By Sophie Leighton, BHSc (Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine) Student
Like many mental health disorders, depression is a vastly complicated and often misunderstood condition. Depression affects all aspects of a person’s health and wellbeing with associated symptoms of low mood, lethargy, insomnia or hypersomnia, indecisiveness, poor concentration and a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities (Mitchell et al. 2013).
There are many mitigating factors that can contribute to depression including prolonged exposure to stress, low self-esteem, perfectionism, drug and alcohol consumption, allergies and food intolerances, family history, genetic vulnerability, medication side effects and medical illnesses (Harvard Health 2017).
Whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to treating depression, there are many complimentary and lifestyle interventions that can reduce depressive symptoms and greatly improve a person’s quality of life (Jorm et al. 2010).
An imbalance in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), is considered a significant contributing factor in the pathophysiology of depression, and correcting these imbalances is a key action behind the majority of anti-depressant medications (Harvard Health 2017). However, there are many nutritional and physical therapies that can also greatly improve the activity and availability of these neurotransmitters and thereby help to alleviate depression (Walsh 2018).
The importance of a healthy, wholefood and colourful diet is significant in preventing and treating depression through a multitude of mechanisms. Nutritional requirements for neurotransmitter production include B-vitamins, magnesium, zinc and specific amino acids found in protein-rich foods (Deacon University 2016). Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants can further mediate health detriments such as inflammation and oxidative stress that have implicated roles in neurodegenerative diseases such as depression (Bakunina, Pariante, and Zunszain 2015; Deacon University 2016).
The gut-brain axis is another area of consideration, and therefore supporting a healthy microbiome with probiotic and prebiotic rich foods can be a significant point of treatment (Deacon University 2016). Mindful eating practices can further benefit the gut-brain axis. By taking the time to smell and savour your food in a relaxed and calm environment, you reduce your stress-response, optimise your digestive capacity and nutritional intake and eat to your body’s satiety, thereby reducing the discomfort of overeating and preventing excessive weight gain (Harvard Health 2011).
Regular exercise is another method of alleviating depression. This is achieved through the release of endorphins (feel-good brain chemicals) that can enhance a sense of wellbeing and vitality, as well as improved confidence, socialisation, and an emotional outlet (Mayo Clinic 2017). Walking in nature has been shown to positively affect mental health by reducing the activity of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is active during repetitive thoughts and negative emotions (Harvard Health 2018). Exposure to nature confers other therapeutic benefits including a reduction in blood pressure and stress hormones, calming the body and mind and nourishing the soul with ‘nature cure’ (Harvard Health 2018).
Mind-body activities such as yoga and mindfulness meditation have demonstrated increased levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA (Krishnakumar et al. 2016). Other activities that have demonstrated therapeutic effects on mental health include acupuncture, hydrotherapy, pet ownership, aromatherapy, art therapy, and laughter (Hassan et al. 2016; Ko and Youn 2011; Park 2013; Sanchez-Vidana et al. 2017; Sniezek and Siddiqui 2013; Watson and Weinstein 1993).
Taking into consideration the range of contributing factors that can predispose a person to depression it is important to treat the disorder through a holistic and individualised approach.
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