(This is an adapted version of the article, ‘Depression Fighting Toolkit’, that was published in Fitness Magazine Nov/Dec 2014 Issue)
We tend to think that depression is purely psychological and that it can only be addressed on a psychological level, which is true in some cases, but what if I told you that what you eat can influence your mood? What if I told you that a proper training regimen can alleviate symptoms of depression?
In this article I would like to discuss depression, as well as the effect that our eating habits and training routine has on depression.
Let’s start with the definition of depression:
Depression can be defined as; depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks. It usually includes impaired function: social, occupational & educational.
Anxiety symptoms such as these listed, may also indicate depression: irrational worry, preoccupation with unpleasant worries, trouble relaxing, feeling tense, fear that something awful might happen. (Please consult the DSM-5 for the complete diagnostic criteria.)
Although I have broadly defined depression above, it is important to mention that depression is a psychological disorder than should under no circumstances be self-diagnosed. If you suspect that you have depression, make sure that you are properly diagnosed by a qualified professional.
The socially accepted method of treatment is using anti-depressant medication. In my opinion, people are not necessarily wrongly diagnosed, but they immediately start using medication without questioning anything else with regards to their lifestyle. When it comes to treatment of depression, I believe that medication should rather be the final step or the last resort. Below, I will discuss the recommended steps that should be taken if you suspect that you suffering from depression.
Recommended steps that should be taken when depression is suspected:
If you struggle with symptoms of depression or you suspect that you have depression, the first step is to take a close look at your diet. I wish people knew what a huge effect the food that we eat has on our body and our quality of life. Think about a very expensive sports car, what will happen if you put the wrong petrol in the car? The engine will probably stall, because you need to put the right fuel into it for the engine to function properly, or if you want the car to perform at the top of its class. The same goes for our bodies, the food that we eat daily, serves as fuel, not only for our body but for our brain as well. There are numerous studies that link symptoms of depression with daily nutrition. Depression is more typically thought of as strictly biochemically-based or emotionally-rooted, which is true in some cases, but nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as the severity and duration.
Let’s consider a few key nutrients that can help alleviate depression:
- Omega 3: The omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which the body converts into docosahexanoic (DHA), found in fish oil, have been found to elicit antidepressant effects. Epidemiological data and clinical studies have clearly shown that omega-3 fatty acids can effectively treat depression. In depressed patients, the daily consumption of omega-3 fatty acids that contains 1.5-2g of EPA has been shown to stimulate mood elevation.
- Vitamin B’s: People with either low blood levels of the B-vitamin, or high blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine (a sign that you are not getting enough B6, B12 or folic acid) are both more likely to be depressed and less likely to get a positive result from antidepressant medication. Randomized, controlled trials that involve folic acid and vitamin B12, suggest that patients treated with 0.8mg of folic acid/day or 0.4mg of vitamin B12/day will exhibit decreased depression symptoms.
- Chromium: Chromium can be administered to keep your blood sugar level stable, because otherwise insulin, which clears glucose from the blood, can’t function properly. Studies have shown that administering appropriate levels of chromium to people with atypical depression can make a big difference.
- Protein: Proteins are made up of amino acids and are important building blocks of life. Protein intake can affect our brain functioning and mental health, because many of the neurotransmitters in the brain are made from amino acids. The neurotransmitter, serotonin, is made from the amino acid tryptophan, and the neurotransmitter, dopamine, is made from tyrosine. If there is a lack of any of these two amino acids, the synthesis of these neurotransmitters will not take place, which is associated with low mood and aggression. This is why it’s vitally important to make sure that you have enough protein in your diet. Try eating a lean protein at each meal during the day to ensure sufficient levels of these amino acids.
- Carbohydrates: To include carbohydrates in your diet is very important, because not only does it help trigger the release of insulin in the body, but it also triggers the entry of tryptophan into the brain. As mentioned, our serotonin levels are affected by tryptophan.
It is important to mention that a diet low in carbohydrates tend to precipitate depression, since the production of brain chemicals serotonin and tryptophan, that is responsible for the ‘feel-good’ feeling, is triggered by carbohydrate rich foods. If you struggle with symptoms of depression you should avoid cutting carbohydrates out of your diet, because it may likely
worsen your condition.
We all know that exercise can help fight heart disease, but did you know that it can also help you fight depression? Numerous studies have confirmed that exercise does not only have physiological benefits, but it has psychological benefits as well. A study that was done by Harvard University found that 10 weeks of strength training reduced clinical depression symptoms more successfully than counselling. This is something that women really need to know, seeing that we are more than twice as likely to experience depression. If you don’t want to talk about it, then you can just go and lift. The reason why exercise is so successful at fighting depression is because of the endorphins that are released during training. Endorphins are the ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain that help us to relax and to feel happy. Outdoor exercise is especially valuable, because it exposes us to direct sunlight, which in turn affects the pineal gland and directly boosts mood. You don’t need to join a gym, you can do any form of exercise that you are comfortable with, for example: walking, cycling or swimming. Whatever kind of exercise you choose, start with 20min at least 3 times per week, and increase this as your fitness level improves.
The next role player when it comes to depression is our mindset. Let’s say that you are already eating healthily and that you’re exercising on a regular basis, but you’re still experiencing symptoms of depression, you might consider evaluating your mindset. I truly believe that you can be doing everything right with regards to your nutrition and physical exercise, but if you’re harbouring a negative mindset and if you’re constantly focused on all the things that are wrong in your life, it’s very likely that you’ll still struggle with symptoms of depression. Sometimes all it takes is a change of focus, because what we focus on, expands. Why not choose to focus on the positive things in your life? There is always something to be grateful for, why not start by taking 5min every morning and writing down 3-5 things that you are grateful for. If we are always so busy thinking about all the negative things in our lives, we leave no room to think about the positive.
- Emotional Roots
We have to accept that in some cases depression is emotionally rooted and it is necessary to find those roots, either through a process of introspection or by acquiring the help of a skilled Psychologist, Counsellor or Life Coach. (Feel free to contact me if you’d like to book a Life Coaching session with me.)
People can struggle with depression in the present, because of things that happened in their past which they haven’t addressed yet. People who have faced severe trauma, abuse (physical or verbal), rejection, who have been neglected or who have lost a loved one; all of these people are likely to struggle with some form of depression later on in life if they didn’t address these issues when they occurred.
If you have applied all of the above mentioned steps and you still struggle with symptoms of depression, I suggest that you make an appointment with a qualified professional, because in some cases medication is the only way to alleviate or to treat the symptoms of depression. I also want to mention that you need to apply patience in this regard, because people very seldom find the right medication from the get go. If the medication that has been prescribed to you makes you feel even worse, or it completely numbs all emotion, it is important to be honest with your doctor that has prescribed the medication so that you can try other medications until you find one that works for you.
If you struggle with symptoms of depression or if you constantly feel depressed, I want to encourage you, although it not might feel like it, you are not alone and you don’t have to go through this alone.
But more than that, I want to challenge you to not accept it, because you weren’t created to live a life where you are constantly depressed, you were created to live victoriously.