As we move into the peak of winter, low mood becomes more prevalent in our society and can even show up as seasonal affective disorder.
Though wintertime can promote feelings of depression and low mood many people live in a chronic state of depression which significantly impacts quality of life. Depression is a chronic condition that persists on a daily basis affecting emotional and physical wellness. This is different from experiencing low moods once in a while or in response to negative life circumstances.
What is depression?
Though there can be various degrees of depression, clinical depression is a mood disorder that includes emotional, physical, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms that interfere with a person's quality of life. Clinical depression is a chronic condition which means it affects someone's life on an ongoing basis, not just once in a while.
Depression is not a rare occurrence and affects everyone in a community.
Up to 1 in 5 Canadians or 8% of adults in Canada will encounter a mental health problem at some point in their life (1). This is a serious health condition and should be taken seriously by the person affected and their close ones.
If you or someone you know is fighting depression and feeling suicidal call 9-1-1 immediately or contact your local helpline to receive immediate assistance.
Though there are many things you can do to improve this condition it should not be navigated alone.
What are the signs of depression?
- Low mood
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness or hopelessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usually-enjoyed activities
- Loss of confidence and self-esteem
- Change in weight or appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Suicidal thoughts
- Poor concentration or focus
What causes depression?
Mood disorders like depression don't come from one single cause but a multitude of factors. Though genetics can play a role, environmental factors such as toxins and diet choices as well as lifestyle practices, biological factors, socioeconomic conditions, and social environment can all act together to create mood imbalances. So it's important to address all contributing factors accordingly. This is why a holistic support team can make such a big difference in recovering from depression, as there is no single one cause.
What can worsen mental health?
Research is starting to show that chronic inflammation may be a driving factor for depression.
Serum CRP (a marker of inflammation) has been shown to be elevated among patients with depression (2). These pro-inflammatory chemicals can induce changes in the brain such as increased brain permeability and neurological symptoms (3).
There are many causes of inflammation such as stress, dysbiosis, lack of sleep, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, emotional trauma, poor diet, medications, and toxin exposure.
Certain nutrient deficiencies have been associated with depression. For instance, vitamin D is a commonly prescribed supplement for depression, as vitamin D receptors have been found in the brain and this vitamin can affect neuron cell growth. Supplementation has been shown to positively affect mental health and depressive symptoms (4).
Other nutrient deficiencies associated with low mood include folate, vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, omega 3, and magnesium (5).
Certain pharmaceuticals can also be linked to depression such as hormonal birth control, beta-blockers, benzodiazepines, corticosteroids, and statins.
For instance, hormonal contraception can actually increase the likelihood of being prescribed anti-depressants, especially among teenagers (6). It is common for women to stop hormonal birth control due to the effects of low mood that it can trigger.
If you find yourself feeling more moody or depressed on a medication, talk to your health care provider.
A relatively new phenomenon may be impacting rates of depression, and those are toxins. This is not an acute situation, toxins accumulate in the body over time and can contribute to many symptoms and health conditions such as low mood.
It is known that heavy metals and environmental toxins have a detrimental impact on human health, but what about the brain specifically?
Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, aluminum, arsenic, and even pesticides have been linked to neurological symptoms such as ADHD and depression (7).
In order to safely eliminate toxins from the body be sure to work with a skilled health care practitioner to avoid any adverse effects. Detoxing and cleansing can be dangerous in certain individuals especially if elimination is an issue.
How to improve your mental health naturally
Also known as therapy, psychotherapy is a form of counseling that seeks to understand certain motives and behaviors while adopting certain skills to cope with emotions and work through them. A trained therapist can help depressive patients identify certain triggers to their depression and set new goals that are realistic and that support their wellbeing. There are different types of therapy which include cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal, and psychodynamic.
Light therapy, or phototherapy, is a common treatment used in Seasonal Affective Disorder. This type of therapy uses light to support serotonin production in the brain, which is usually thought to be lower in depressed patients.
Light therapy has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for seasonal related depression, even outperforming pharmaceutical anti-depressants (8). There are few side effects to using light therapy and it can be done in the comfort of your home for about 20-40 minutes for immediate beneficial effects to occur (9).
Fix your gut
We now know that the gut has a direct impact on mental health due to the connection to the brain via the vagus nerve. In addition, many neurotransmitters that influence mood are made here. In fact, up to 95% of serotonin (our feel-good happy neurotransmitter) is made in our gastrointestinal tract!
Your gut and brain health are highly influenced by the type of gut microbes that you have. For instance, beneficial bacteria can produce certain vitamins, reduce inflammation, improve the absorption of nutrients, produce neurotransmitters, and increase serotonin availability (10).
Certain supplements that can help improve mood include St.John's Wort, 5-HTP, ashwagandha, probiotics, and omega 3 fish oil.
St.John's Wort: this herbal remedy has been a popular treatment for moderate depression as it helps to increase neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine, acting to lift your mood. Interestingly it acts similarly to anti-depressant drugs but with fewer side effects (11)(12). However, if you are taking any medications check with your health care provider as St.John's Wort can interfere with the efficacy of numerous medications.
5-HTP: a precursor to serotonin, 5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid that can raise serotonin levels and cross the blood-brain barrier, influencing mood and helping to alleviate depressive symptoms (13).
Probiotics: we mentioned the importance of gut health for mental health which is why probiotic supplementation can make a difference. Researchers have shown that anxiety and depression can trigger digestive issues as well as the opposite; GI symptoms can also result in low mood and anxiety. Used in conjunction with other therapies, probiotics may be a useful tool in helping support mental health conditions however more studies are needed (14).
Omega 3 fish oil: studies have shown those with low levels of essential fatty acids to be more prone to depression. Omega 3 fats support glucose uptake into brain cells, reduce inflammation, and may help enhance the production and reception of serotonin (15). Eating wild fish 2-3 times per week can help boost levels of omega 3 fats however supplementation is usually needed for therapeutic dosage.
Always consult your health care practitioner before supplementing to avoid any adverse effects or contraindications.
Physical activity has been shown to significantly help improve treatment outcomes in depression and may even be more effective than anti-depressants (16). Exercise can increase Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, found to be commonly altered in depressive patients (17). BDNF is a protein that is produced in the brain that promotes the growth of new brain cells which is important for learning, memory, and behavior.
By regularly participating in physical activity you will also receive additional benefits such as improved glycemic control, stress response, sleep, and cardiovascular health, all of which have a beneficial impact on mental health.
Exercise can be done by anyone and doesn't provide side effects which is not the case with many pharmaceuticals prescribed for depression.
Though exercise can make a big difference on mental health it is usually not enough by itself which is why approaching mental health from a holistic standpoint is important for long-term healing.
Clean up your diet
There is no doubt that the typical western diet nowadays may be contributing to increased rates of depression and mood imbalances. For instance, refined carbohydrates and sugars, as well as damaged fats, promote inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, dysbiosis, and nutrient depletion, which all negatively impact brain health.
Not to mention the impact of nutrient deficiencies on brain health, as discussed earlier in this article.
We recommend limiting sugar consumption due to the reactive hypoglycemic response and altered blood sugar control which is associated with an increased risk of depression (18). Other foods to avoid include processed foods, stimulants, hydrogenated oils, artificial ingredients, and excess red meat intake.
It is also important to eliminate any personal food reactions as this will further exacerbate the inflammatory response.
For optimal brain function focus on whole food ingredients with brightly colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, organic and grass-fed meats, wild fish, raw nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices.
The Mediterranean diet, in particular, is an example of a diet that has been shown to support healthy brain functioning and mood.
Poor sleep and poor mental health go hand in hand. And this makes a lot of sense because sleep is the time for repair and regeneration. The rate of toxin and waste removal in the brain is enhanced during deep sleep through the glymphatic system, which is basically the detoxification system of the brain. This means if you aren't getting adequate sleep then you may be building up toxins in the brain. This can result in neurological symptoms and even the onset of neurological diseases later in life.
And there is a clear link between lack of sleep and depression (19). In fact, studies estimate that up to 90% of patients suffering from depression also experience insomnia (20). Poor sleep diminishes overall quality of life but also directly impacts brain health which is why this must be addressed in depressive patients.
Make sleep a priority by avoiding electronics 1 hour before bed, sleeping in complete darkness, getting to bed before midnight, and avoiding late-night eating.
Calming supplements like magnesium, l-theanine, and valerian can also support sleepiness if insomnia is an issue.
We know stress can trigger anxiety but what about depression?
When the stress response becomes chronic, it affects all systems of the body, including the brain. Chronic stress has been shown to reduce BDNF (which is responsible for brain cell growth) and induce HPA axis dysfunction, both of which have been associated with depression (21) (22).
Though stress cannot be eliminated it must be managed properly. This means setting realistic expectations with what you can take on, getting adequate sleep and rest, and adopting stress management techniques like meditation, nature therapy, and spending time with loved ones.
This can all seem like a lot so it is important to work with an experienced health care practitioner in order to get the right support and guidance. Remember, the little things that we do on a daily basis can make big impacts on your mental health but you should never navigate depression by yourself.
This article is not intended to replace professional medical advice but to act as a resource for individuals. Always consult with your own medical or health professional before beginning a new health program.
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.