Being in the Wellness space for almost twenty years, I’ve become alarmed at how many people are suffering from depression, and how many don’t talk about it. I’ve been teaching yoga for almost twenty years and I’ve been a Functional Nutritionist for a few years, and the rate at which various brain related conditions are increasing, is tragic! I want to say that this article is not to point fingers at any one way of treatment, but is meant to provide more options for you, if you or your loved one is battling with depression. Medication can be life saving to many, provided at the right dose, at the right time and by the right person and for the right reason. I recently had a conversation with a dear friend, who is extremely knowledgeable in depression. I asked her about what are the parameters for diagnosis, and were any labs done to discover further reasons? She said that those were not part of diagnosis. I want to point out that, looking at underlying root causes of a physiological nature must be a part of diagnosis. Why are we not doing this? We require a three hundred and sixty degree view, not a narrow one, for each one of you suffering with depression deserves more!
Rohan is a young boy. On the face of it, you would never guess that he had depression. He goes to a good school, he lives in a large community, and his parents see that all his needs are met. Yet, through the struggles of trying to fit into school, please his peers, navigate the challenges between a highly traditional family and a highly progressive peer group, and coupled with the way his diet has been, high in refined foods and sugar, he found himself slowly moving from just bouts of anxiety to full blown depression. A point comes when he feels ashamed to go see his counsellor. This is true of so many people with depression. There is such stigma attached to talking about it and seeking help, that apart from the few who attempt to speak and raise awareness, a large number of people still hide from the stigma. More than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and yet, it still needs so much more awareness.
My goal is not to talk about depression in the context of medication, awareness or statistics, although all of that is important and critical. My goal with this article is to raise awareness for looking at the root causes of depression and correcting the physiological causes of depression, which do play a vital role. Again, this article is not meant to be anti medication. Rather, medication cannot be the only way for resolution. It does not mean that every person suffering from depression has every one of these underlying physiological root causes, but rather that much of this needs to be addressed as a first step.
Root causes of Depression:
- Omega-3 Deficiency– While Omega-3 is being sidelined by many people within the health space itself, the fact is that a very large number of people suffering from depression have Omega-3 deficiency. Your brain is made up of 70% fat, and Omega-3 is a Essential Fatty Acid, which means it cannot be made by your body, and require it from your diet. I’m calling out the elephant in the room here, for I personally know people who are against all animal sources of food as well as all forms of supplementation, and while some people may claim to be healthy without any of this, the real truth is that for those battling depression, this can be a very real root cause.
- Thyroid Disease– Hypothyroidism is another condition that is increasing every day, and while this article is not about autoimmune thyroiditis, the fact is that this too is linked to diet and lifestyle, and inflammation and deficiencies. Many symptoms of thyroid are very similar to depression. Thyroid symptoms can also range from anxiety to panic attacks, and from depression to more psychotic disorders. Especially when you have autoimmune thyroid, and if your thyroid antibodies are high, thyroid antibodies counteract with brain antibodies. Symptoms can be identical, yet thyroid is something which can still be managed, if it is done well, with diet and lifestyle modifications.
- Inflammation– Inflammation is a very big deal in today’s world. Practically every single sign, symptom and diagnosis, has it’s root in chronic inflammation, which just means that your body’s immune system is unable to shut off, beyond the moment when it needs to attack. Your body’s immune warriors then stay on high alert, taxing your immune system, and preventing protection from actual pathogenic forces. While inflammation sounds singular, it’s not. I know many people who tell me that they have inflammation. What I want you to understand is that the root cause of inflammation can be very different in each person. Therefore, the resolution of inflammation also can be highly individualised. Many people do not realise the difference between a bad diet, a generalised healthy diet, and a highly individualised therapeutic diet. Here’s where inflammation can become a problem. Even what appears to be a healthy ideal diet, can be inflammatory for you. This is why my diet mantra when it comes to a diet, is always move from a healing diet to an ideal diet, not try and use an ideal diet as a healing diet, which is what most people are trying to do today.
- Hormones– Hormones are not minor. Hormones practically run your body, and endocrine function is critical. Out of balance hormones can create havoc in your brain. Every hormonal system has it’s root in your brain. Cortisol is your stress hormone, and believe me when I say it is critical. My son is born with a condition where he does not produce Cortisol, and it is crucial to how your brain behaves, and is intimately linked to multiple functions. Most of us have cortisol dysregulation, from the amount of stress we face today. If you are a woman, it probably won’t be surprising to you that many women suffer from depression during perimenopause. Estrogen and Progesterone are the basis on which everything in our body runs. Especially when it comes to depression, they play a vital role. Progesterone is especially released in your luteal phase, which is the space between ovulation and your period. If you don’t ovulate, you don’t produce progesterone. Many women thin that if they don’t want babies they don’t even need to think of ovulation, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Progesterone is your calming hormone. It activates GABA receptors and affect Dopamine production, which means, without Progesterone, you might not feel motivated or feel pleasure. Estrogen on the other hand, is thought by many to be a bad hormone. That’s totally wrong. Estrogen is required for you to have adequate Serotonin. You need Serotonin to feel peaceful and relaxed.
- Stress– Why didn’t our ancestors have so much stress? Life was so much more relaxed. Technology has increased stress manifold. Excessive time on the screen and on social media stimulates your brain to remain in the Sympathetic Nervous System functioning mode. This means that you stay in a fight or flight mode, rather than easing into a rest and digest mode. The fact is that you need to stay in a fight or flight mode only if you are running from an animal. What happens when your stress is high, is that your Cortisol starts to increase and you stay in a state of stress, rather than shutting off afterwards. Stress kills. This is the truth. Excess Cortisol overstimulates parts of your brain, known as the Amygdala and gradually kills some of your neurons in your hippocampus. Your Hippocampus is supposed to put things in context for you. Instead, stress weakens these areas in your brain, and makes you more vulnerable to further stress. Eventually, your body and your systems start to behave differently, as they are not meant to be exposed to constant stress. Stress and coping with depression can then become a vicious cycle. And both stress and depression can impact your sleep, further aggravting this cycle.
- Poor Sleep– Sleep is not given as much priority as it should be. Yes, theoretically we all know that sleep is important. Yet, I know so many people who do not make sleep a priority, for a multitude of reasons. When it comes to your brain health, sleep is crucial. Tryptophan converts in your body to Serotonin. Serotonin converts to Melatonin. If your diet is low in Tryptophan, then you could find yourself Serotonin deficient, and Melatonin deficient. Magnesium and Vitamin B6 convert Tryptophan to Serotonin, so deficiency of either could cause low Serotonin as well. Melatonin can be impacted by low Serotonin, as well as Circadian misalignment and excess of EMF radiation. All of these can impact your sleep and impact your brain. Just as any part of your body can become inflamed, your brain too can become inflamed. Breakdown of your Blood Brain Barrier and Brain Inflammation can both be a cause of poor quality sleep. Poor sleep, can also be a cause of brain inflammation. Brain Inflammation reduces Serotonin levels and prevent Melatonin from being produced, and elevate inflammatory Cytokines which impact your sleep. Sleep and depression are intimately linked.
Now that I’ve taken you through many of the root causes of depression, I want to stress again, that this is not about anti medication. My concern is that diagnosis and medication is not inclusive of physiological root causes. The fact is that many root causes can be responsible for depression. How can we contiune to ignore these and not even begin to address these areas? This is a reality. The truth is that it’s been shown many many times that diet and lifestyle modification and correcting the terrain of your body can be a massive difference for depression. Why are more people not taking this route? Before I leave you to contemplate on this, I will leave you with some takeaways for today. Remember that takeaways are not individualised, but meant to be a broad overview. I do not believe that everyone responds the same way to just a healthy diet. But this is a great place to begin!
Functional Ways to manage Depression:
- Whole Food– Staying away from any food that comes from a box, is the first step. Processed food is not something small. Each of them are loaded with artifical flavours and preservatives, which are known to cause tumultous brain impact. Eating a diet that is rich in plant foods, adequate proteins and healthy fats is critical. By plant foods, I do not mean plant based or vegan. I mean a diet that is rich is plant foods.
- Omega-3– Omega-3 is crucial to brain function. Many people are deficient in this Essential Fatty Acid. See that you get adequate omega-3 to cover ALA, EPA and DHA. You can get ALA from flax, walnuts and other plant sources. You can get EPA and DHA from fish, fish oil and algal oil.
- Cut the sugar– We live in a world where our girls are reaching early puberty from elevated Estrogen, all connected to a high sugar diet. I know many people who say that they don’t eat sugar, and they are either eating dosa and fruit and rice for breakfast or eating fruits all day long. Let’s not even forget the birthday parties with only candies, lollies, cakes, icecreams and pastas. We are actually setting the stage for depression. If someone tells you that sugar is required, let me tell you it’s nonsense. The fact is sugar is intimately linked to depression.
- Exercise regularly– Exercise increases something called BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor. Think of it as growth hormone for your brain, which allows your brain to produce new calls and heal and release damaged cells. Make exercise a priority today. Find the forms that bring meaning to you, but embrace exercise today. At the same time, if your adrenals are tired with too much stress, don’t exercise heavily. Find soothing forms instead.
- Get good sleep– Staying in bed for eight hours is not an indicator of quality sleep. Are you waking up fresh and ready for the new day, or needing stimulation to get started? Are you sleeping early at night and allowing your body to heal? Are you waking up to the early morning light which is crucial stimulation for your brain? All of these are questions to ask yourself.
- Yoga and Meditation– Yoga and meditation allow you to go back to a rest and digest mode, where your body can then start to work positively for you. Meditation has been proved to lower brain inflammation, and it’s no wonder that our sages have spoken so much about it. Meditation gets rid of excess Cortisol and Adrenaline, allowing your body to recover from chronic inflammation overall.
- Reduce Electronic Time– It might seem like something to joke about, but it’s not! It’s so easy to start checking social media everytime you have a spare moment, through your meals and late into the night. It’s also so easy to get sucked into this space. Each time you check your social media to see how many likes you got, you trigger a Dopamine hit. Yes I mentioned you need Dopamine earlier, but when you keep giving yourself that hit, it also crashes and does not sustain. It’s much like eating sugar!
- Avoid deficiencies– Having deficiencies like B12, Iron and other key nutrients, is critical to brain health. It’s alarmingly common today for people to take B12 injections every few months. B12 is a detailed article in itself. Stay tuned to that.
I’ve just scratched the surface of understanding depression from a functional perspective and looking at the root causes. It is impossible to go deeper in just one article. If you have a suffer from depression or if you are a part of a support group fro depression, reach out to me for more personalised sessions, where we can dive deeper into understanding root causes and explore further ways to restore the integrity of your physiology. If you have any comments do share it with me. I would love to hear from you and have a conversation!