and soon the holiday preparations will begin. But unfortunately, what should be a magical time of year, all too often signals the beginning of the winter blues for millions of Americans. And whether you suffer from a mild form of depression when it comes time to start your holiday shopping, or you go into full blown panic attacks at the mere mention of hosting Thanksgiving dinner, you are not alone. The good news is that, while the changing of the seasons is inevitable, the holiday blues don’t have to be.
Depression seems to be the catch phrase of the new millennium and the health care community is often all too quick to prescribe antidepressants as a cure to what ails you. But not all forms of depression and anxiety warrant such drastic measures. Often times, with a few changes to your diet and lifestyle, you could be looking at the world with a whole new attitude.
Understanding the Evils of Depression and Anxiety
We’ve all said it at one time or another, those words that seem to sum up our angst so perfectly: I’m so depressed! But what does that mean exactly? The symptoms of depression can be characterized by many factors, ranging from irritability and insomnia to panic and the inability to enjoy life’s little pleasures. Often times we strive towards perfection in an effort to manage our feelings of despair or inadequacy, generally falling short and leaving us feeling worse than we when we began.
Many of us were raised on the old adage, Mind Over Matter, and feel that we should be able to manage our emotions on our own, that anything less would be a sign of weakness or failure. Not true! This method of thinking is outdated and most often ineffective, as the culprit in depression is generally not a weak will, but rather a reduced level of an important brain chemical called serotonin.
Serotonin is the body’s primary defense against anxiety and depression. When our serotonin levels are low, we tend to lose our natural good nature and find that life’s challenges become increasingly more daunting.
There are many reasons why your serotonin may be low, genetics often times being a key factor. Does depression seem to run in your family? Did your parents have a difficult time facing the day to day stresses that seemed so easy for others? Is there a history of alcoholism or drug abuse in your family? These are all signs that low serotonin might be present. Don’t be discouraged if this is the case, though. As you will see, genetics do not mean a life sentence of depression. There is hope.
Stress can also be a contributing factor to depression. Have you experienced elevated levels of stress over an extended period of time? Whether the stress is the result of a major tragedy in your life, like the loss of loved one or the difficulty of a bitter divorce, or the result of a lengthy or debilitating illness, the effects on your body are the same. Under attack by such stressors, your serotonin store is tapped into repeatedly which can eventually lead to total serotonin depletion, leaving you running on a perpetual state of “empty”.
Believe it or not, but the time of the year may also have a very real affect on your mood. Do you find that your mood seems to drop when the weather is cloudy, or the sun doesn’t come out for days on end? There is a biological explanation for this. Serotonin is one of the few body chemicals that are actually stimulated by light. An underexposure to light can lower your serotonin production, leaving you feeling down and depressed. And if you are already running on low levels of serotonin, something as minor as a cloudy day can serve to bring you further down.
A major contributor to depression, and the one most often overlooked, is your diet. In order for your body to produce serotonin it relies on the foods that you eat to provide the much needed amino acid, Tryptophan. Tryptophan can be found in high-protein animal-derived foods such as turkey, chicken, beef and cheese. Once ingested, your body converts the amino acid, tryptophan, into a chemical called 5-HTP (5 hydroxytriptophan) and then into the neuro-transmitter, serotonin. Without tryptophan, your body is unable to produce 5-HTP and subsequently serotonin, leading to a myriad of problems, most notably, depression.
There are four key symptoms that could indicate the presence of low levels of serotonin:
Gut and Heart Problems
90% of the serotonin in your body is in your gut and when you raise your serotonin levels your digestive tension (including constipation) can often dissolve with your depression. Your heart is also partly serotonin dependant. It’s well known that low serotonin type negative moods, including fear and anger, are closely associated with heart disease.
Many people with low serotonin levels obsess and worry instead of getting to sleep, while others tend to wake up too early in the morning.
Fibromyalgia, TMJ, Migraines
Raising serotonin levels not only has a powerful muscle relaxing effect, it can also stimulate our natural pain killers, the endorphins.
Cravings for Carbs and Alcohol
Ingesting carbohydrates (whether through food or alcohol) can set off body wide stress, causing your pancreas to release insulin in order to remove the excess carbs from your bloodstream and store them as fat. The insulin sweeps most of the amino acids out of your bloodstream, along with the carbs. Only one amino gets left behind-tryptophan-and it goes right into your brain, unimpeded by the other aminos that usually crowd it. Once in the brain, the tryptophan can easily convert to 5HTP and then to serotonin, elevating your mood temporarily. The downside? This source of instant euphoria most often leads to a dependency on sugary foods which can in turn lead to excess weight gain along with a myriad of other health problems.
Turning the Corner to Peace and Happiness
The treatment of depression may take some time but it can be accomplished. And while your mood may not improve right away, don’t let this discourage you.
Counseling can often be an effective tool in coping with depression and anxiety. By adopting valuable problem solving skills you can begin to regain control and achieve happiness in your life. Learning to recognize and accept your feelings, even feelings of sadness, anger or fear is an important first step.
One of the most important treatments for depression is exercise. When you exercise, your body seeks out the amino acids in your bloodstream for routine muscle repair. This causes tryptophan, the only amino acid not used for muscle repair, to go straight to the brain. Once it gets there, it is quickly converted to 5HTP and then to serotonin. Exercise also increases your oxygen intake which is critical to the formation of serotonin from amino acids. The amount of exercise needed to fight depression is not much and even a small amount of exercise has been shown to enhance the powerful mood elevating substances in the brain known as endorphins. When the endorphins are elevated, our mood improves. Physical exercise is a very safe and natural antidepressant, perhaps the most effective natural antidepressant available.
The presence of food allergies is a very significant factor to consider as a cause of depression. Food allergies often times play a major role with people who suffer from depression. A simple food allergy test could reveal whether or not you are experiencing the effects of this common problem.
Hypoglycemia, the result of a dysfunctional sugar metabolism, is a common but often unrecognized cause of depression. The brain doesn’t function properly when the sugar levels in our body are low, creating symptoms such as depression, irritability, anxiety, fatigue and headaches. A dietary intervention consisting of a proper balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats could completely alleviate this problem.
Our bodies are put under a lot of stress from consuming too much alcohol and caffeine and the natural production of serotonin is inhibited by such chemicals. Alcohol is a brain depressant that disrupts the normal sleep cycles and interferes with the many brain cell processes. Individuals who are prone to feeling depressed seem to also be especially sensitive to caffeine. Drinking too much caffeine can lead to all of the common symptoms of depression. Just by cutting down on, or eliminating all together, these two addictive chemicals, you could see a dramatic difference in your mood.
Proper levels of calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and B vitamins are needed to ensure the conversion of tryptophan to 5HTP to serotonin. Although it is difficult to diagnose, there is evidence that vitamin deficiency tremendously affects our health and can cause fatigue or a general lack of well being. Individuals with depression have often been found to be deficient in folic acid, B12 and B6. Also, very importantly, a deficiency in essential fatty acids (the omega 3 oils) has recently been linked to depression.
When I evaluate a patient for depression and/or anxiety, it is important that I gain a complete understanding of all of their symptoms along with their physical state of well being. There can be several physiological causes of depression, including chronic disease, low adrenal function, heavy metal toxicity, PMS, menopause, hypothyroidism and more. By determining the underlying cause of the depression and/or anxiety, the proper illness can be treated, which should subsequently ease the patient’s emotional unrest.
The drug Prozac, and medications similar to it, have become big sellers, generating over $2 billion in sales annually. However, it is doubtful that 20th century Americans have suddenly developed a Prozac deficiency. Before I place my patients on medication that could have both short and long term side effects, I begin with one of the many natural treatments that are available, such as tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine or melatonin. I do sometimes find that the use of amino acids along with a low dose of an antidepressant medication may also be beneficial to the patient.
When people are depressed, they are often times unaware that their behavior has changed. If other people have noticed a change in your outlook, consider whether or not you might be suffering from depression. If it is possible, try adjusting your diet and adding approximately 20 minutes of exercise 3 days a week to your regular routine. If your depression is too severe to be affected by these adjustments, please seek the professional help that you need to start the healing process.
Depression is a very real disease and one that can be treated with the proper assistance. Don’t be held down by the weight of its symptoms any longer than you have to be. Solutions are out there and everyone deserves to live a happy, healthy and full life. Do it for yourself. Do it for your family. Do it for the holidays.
LEIGH ERIN CONNEALY, M.D., M.P.H. received a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Texas and her M.D. from the University of Chicago. She did her postgraduate training in family practice at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.
Dr. Connealy began practicing medicine in 1986. More and more of her patients started asking about alternative treatments and this prompted her to learn everything she could about nontoxic protocols. In 1992, she founded the South Coast Medical Center for New Medicine in Tustin, California, where she serves as Medical Director. Her practice is firmly based in the belief that strictly treating health problems with medications does not find the root cause of the illness. Her goal is to empower and educate individuals and their families through her treatment plans, lectures, newsletters and articles.