Friday, November 8, 2013

Depression - A Holistic Perspective and The Use of Food As Medicine

How common it is

Depression affects about 18 million adults, or about 9% of the U.S. Population. People with Depression are more likely to develop disabilities, miss work, be less productive, and spend more money and time on health care. According to the World Health Organization, Depression is the leading cause of nonfatal disability on our planet, accounting for 12 percent of productive years lost. It's a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration. It's estimated that for Americans, clinical Depression alone will likely cost more than $50 billion this year. At it's worst, Depression can lead to suicide, a tragic fatality associated with the loss of about 850 000 thousand lives in the world, every year.

Matching the drug to the symptoms: Western medicine's approach to treating Depression

From the reductionistic view of Modern Western medicine, Depression is seen as a Serotonin deficiency in the brain regardless of the underlying cause(s) and is treated most commonly with drugs(SSRIs) meant to address this deficiency.

The above approach of treating the symptoms of Depression with drugs and not dealing with the causes has potentially serious consequences. For one, it makes the person dependent on the drug since the underlying cause(s) , whether physical, emotional or spiritual, may continue to exist while Serotonin levels are artificially regulated by drugs. Also, SSRIs are known to have a range of side effects including weight gain, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal problems and more seriously, suicidal thoughts. Finally, dependence on drugs to make us feel good may keep us from effectively dealing with the root causes like toxicity, inflammation and nutritional deficiencies. Left untreated, these physiological imbalances could lead to more serious health issues and cause irreparable damage to the body.

The Wholistic approach to Depression- Dealing with the causes

The Wholistic view on Depression considers the whole human being and the various extraneous factors that the person is subject to, including social and environmental, and focuses on the causes and not the symptoms. The causes of Depression could be physcial, emotional or spiritual. Most of these causes also raise the stress levels in the body which is associated with low-levels of Serotonin.

1) Physical:

Food sensitivities, poor digestive health, systemic chronic inflammation, hormonal imbalances, toxicity, and, nutritional imbalances and deficiencies, could all manifest depressive symptoms.

2) Emotional:

Unresolved issues from events/traumas of the past, suppressed emotions, conflicts within oneself as well as others, consistent worries about things that have not happened yet, etc.

3) Spiritual:

Lack of fulfillment in relationships, career etc, a feeling of being 'stuck' in life,feeling empty and meaningless, not feeling like one's aligned with their true purpose in life, inability to find peace due to nonacceptance of one's current situation, feeling like being disconnected from family, friends and society, are the most common.

Depending on one's specific situation, a combinatory approach that addresses all causes would be the most helpful in treating depression. Easy to learn mind-body approaches such as meditation, guided-imagery, and bio-feedback can help regulate stress hormones and neurotransmitter levels. Physical exercise helps increase neurotransmitter levels and releases endorphins, making one feel good. Identifying and correcting imbalances in the body such as toxicity, inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, food allergies and sensitivities, and digestive issues is also crucial. A sense of being connected- to family, friends, jobs, neighbors, nature and culture- can also make us less likely to be depressed.

Creating and maintaining a regular spiritual practice , something that embraces the wisdom from any of the ancient traditions, and helps us go beyond ourselves and connect with something larger than us can help in this regard.

Using Food as medicine

The science behind the effect of food on mood is better understood now than before.

While it's important to be eating enough of the foods that provide us the nutrients for optimum mental health, it is just as important to be minimizing or avoiding foods that deplete us of the same nutrients and/or induce physiological stress through allergies, inflammation, toxicity as well as digestive, metabolic and hormonal imbalances that cause Depression. Chief culprits in the latter category are:

1. Sugar: This includes refined and processed carbohydrates, including all refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup.They spike up insulin levels causing fluctuating serotonin levels, deplete essential nutrients from the body, cause inflammation ,weight gain and diabetes.

Healthier alternatives to sugar include maple sugar and yacon root powder/syrup(which is low-glycemic and has many health benefits)

2. Hydrogenated fats: Also known as Trans fats, they are found in baked goods, most fried foods, margarine etc. They cause cellular damage and interrupt normal brain function.

3. Toxic meats, fish and poultry:Meats from animals raised on hormones and anti-biotics, all pesticide and chemical laden foods, and excessive consumption of fish with high levels of mercury(canned tuna, swordfish etc)

4. Artificial sweeteners, Food additives and Preservatives: These man-made foods are not recognized by the body and hence not metabolized properly and contribute to toxicity.

5. Caffeine and Alcohol: Although small amounts may be beneficial, excessive amounts cause stress and deplete nutrients from the body contributing to Depression.

Many people also have food allergies/sensitivities that they're not aware of. A simple elimination diet could
help isolate the most common foods that are of issue- dairy, gluten, eggs, peanuts and citrus.

Essential foods and their best sources

Whole foods are the best sources of nutrition since they have all the nutrients that nature intended in them in synergistic proportions.

Fats: Cell membranes are made up of fatty acids and a fat-deficient diet can promote depressive symptoms.Anyone who's tried a low-fat or fat-free diet can possibly attest to this. Much is being said about the importance of Omega 3s and fish oil these days. Two of the most important fatty acids which are essential are eicosapentanoic acid(EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid(DHA) ,and they are the Omega- 3 fatty acids from wild fish and fish oil. Most plant-based sources of Omega 3s such as nuts and seeds do not provide EPA and DHA directly, and our bodies have to do the necessary conversion, and given our modern diets we are not very efficient in this process.

Best sources:

Wild-caught sockeye salmon, canned or fresh
Canned Sardines and other small fish like Mackerel (good sources of Vitamin D)
Good quality Cod liver oil(also rich in Vitamin D)
Nuts and seeds like walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, Flax seeds, Sesame seeds and almonds
Cold pressed Olive oil and coconut oil.

Proteins: While fats constitute the cell-membranes, it's the amino acids from the proteins we eat that facilitate the communication , and all of the various neurotransmitters and the receptors needed by the body are created from eight of the amino acids that are essential.

Best sources:

Beans, Lentils and legumes of various kinds
Nuts and seeds that also provide some essential fats
Eggs from healthy happy free-roaming chickens
Meat from naturally raised humanely treated animals in moderation

Carbohydrates: They are the food for brain function and all plant foods- vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices- contain carbohydrates in their natural whole form and they come with all the vitamins, minerals and fiber which together help in the production as well as regulation of serotonin. Low-carb diets contribute to low levels of Serotonin.

Best sources:

Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat

Vitamins and minerals: They are the helpers needed for the conversion of the amino acids from the protein we eat to the neurotransmitters. For example, Vitamin B6 is needed to convert Tryptophan to Serotonin. Minerals like Magnesium, Zinc and Selenium also are essential Magnesium deficiency has been linked to Depression in studies. Likewise, low-levels of Vitamin D are linked to depression as well.

Best sources: Rich colorful vegetables, dark leafy greens and fruits.
Sea vegetables- like kelp, dulse, nori, wakame, kombu etc
Sunlight- 20-30 mins of sun exposure

Using superfoods to boost your fight against depression

A whole-foods based diet that includes many of the foods mentioned above should by itself provide the nutritional platform for healing which would help the effect of complementary efforts like exercise, meditation, psychological/emotional therapies etc to take hold. Including some foods that are considered 'super' foods because of their very rich nutrient content can boost, or even catapult one's nutritional status.
Here are a few foods that belong to this category:

Spirulina- available in tablet and powder forms, it is the the highest source of digestible protein found in the world.It is also abundant in many vitamins especially B1, B2 and B6, and also many enzymes, GLA(a fat that is necessary for brain function), and chlorophyll.

Raw Cacao- Available as a powder or as Cacao nibs, it is rich in many minerals especially magnesium, anandamide(the bliss chemical), tryptophan, serotonin, and is also one of the most potent anti-oxidants of all foods.

Chlorella- Rich in chlorophyll, also supports liver and immune functions and is a de-toxifier and has good anti oxidant properties.

Bee-Pollen- abundant in many enzymes, minerals, all the essential amino acids, and many B vitamins including folic acid(vitamin b9).

Ashwagandha- Long used in India, it is an one of the best adaptogens((class of herbs that adapt to the body's varying requirements intelligently) and is known for mind-body stress reduction.

Maca- another great adaptogen and is available as a powder, it is known for increasing energy and endurance and has most of the amino acids and supports hormone regulation.

Putting it all together - A super-food smoothie

The above foods can be incorporated into your diet in a delicious breakfast smoothie which takes no more than 5 minutes to make altogether including cleanup. This is one of my favorite recipes and since personal tastes vary, it may take experimenting with different fruits and combinations to get your favorite taste.

1 cup of blueberries
1 banana
2 slices of pineapple
1 teaspoon spirulina powder
1 teaspoon Maca powder
1 teaspoon Ashwagandha powder, or 2 capsules
1 tablespoon bee pollen
2 tablespoons of hemp protein powder
1 teaspoon of coconut oil- if you like the taste ,or flax oil
Optionally you can also add a handful of fresh organic greens like spinach, kale or chard.

Blend it all in a high-power blender with enough clean water to the consistency you like(thick or thin) and
sip it while you take a couple of teaspoons of cod liver oil (which then would take away any aftertaste issues). From my experience and that of some of my clients, this is not only very satisfying as a meal but also provide super nutrition and a brain boost that last well later in to the day.

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