But for those suffering from depression or anxiety, higher spirits are harder to find. In this country, depression is a widespread problem: 18.8 million Americans suffer from clinical depression and 28 million take antidepressant drugs or anxiety medication. Nearly twice as many women as men (12 percent vs. 7 percent) are affected by a depressive disorder each year. And as for sleep, well, we just don’t: Americans take over 5 billion sleeping pills each year.
I have some suggestions, however, that may guard against heading into even a mild depression, tips that your body is, most likely, begging you to take. These suggestions are good advice for anyone who wants to feel better, have more energy and take more control over their moods:
Up your aminos
You know that feel-good sensation you get after gorging on Thanksgiving turkey? The cause is tryptophan, an amino acid that produces serotonin. Serotonin, once produced, acts as an important neurotransmitter, or brain chemical that helps to relay messages from one nerve cell to another. We eat tryptophan, which converts to 5HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), and in turn converts to serotonin, and serotonin is the messenger ultimately responsible for that happy feeling. If serotonin is high, an individual will be positive, confident and optimistic. If it’s low, they can become negative, worried, sleepless and crave sugar. Women make less serotonin than men, which is one reason why they are more easily depressed.
It’s important to eat quality, high protein foods like meats, dairy and nuts to stock up on tryptophan. These foods are the key to maintaining adequate amounts of the amino acids necessary for proper neurotransmitter function. Adding these foods sounds simple, but it is easy to become serotonin deficient: first, there is less quality protein available today because our meat supply feeds on low tryptophan grains like corn instead of the grasses and plants that wild game used to eat. Secondly, tryptophan competes for brain absorption along with other larger amino acids, so it often gets ‘‘pushed out” by the bigger amino acids. A protein supplement is helpful because the protein is already broken down into amino acids so, absorbing tryptophan is guaranteed. Another supplement option is 5HTP, which bypasses the need for tryptophan and immediately converts to serotonin. Other added bonuses: 5HTP improves the quality of sleep, is less expensive than antidepressant drugs, better tolerated and has fewer, milder side effects. If you are currently on an antidepressant and are considering 5HTP, do not go off of your medication or start any supplements without first talking to your doctor.
Clean up your diet
An improved diet will significantly improve mood. Poor dietary habits including low calorie dieting, low protein diets and too much sugar are the primary reasons why people suffer from low serotonin. Many studies confirm that eating sweet and starchy carbohydrates can temporarily increase serotonin levels, but then that ‘‘high” dissipates quickly and leaves us craving even more sugar. This process sets us up for a cycle of sugar addiction that’s hard to break. Julia Ross, author of ‘‘The Mood Cure,” says that ‘‘carbohydrate addiction, like alcohol and drug addiction is primarily a brain chemistry problem: the neurotransmitters that produce normal appetites and moods are too depleted to do their jobs.” And our diets are filled with temptations. ‘‘We can’t go around eating the American diet and remain unscathed,” Ross says. So get rid of junk food, cookies, chips, crackers and as many sugars as you can. Just make sure that you include a good multi vitamin with adequate amounts of B vitamins — including folic acid — zinc, chromium, selenium and fish oils to provide a solid foundation for your mood health, as several studies indicate that these nutrients have a directly beneficial effect on depression.
Food allergies are also a known culprit in causing altered moods. An elimination diet which removes common offenders such as wheat, corn, soy and dairy for a period of two weeks and then gradually introduces these foods back into the diet can give a clear indication of any intolerance. There is also a proven association between gluten sensitivity and depression, so start with the elimination of wheat and track your moods and progress. Eating good quality foods while eliminating offending foods will go a long way toward improving mood.
Get some exercise
We all know that exercise feels great because it increases endorphins, another neurotransmitter. But exercise also raises serotonin levels by allowing more tryptophan to cross into the brain. Exercise also increases the intake of oxygen, which is critical to the formation of serotonin. A recent study showed that patients who continue on lifelong exercise programs have lower depression scores than sedentary patients. Another study showed a 46 percent therapeutic response and 42 percent remission rate in symptoms of depression when exercising for 20 minutes, 5 days per week. What’s remarkable is that these rates were comparable to conventional medication therapy. So just a little bit of exercise every day — 20 minutes — is a natural, non-prescriptive mood enhancer.
See the light
Serotonin levels increase when the sun is shining. This is most noticeable in people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition caused by a depletion of serotonin and an increase in melatonin due to lack of sunlight. When the sun starts to go down, many of us crave carbohydrates, but what we are really looking for is a way to increase our serotonin supplies so we don’t start feeling moody or fatigued. Studies have shown that serotonin increases with light therapy, so try to get outside in the late afternoon, take a quick ‘‘health” break and soak up a few late day rays. You’ll end up feeling more refreshed, energized and happy.
Get your thyroid checked
There is a clear link between low thyroid function and depression. Too much sugar may ultimately suppress thyroid function. If you also have symptoms of constipation, cold hands and feet, dry brittle nails and weight gain, share this with your doctor. When your thyroid is happy, no doubt you will be happy and more energetic too.
So this year as we spring forward, get out during that extra hour of sunlight and exercise. Or trade in the breakfast coffee and donut for some almond butter on whole grain toast. Before you turn to prescriptions, try these suggestions first. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all feel like every day was the first day of spring?