A Naturopath’s Guide to Supporting Mental Health
We all have days when we’re not feeling at the top of our game. Maybe we’re experiencing a degree of stress and anxious feelings when feeling the pressure that can come with exams, work deadlines or relationship issues. Or maybe we have been feeling down, sad and not in the mood to be social. These feelings usually pass however, for some people, these feelings just don’t go away. It can have a crippling effect on your life, stopping you from doing the things you love and causing damage to the relationships in your life.
There are a variety of contributing factors that may lead to the development of depression or anxiety. These could be ongoing stressful circumstances, thyroid dysfunction, nutrient deficiencies, substance abuse and addictions, trauma and having low self-esteem. Food allergies, genetic disposition, unhealthy lifestyle choices, cancer and even side effects of medication can also contribute.
Figuring out what is contributing is essential and this is where a naturopath comes in. A naturopath can help you determine the underlying causes as well as treat your gut. We know that by changing our gut bacteria composition, we can change our brain chemistry. We also know that it’s bidirectional- that stress actually changes our gut bacteria population too! Healing your gut also heals your brain and that’s why when it comes to any mental health issues, treating your gut is paramount.
There are also a few things you can do to support your mental health. Eating a healthy diet and making sure you’re getting enough of some key nutrients that are essential for a healthy brain as well as building lifestyle habits can go a long way.
- Reduce intake of dietary stimulants, including caffeine and alcohol as they actually contribute to an anxious state, creating imbalances in the neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain. Caffeine also increases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which can make you feel more jittery and increase your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates and ensure you’re consuming a sufficient amount of complex carbohydrates to stabilize your blood sugar levels and feed the beneficial bacteria that keep your gut in balance. Eat healthy sources of carbohydrates like rice, quinoa, beans and oats.
- Make sure you’re getting enough protein at each meal as it will ensure you’re getting enough amino acids to support healthy mental function and overall well-being. Tryptophan, an amino acid, is an important precursor to serotonin. You can make sure you’re getting enough by consuming butternut squash seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, tofu, banana, oatmeal and sea vegetables such as kelp and seaweed.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids as they improve symptoms of anxiety and depression through their anti-inflammatory properties as well as their involvement in the structure and function of neuronal membranes, receptors and signal transmission. Omega-3s also increase the production of important neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Plant-based foods that are rich in these fatty acids include avocadoes, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, olives and olive oil.
- Include more fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir and prebiotic fibers in your diet as they increase the production of short chain fatty acids, anti-inflammatory cytokines and help to modulate the gut bacteria and improve anxiety symptoms.
- Increase your intake of magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium is required to control inflammation, reduce nervous tension, mood swings, irritability, manage stress and support a healthy sleep cycle. High magnesium foods include dark leafy greens, nuts especially cashews and almonds, seeds, beans, whole grains such as quinoa and buckwheat, avocadoes, bananas and cacao.
- Increase your intake of folate and B vitamins as they are needed for the synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters. Deficiencies in these nutrients are linked to mental health issues. Some of the best plant-based sources include bananas, legumes, leafy green vegetables and potatoes.
- Exercise daily for at least 30 minutes. We’ve already learned that in addition to all the wonderful things exercise does for us- like its benefits for cardiac health, bone strength and healthy metabolism- that it also helps us to produce short chain fatty acids that are essential for the health of our guts and brains. Exercise also releases our “feel good” hormones: serotonin and dopamine. Try some high intensity cardio exercise or more calming activities like yoga and Pilates.
- Vagal nerve stimulation (watch out for our next blog post!) also helps our cognitive and mental health as well as reduces inflammation and increases serotonin.
10. Make sure you’re spending time in the sun. Getting sunlight has a similar effect as taking an antidepressant. The UV rays from the sun stimulate vitamin D production in our skin and vitamin D supports production and release of serotonin. For those with dark complexions, it may be necessary to spend several hours in the sun in order to produce a sufficient amount of vitamin D, while those with light complexions may need as little as 15 minutes and should be careful in not getting too much!
11. Enjoy some massage. Massage therapy increases levels of not only serotonin but also dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. No wonder it feels so good to receive bodywork! Massage also soothes the nervous system, relieves muscle pain, reduces inflammation and enhances immune function. Massage is even detoxifying!
Herbal Medicine for Anxiety and Depression
There are many herbal remedies which have a long history of traditional use in the treatment of depression and anxiety:
St Johns Wort
One of the most well-known is St John’s Wort for depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that St John’s Wort is just as effective as conventional anti-depressants with fewer side effects. It does however, interact with many drugs so it does need to be used with caution and must be prescribed by a health practitioner.
Turmeric has also been found to be as effective as a conventional anti-depressant for supporting a healthy mood. It reduces inflammation and influences serotonin and dopamine activity. It is also a potent antioxidant.
Research has shown that exercise, relaxation training and the plant kava are the most effective complementary treatment options for generalised anxiety. Kava however, is another herb that should only be used under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner as it is contraindicated with some people and also interacts with various medications. It should also never be taken at doses higher than recommended or for long-term use.
Lemon Balm is another herb that has been used for anxiety with depression due to its calming effects. Studies have shown it to be effective in 70% of individuals with mild-to-moderate anxiety disorder and improves sleep issues in 85% of cases.
Lavender has been used for centuries for nervous exhaustion and insomnia. It has been shown to have comparable positive effects as anti-anxiety medication in adults with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. It’s also well tolerated and few side effects.
Passionflower is used a lot in herbal formulas for anxiety and insomnia due to its calming and sedative effects as it has few side effects and interactions. It has also been shown to have comparable positive effects as anti-anxiety medication in adults with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
Skullcap is another very calming herb that is used in many herbal anxiety formulas as it is gentle and nourishing to the nervous system. It helps to relieve tension and stress and can be used on an as needed basis during stressful situations or at night before bed to help calm the whirring mind.
Ashwagandha, also known as Withania, is used particularly for stress-induced nervous exhaustion. It is also used for recovery, physical performance and insomnia as well as for depletion of the immune system. It safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and reduces the release of stress hormones.
On a final note, we all sometimes need a bit of a helping hand and it’s okay to ask for help. If you feel you are stuck in a rut and you’re finding it hard to cope with the stress of life and/or feelings of sadness, don’t hesitate in seeking professional help with a psychologist or counsellor. Talking it out with someone and getting some professional advice can make the world of difference.
Back to Blog