Raise your hand if you’ve ever had anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue or any other mental health issue?
My guess is that most of you are nodding your head right now…me included.
For many, many years, I struggled with chronic fatigue that spiralled into depression about 3 times a year. This lasted from the time I was 12 until I was about 28. No doctor was really able to help – one graciously did a bunch of tests and researched possible causes…which ended up in the unexplainable and incurable diagnosis of “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”.
My life wasn’t what I thought it should be and I spent many nights questioning why things were so unfair. Why was THIS happening to me? And why was there nothing I could about it?
Mental health has never been a stigma for me – I have always been fine to tell people when I was spiralling into my depressive states. But, it is something that is becoming more and more front and center. Is this because we are talking about it more? Is this because we are more open to learning about our loved ones’ struggles? Or is this, like many of our first world diseases, correlated with some very poor choices in what we put into and onto our bodies?
This is something I do wonder often about…because there is evidence that toxins, nutritional deficiencies and other environmental factors do play a role in mental health.
Factors Affecting Your Brain
While some mental health disorders truly do require professional medical care, the common ones experienced today may have a strong tie to things we actually can control.
People with anxiety, chronic fatigue and depression typically have chronic stress in their lives (hey, don’t we all).
When we can’t sleep, we feel more tired, which makes it much harder to deal with stressors each day. Then, stress gets our minds whirling – often right a bedtime – and we can’t fall or stay asleep, making that fatigue worse.
And we get stuck in this vicious cycle night after night.
The brain is also very sensitive to toxins, and inflammation from the wrong foods, stress, and imbalanced hormones can lead to anxiety and depression.
Chronic Stress and Your Brain
Scientists have seen physical changes in the brain anatomy in people who have chronically stressful lifestyles. Specifically, the arrangement of neurons changes, making the signalling in your brain imbalanced.
People with chronic stress also suffer from faster memory degradation as well as mood swings, low energy and irritability.
And, chronic stress reduces the neuron’s ability to take in glucose (their only source of energy) and eventually they shrink in size.
Toxins and Allergens
Foods containing preservatives, colorings, chemicals and other non-food stuff have been linked to poor mental health. These chemicals, which our bodies are not designed to use, end up causing inflammation that changes mood and emotional health.
This toxin-exposure also gets us when we use commercial household cleaners and personal care products. All-natural products are a better choice.
The top three food allergens – wheat, gluten and dairy – have strong links to anxiety, depression and fatigue.
And heavy metals, like copper, have been shown to boost anxiety levels.
One of the main triggers for anxiety, fatigue and depression is imbalanced blood sugar and poor glucose metabolism.
Imbalanced blood sugar can trigger the release of cortisol from the adrenals, which prompts the release of stored energy from the liver and muscles. Cortisol, however, also signals that ‘fight or flight’ response; without a physical release of this cortisol (i.e. exercise), that cortisol builds up in the body and induces inflammation in the brain.
Estrogen dominance (or high levels of estrogen compared to progesterone) can increase cortisol levels in your body, too.
High estrogen and low progesterone during PMS can cause depression and anxiety. Often this is due to poor detoxification and not eating the right nutrients. We need to eat essential fats to produce the cholesterol needed to manufacture our hormones. And we need to eat liver-cleansing foods to help ensure that excess hormones are removed as needed.
Low levels of estrogen can be a problem too. This is because estrogen helps move your feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, around the body. It also helps to stimulate the production of serotonin and prevents it from being used up too quickly.
When cortisol is high, blood tests show lower levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
The Wrong Food Choices
Remember that when you get optimal nutrition, you boost your mood, your energy and your motivation for life. All of this will help reduce anxiety and depression, improve your sleep, and, in the end, beat that fatigue.
If you eat too many fast-digesting carbs (aka sugar, refined grains, etc.), this causes energy spikes and dips that impact your mood.
In addition to the pro-inflammatory foods I listed earlier, sugar is the #1 pro-inflammatory food and will most definitely boost your risk of mental health issues.
Unfortunately, too many people still turn to packaged, processed foods that are fast-digesting, with minimal fiber and nutrients, all of which have a negative impact on the brain.
Natural Ways to Reduce Anxiety and Depression (and Boost Energy)
Getting enough healthy fats, especially the essential fatty acids, is key to boosting mood and beating anxiety. And, the brain loves fat, which helps improve sleep and balance hormones. Omega-3 fatty acids boost serotonin production.
One of the best approaches to reduce anxiety and depression (and boost sleep and energy) is to follow an adrenal fatigue diet. With the proper nutrition for adrenal and cortisol support, you will regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation, help regulate blood sugar, and boost overall nutrients in the body.
An adrenal fatigue diet is one that is based on healthy plant-based fats, fresh fruits and vegetables and good quality protein. It avoids packaged foods, baked goods, low-fat or non-fat dairy, and junk foods.
A deficiency in magnesium has also been linked to depression and anxiety, too. And many women are already low in this important mineral.
Plus, when we are stressed, our bodies need more nutrients to survive.
The Gut-Brain Connection
It’s so fascinating to me how our organs and body systems are so interconnected. Did you know that the health of your brain affects the health of your gut microbiome, and vice versa?
This is because your gut has about 500 million neurons that are connected to your central nervous system. And your vagus nerve is the powerhouse of this system, sending messages between the brain and gut in both directions. Messages are sent via neurotransmitters.
One of the most important neurotransmitters for good mental health is serotonin, your feel-good neurotransmitter (it helps boost happiness). In fact, most of your serotonin is produced by the good bacteria in your gut. Another important neurotransmitter produced by the gut is GABA, which controls fear and anxiety.
Women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety from a lack of serotonin. This can be caused by poor gut health, not enough estrogen, not enough light, not enough exercise and too much stress.
The precursor to serotonin is the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in foods like turkey, eggs, full fat cheese, salmon and pineapples. If your gut microbiome is not healthy (i.e. too much ‘bad’ bacteria and not enough ‘good’), this could affect the metabolism of tryptophan and the synthesis of serotonin.
Studies in rats have shown that probiotic therapies can improve the gut microbiome while reducing free levels of cortisol in the blood. This, in turn, shows lowered levels of anxiety and depression.
Anxiety, depression, fatigue and insomnia are 4 of the most common health complaints that women talk about in my group. There are many factors that could be causing these mental health disorders, many of which you can control with proper nutrition, avoidance of toxins and chemicals in food and personal care products, and through good stress management.
Make sure your diet is rich in healthy plant-based fats (i.e. extra virgin olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, wild-caught salmon) and that you are nurturing your gut microbiome with a good probiotic every single day.
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