Fall really is here. The leaves have changed color, most have fallen from the trees, and cooler temperatures are creeping in. You might also have noticed a change in daylight hours: the days are getting shorter, and the nights longer. During the day, the sun is hanging lower in the sky, and it inches towards the horizon for sunset earlier and earlier, day by day. Are you getting that sinking feeling yet? You are not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that is related to the changes in the seasons, usually starting in fall and continuing through the winter months. It affects an estimated 10 million Americans, with possibly another 10-20 percent having more mild SAD. Anxiety and generalized depression are even more common. Anxiety affects 40 million Americans a year, and in 2015, an estimated 16 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. Clearly there are countless other mood disorders that people struggle with. The good news is that there are solutions. While there is always a time and a place for medications (which can be lifesavers for some), diet and lifestyle interventions can make an enormous difference.
Stress and Sleep
Two separate issues, but potentially connected as well. We need an average of about eight hours of restorative sleep a night. It takes about a half hour to fall asleep, and another half hour or so to enter deep sleep. If falling asleep is difficult, put aside at least an hour before bedtime to do something relaxing, such as reading a book or taking a bath. Make sure your sleep environment is on the cool side. It should be as dark as possible. (For more tips on sleep, see my article from this summer on the subject.) Stress can contribute to anxiety and depression, and it can also be a factor in poor sleep quality or insomnia. Taking stress management seriously can do wonders for mental health. Figure out the biggest contributors to stress in your life, and begin to minimize them as much as possible. Having a regular stress management practice is key and will look different for everyone. Some may find relief in physical activity, being outdoors close to nature, gardening, yoga, or tai chi, or spending quality time with a friend. Others benefit greatly from meditation or mindful breathing exercises. Reducing stress can improve sleep, and improving sleep can reduce stress.
Many nutrient deficiencies can contribute to mood disorders like depression or anxiety. This is because they are involved in neurotransmitter production, such as serotonin, which helps to regulate mood. Many of the B vitamins play a big role here, including B12, folate, B6, and riboflavin, as well as choline. Other key nutrients include zinc, copper, magnesium, iodine, Vitamin D, and EPA/DHA. Having an omnivorous diet makes deficiencies less likely, although the nutrients in our plant food supply have been diminishing for many decades now. A diet that minimizes deficiencies includes lots of vegetables (some fermented), some fruits, fish and seafood, including shellfish, grass-fed meat/poultry/dairy/eggs, wild game, and nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes, prepared properly and to tolerance. Vegans or vegetarians may be at increased risk of deficiency for several reasons. One, the best sources of many of these nutrients are animal-based. Shellfish and organ meats, such as liver, for example, are the best sources of B12, folate, zinc, choline, B6, and riboflavin. At the same time, vegan/vegetarian diets can be heavy in grains, nuts, and seeds. While these foods do fit into a healthy eating plan, they also contain phytic acid in the bran or outer seed coats. If not prepared properly, these foods can bind to minerals, including magnesium, iron, and zinc, as well as decrease digestive enzyme production, which can contribute to nutrient deficiencies. However, soaking or sprouting these foods can greatly reduce their phytic acid content. Note that phytic acid is much less of a concern in an omnivorous diet.
There are clear links between gut health and mental health. Anyone who has endured painful gastrointestinal symptoms knows how deeply it can affect one’s mood. Evidence does show a link between gut function and conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, OCD, Schizophrenia, and sensory processing disorder, to name a few. The gut actually produces more serotonin than the brain; it is considered the “second brain.” If you are struggling with gut issues, work with a healthcare practitioner to assess for things like parasites, fungal/yeast overgrowth, SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), leaky gut, and dysbiosis (an imbalance of beneficial and opportunistic bacteria in the gut).
The Good Bugs
An absence of beneficial microbiota (bacteria) in the gut can contribute to inflammation, which some believe plays a role in both some mental disorders as well as other diseases like Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis. There are many factors that can contribute to diminished levels of these good bacteria. Antibiotic use is a key factor and has an additive effect the more often they are used. Being overly hygienic, living in a sterile environment, and even being a C-section baby or being bottle-fed can all have long-standing effects on one’s microbiome. Emotional stress, including early life stress in infancy or childhood/adolescence, can diminish beneficial bacteria. Last but certainly not least, a poor diet has profound negative consequences; the Modern American Diet filled with nutrient-poor, carbohydrate dense, processed foods is starving our microbiome. Our gut bacteria feed on fermentable fiber; nourish it with a steady supply of richly-colored plant foods from a wide variety of plant families.
The process of regaining our mental health is not an easy one, and unfortunately not one that can easily be condensed into one article. It requires energy and time to make changes to our lifestyles - our very ways of being - including our ways of eating. Luckily, small steps over time do add up to big changes. Whether you start with sleep, stress management, nature, physical activities, building healthy relationships, or your diet, each one will make the other easier, and will have an additive effect in improving your mental wellbeing.
The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.