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Sunshine For the Mind

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Maybe it's one of those cloudy grey days. Or maybe it's just hard to get motivated for the same old routine. Perhaps you're feeling trapped in your job or a relationship that's seen better days.

Maybe it's one of those cloudy grey days. Or maybe it's just hard to get motivated for the same old routine. Perhaps you're feeling trapped in your job or a relationship that's seen better days.

Everyone has occasional "down" days - they're part of the normal vicissitudes of life. But an estimated eight percent of Canadian adults experience serious depression at some time in their lives. While television commercials may promise prescription drugs to banish dark days, the truth is that no one can feel happy all of the time.

So, what's the answer to navigating life's ups and downs?

Before doing anything, it's important to gauge whether you're just feeling blue for a day or two or whether you've been depressed for weeks or months. Consider whether your feelings might be normal: you should feel depressed after someone close to you dies, but it's not normal to feel depressed without a reason. True depression is characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness - the belief that life will not get better.

Feeling down or depressed either causes, or is caused by, a chemical imbalance in the brain. Major life events, such as losing a job or going through a divorce, trigger changes in serotonin and other neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that influence mood and behaviour. Sometimes, it is difficult to reverse these changes and bounce back emotionally.

Mood Food

Just as diet affects your physical health, it also affects your mood and mental health. Food provides, or fails to provide, the many chemical building blocks needed to produce neurotransmitters.

The relationship between food and mood was clearly demonstrated in a study by Anita S. Wells, MD, of the University of Sheffield, England. Wells asked 20 healthy men and women to eat high- and low-fat diets for several weeks. People following the low-fat diet developed greater feelings of depression, dejection, and anger. In contrast, those eating high-fat diets had improvements in mood. Still other research has found that people who eat fish less than once a week are one-third more likely to experience mild to severe depression. Fish is rich in good omega-3 fats needed for normal brain function.

Nutritionally oriented psychiatrists, such as Priscilla Slagle, MD, of Palm Springs, California, routinely coach their patients on how diet and specific nutrients impact mood and feelings of depression. Slagle asks her patients to avoid foods high in refined sugar (such as soft drinks and sweets) and other refined carbohydrates (white bread and pasta), in favour of more wholesome foods, such as lean meats, fish, and vegetables. These wholesome foods help stabilize blood-sugar levels.

The relationship between blood sugar and depression may also be significant. Researchers have long known that people with diabetes are particularly susceptible to depression, but their moods improve when their blood-sugar levels remain relatively stable. Until recently, the reason had not been clear.

Then Dr. Malcolm N. McLeod, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, treated a depressed patient with a leading pharmaceutical drug. The patient happened to start taking supplements of chromium picolinate, which is well established for its role in improving insulin function and normalizing blood-sugar levels. The chromium supplements led to a complete reversal of the patient's depression, fatigue, and overeating-problems he had for 25 years.

Intrigued, McLeod and colleague Robert N. Golden, MD, asked other depressed patients to try chromium picolinate supplements, ranging in dosage from 200 to 400 mcg daily. All the patients recovered, some after failing to respond to prescription medications. In an article in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, the doctors speculated that the chromium supplements may help by improving insulin function, in turn boosting the brain's serotonin.

Mood-Lifting Supplements

Other supplements may help with depression.

B-complex vitamins. Three B vitamins - B6, B12, and folic acid - play key roles in preventing feelings of depression. Vitamin B6 is essential for the body's production of serotonin, which most antidepressant drugs are designed to elevate.

As for vitamin B12, a recent report in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Jack M. Guralnik, MD, PhD, of the National Institute of Aging, Bethesda, Maryland, showed that elderly women with vitamin B12 deficiency were twice as likely to be depressed, compared with women who had normal levels of the vitamin.

Other research has found that people with low levels of folic acid have an increased risk of depression and are also less likely to benefit from antidepressant drugs, according to a study of 213 patients by Maurizio Fava, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Tryptophan. The B vitamins enhance the body's production of the amino acid tryptophan and its precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). In turn, these substances boost levels of serotonin. Several studies have found that depression and aggressiveness increase when people are deprived of tryptophan. Supplemental 5-HTP can significantly ease depression.

St. John's wort eases symptoms of depression with a low risk of side-effects. Several clinical trials have pitted St. John's wort against leading antidepressant medications, including fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and imipramine (Tofranil). In all of the studies, St. John's wort either matched or exceeded the drug in benefits. In the fluoxetine study, which involved 240 patients, both herb and drug reduced depression to the same extent, but about one-third more patients responded to the herb.

While everyone has an occasional down day, it is important to respond when those days turn into a depression lasting weeks or months. Often, selecting healthier foods, spending more time outdoors, and taking one or two natural antidepressant nutrients can part the emotional clouds and brighten your life.

Warning Signs of Depression

  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling guilty or unloved
  • Not enjoying activities
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Crying often
  • Suicidal thoughts

What to Take

Remedy

Dosage

Overall dietEmphasize fish, chicken, and a diverse selection of vegetables
Physical activity and
light exposure
Take a daily 20-minute walk in the morning or early afternoon to reset the body's production of melatonin so it increases, as it should, in the evening
Chromium picolinate200 to 400 mcg daily
B-complex vitaminsHigh-potency "B 50" multiple
5-HTP400 mg, before bed. Take with small protein snack to enhance absorption
St. John's wort

300 mg of standardized extract, three times daily

Caution: Combine 5-HPT with St. John's wort only under a physician's guidance. Similarly, combine these two supplements with a prescription antidepressant only with a physician's instruction. If you are taking a prescription antidepressant, your physician may reduce the dosage after seeing an improvement in your mood.

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