It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, shining a light on the multiple mental afflictions that make up the fields of psychiatry and psychology. I’ve always been fascinated by the purported relationship among foods and mood. I even coined the corny phrase, “your food is your mood.” How true it is.
You remember our discussion about how certain nutrients and foods in particular affect clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety. Food is one more layer in the treatment plan to combat conditions that customize their symptoms for everyone they touch. It doesn’t seem fair that a diagnosis like depression, which is hard to cure in its own right, presents with such different symptoms for everyone. Depression is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Each patient’s path is different, making it even more difficult to treat. To complicate matters more, every treatment affects individuals differently. The same medication makes one person gain weight and another lose weight. One person will want to sleep all the time, yet others will suffer from insomnia.
Sadly, I’m sure readers don’t need a reminder that depression and other mental health afflictions affect more than just those who suffer from the conditions themselves. Mental illness tears families apart and throws fellow family members into a spiral of anguish for their loved ones. I used to croon many a tune sung by the Judds. I never dressed up like a Judd for the local talent show like I did Dolly Parton, but I was a true fan. It’s always shocking when someone we’ve admired, who’s reached the height of success in their industry, whose bank account is full and seems to have the world at their fingertips finds themselves in the deepest, darkest place there is. It leaves us wondering, when they had all that we think we want, “why?”
Many years ago, I found myself working closely with depressed and anxious patients when employed with a medical device company that had just received FDA clearance for a modality that treated depression called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS). I received an in-depth education just by being with patients receiving treatment whilst training the physicians on the system. They confided in me. They wrung my heart out in sorrow for their mental state, and they made me leap for joy if and when they responded to the treatment. A husband of a patient once came up to me shaking his head in disbelief, tears in his eyes. “She danced with me last night. For the first time in more than 20 years, we danced.” Stories like these cover me in goosebumps at the possibility of people being able to reclaim their lives. While people respond differently to treatments and should work with a mental health professional to determine what is best, a few small changes at home can do wonders.
RoutineProfessionals encourage people struggling with depression to implement a routine. When in the clutches of darkness, that may seem more easily said than done. It takes 21 days to form a habit, but thereafter, it may seem like you’ve been doing it for years. Having a predictable routine can help stave off the anxiety of not knowing what’s next. It’s easy to spiral during our day when trying to figure out our next task or chore. (I have known myself to literally walk in circles trying to get things done, adopting a new task along the way, so that nothing gets done at all). Having a routine and a schedule sets expectations, producing more calm than craze and alleviating the stress that comes along with it.
Sound sleepSometimes when we’re down, all we want to do is stay in bed, but getting enough of the right sleep is important. A lack of routine can sometimes sabotage important sleep hours. The increment between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. is said to be the most important one for sleep at night. Going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time in the morning is part of a positive routine as well.
Write it outIt may sound cheesy, but journaling can help when we talk it out on paper. I encourage clients to keep a food journal as well, though I advise them not to get too caught up in the caloric aspect of it. Some in the mental health industry encourage people to journal at the same time each day, again allowing for the predictability of a schedule. Getting swirling thoughts out of our heads can make a dramatic difference. Even a few lines can do the trick. Leave your thoughts there and move on with your day.
Laughter really is the best RxI can see you rolling your eyes, but laughter and smiling in general has been proven to elevate our mood. Jokes, funny shows or a silly thought can do the trick. Comedy channels abound nowadays both on television and on the radio, so there’s lots of material from which to choose. Small positive changes in a routine can be helpful as well. Add listening to an uplifting song for five minutes to your to-do list and your dopamine levels are likely to increase. A short walk, uplifting joke or a call to a friend can all aid these neurotransmitter levels as well.
ExerciseI am aware that even for those of us who are not depressed, exercise can sometimes be the last thing we want to do. Physically getting our blood pumping increases our energy and this little change can have a profound effect. Even walking has been said to even rewire the brain in positive ways.
Inflammatory informationFoods that nourish our brain do so in many ways, with many different nutrients, antioxidants and polyphenols. The brain and the gut are connected through nerves, hormones and secretions in more ways than we know. We know that inflammation plays a role in most every disease, and depression is no exception. Foods that fight inflammation like green leafy veggies, lettuces, purple fruits and veggies like red cabbage, purple cauliflower and blueberries play a role in eating for depression. Omega-3s (found in olive oil, avocado and wild salmon) help to reduce inflammation. Magnesium is a key player in this role as well (found in high amounts in pumpkin seeds, cashews and almonds).
Grateful for meditationMeditation’s positive effects are as old as the Buddha. With various apps offering a number of time increments, finding a guide to zoning out has never been easier. Finding the time may be another thing, but even five minutes a day has been said to help elevate mood and thoughts. In addition to improving focus, meditation can reduce stress and increases our sense of well-being. Meditation has been shown to increase the volume of gray matter in our hippocampus, the area that is often smaller in those who suffer from recurrent depression.
Gratitude listPerhaps the easiest offering of all (and one that changes our thinking instantly) is the perceived cheesy gratitude list. I find that it’s only cheesy until you do it. It’s a well-known idea that our thoughts attract like thoughts, so negativity can act as a magnet, attracting more and more negative thoughts. Breaking that pattern can be difficult once we’re there, but being thankful for what we have is powerful stuff. If your list comprises of only 10 things, the first of which is that you have clean drinking water, that’s a great start. By starting the day thinking about what will go right, or by closing the day thinking about all the things we’re lucky to have (clean air is a great one) it becomes contagious. And how can we be down when we’re thinking of all these things for which we’re grateful?
ToolboxWhile none of these things is a magic bullet that promises the remission of clinical depression or other mental conditions, they’re part of an arsenal of things we can employ when feeling down. We may not get completely better by eating more folate, listening to comedy on XM radio, or by writing a gratitude list, but these are some steps we can take to help ourselves. Our brain function improves when we try new things, so adopting a new hobby is on the list as well. These tools are just that: tools to use as an adjunct to your current therapy and medications. Consult your doctor before making changes to your regime or prescriptions.
Here is a recipe that will hopefully boost your mood.
Satisfying Shrimp Scampi1 pound shrimp, rinsed, peeled and deveined
8 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, rinsed
3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Splash of white wine
Salt & pepper
In a hot cast iron pan, heat olive oil.
Add tomatoes and heat until slightly blistered.
Add garlic and sauté until golden.
Add shrimp, cooking until orange on one side.
Squeeze lemon over shrimp and flip.
Add a splash of wine and parsley, reduce heat and cook until shrimp are bright orange and cooked through.
Serve over rice, quinoa or with salad as desired.