How to Naturally Support Mental Health and Wellbeing
February is a common time for many of us to struggle with shifts in mood. With Winter at its peak and the promise of Spring just around the corner, we are all craving longer days, more sunshine and less time inside. The shifts in mood can be attributed to many external and internal factors. Externally, we are coming off the roller coaster of the holidays and starting a new year. We are also dealing with the ebb and flow of the winter season, common colds and a lot more indoor time. Internally, our bodies are chemically craving more sunlight and our neurotransmitters are thrown off balance.
SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
The recurrent depressive disorder that accompanies the winter months is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the ever appropriate acronym SAD. It is commonly referred to as the “winter blues” and symptoms can include a feeling of sadness and a lack of energy. The further you live from the equator, the more likely you are to suffer from SAD, as the winters get more intense. A typical mainstream treatment is to turn to antidepressant medications, but there are many other options from dietary changes to light therapy to naturally treat SAD (1).
There is a large body of evidence supporting the natural circadian phase shift of neurotransmitters. The shortened days provide less light and therefore a reduced source of Vitamin D. Some of the first therapies suggested for the winter blues involved light therapy in the morning and the evening to mimic the long summer days, where SAD is not observed. These trial therapies showed promising results but were not a full solution to treating SAD. Science then turned internally, looking to melatonin to help regulate and treat SAD. Studies have shown that small doses of melatonin on a schedule mimicking natural circadian phase shifts showed promise (2). However, melatonin supplementation is not recommended long-term as our body is designed to make it on its own with proper supply of the essential amino acid tryptophan and magnesium.
THE BALANCE OF NEUROTRANSMITTERS
Serotonin and dopamine are the major neurotransmitters implicated in mood disorders. When these neurotransmitters are lacking or out of balance, the results can be a depressed state. They are functionally linked at many levels, so a low level of one can affect the other. Most commonly, low serotonin is credited as the cause of depression, but it is important to consider dopamine as well. Signs of low dopamine include a lack of motivation, learning, pleasure and organization. While signs of low serotonin can include irritability, impulsiveness and obsession. As we’ll discuss, your neurotransmitter levels can be brought back into equilibrium with a combination of diet, herbal supplements and activity.
ANXIETY: AN EARLY WARNING
In this blog, we share some common treatment for mood imbalances and depression, but as prevention is always our preference, let’s discuss anxiety as an early warning sign of depression. Anxiety is very common and very strongly linked to depression. It is incredibly common, especially this time of year, because neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA are responsible for keeping us feeling calm. Anxiety, and even irritability, may be an early warning that depression could be just around the corner. Here are some tips to support calmness in your mind and body:
Reishi Is regarded as a powerful Shen tonic in Chinese medicine. Shen refers to our heart-mind connection which has to do with our higher self or spirit. Anxiety and depression would be seen as a Shen disturbance in this ancient medical system. Reishi is powerful and has many benefits but is yet very gentle and can be taken in very large doses with virtually no side effects. Studies have demonstrated its ability to reduce stress-related anxiety (3).
Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, has been shown to lower cortisol, our stress hormone, in even a single dose. Holy basil is basically the Reishi equivalent in Ayurvedic Medicine. The meaning of Tulsi is “Incomparable One.” It is a revered adaptogen with a wide spectrum of uses. It has been studied for it’s ability to significantly improve mood and reduce stress-related anxiety (4).
The most well-known use of passion flower is that of a mild sedative to the nervous system. Passion Flower may support the brain to produce GABA which generates a sense of calmness and wellbeing. Passion flower may also help open up the nerve centers to enhance nutrient uptake and increase stress handling capability. It has been studied as an alternative to anxiety disorder medication, showing promising results (5).
VITAMINS, MINERALS AND MOOD
Vitamin D is essential in neurodevelopment and has been shown to treat depression and other disorders (6). Our bodies are very efficient at manufacturing vitamin D from sunlight, but modern life rarely lends itself to the amount of sunlight exposure needed to supply adequate Vitamin D to our bodies. This is especially true in the winter months. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide have Vitamin D deficiency (7), which has been linked to many chronic diseases and an increased risk of mortality (8). An increase in Vitamin D signals an increased demand for K2, which is why we include both our formula.
Magnesium is involved in more than 350 cellular processes, including those relating to nerve function. An adequate amount of magnesium is essential to normal neurological function and release of neurotransmitters (9).
FOOD AND MOOD
First let’s consider diet’s role in neurotransmitter levels and overall mood. Adequate protein intake is essential for neurotransmitter balance in your body. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid we get from our diet that is a necessary precursor for neuromodulators like serotonin and melatonin.
Choosing organic foods is an important step in proper nutrition for mood stability. The most commonly used herbicide in the world is glyphosate, branded by Monsanto as Round Up. It acts to block the synthesis of tryptophan in plants and microbes which diminishes the supply of this essential amino acid (10). Again, Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. When you can, always choose organic produce. If you can’t buy all organic, use the Environmental Working Guide’s Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen (11) to prioritize which produce you buy organic. These well researched lists outline the pesticide residues on common produce.
In addition to a healthy diet, incorporating the following supplements in your routine can ensure adequate protein intake along with add nutritional benefits:
Chlorella has been studied and proven to be a high quality source of protein (12). Chlorella is the highest known source of chlorophyll (10% by weight!), and is very high in minerals, vitamins, complete protein (40% by weight), nucleic acids, growth factors, essential fatty acids, and digestive enzymes such as pepsin.
Spirulina contains extremely high amounts of the amino acid tryptophan and around 70% total protein in addition to B vitamins, Vitamin A and minerals (13). It may support the immune system, energy levels, brain function, detoxification, mood, and blood production. It is abundant in chlorophyll, amino acids, phytonutrients, enzymes, minerals, essential fatty acids, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and antioxidants in a bio-available format the body is familiar with.
Goat milk is as close to a perfect food as possible. It is tolerated by even the most sensitive individuals. Its proteins and other nutrients are better absorbed and utilized while having an alkaline effect on the body, that is why we offer Goat Whey Protein Concentrate. Whey protein has been shown to enhance whole body protein metabolism (14) and is higher in tryptophan than cow’s milk.
HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS AND MOOD
In addition to getting essential nutrients from your diet, herbs can play a big role in your overall mental health. Let’s take a look at some herbs that have been identified for optimal dopamine support:
He Shou Wu may act as an MAO inhibitor. This inhibition essentially helps support the recycling of dopamine and serotonin in the brain instead of being broken down (17)
Shilajit has been studied and proven to be a very safe and potent dietary supplement. It’s main benefits come in the form of improved cognition and possible prevention of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. It has been touted as a “Panacea Medicine” due to its seemingly miraculous abilities to neutralize toxins and nourish and strengthen our cells. Its current use has provided benefits to all systems of the body with emphasis on the reproductive and nervous system. It is also particularly helpful as an anti-anxiety substance and enhancer of brain function. It is also touted as a strengthening substance for athletes due to its ability to increase blood oxygenation.
Turmeric is a vibrant spice with incredible potential in treating various diseases. Curcumin is the bioactive component of turmeric. In numerous studies, it has demonstrated a number of neuroprotective actions (18) and has important therapeutic potential in depression (19).
Studies have clearly proven that daily intake of goji, over as little as a two week period, increases feelings of general well-being and improves neurologic performance (20). Goji contains the trace mineral lithium which has long been known to support and elevate mood.
THE GUT-MOOD CONNECTION
As 90% of our Serotonin is made in the gut, gut health is a key component of neurotransmitter supply in addition to overall health. Healthy gut microbiota have shown great importance for patients suffering from anxiety and depression (21). This connection between mental health and gut health is knowns as the gut-brain axis. It is a bi-directional system between the brain and gastrointestinal tract that links emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with functioning of the digestive tract (22).You can support a healthy gut on many different levels. In your diet, avoid refined sugar, increase fiber intake and look for foods high in probiotics like fermented foods. Additionally, healthy serotonin levels via a healthy gut are supported by the following supplements:
This blend contains beneficial nutrients for epithelium cells and unique prebiotics which feed good bacteria found in the gut. Daily use helps to ensure your digestive system will stay in optimal health. Lion’s mane mushroom is a key ingredient in this formula, which may support nerve growth which enhances the gut-brain axis.
Camu Camu has been studied in supporting a healthy immune system, gut and a healthy mood and brain chemistry. It has high anti-inflammatory potential (23), making it important for overall health as well.
Ashwagandha has demonstrated tremendous potential in revitalizing and restoring virtually all body systems with calming properties. It has been studied for its ability to prevent stress induced digestive issues (24).
Folate and B12 in particular are important for neurotransmitter function and specifically in serotonin production. Watch out for the cheap synthetic versions like cyanocobalamin and folic acid. These forms are used in our enriched foods and cheaper supplements and are not recognized or utilized by the body successfully. We carry a B-complex that is made via a natural fermentation process that your body knows how to use.
MOVEMENT FOR MOOD
There is little that daily exercise doesn’t improve, and that includes your mood. If you can combine your physical activity with being outside and getting natural sunlight, then you’re fighting depression two-fold. An incredible amount of studies have found the exercise positively impacts physical and mental health and can treat mood disorders (25). Incorporating physical activity in a currently sedentary life can seem daunting, especially when a symptom of mood disorders can be lack of motivation. We recommend enlisting the help of a friend or family member. It has been proven that the “buddy system” helps people stay focused, motivated and accountable. There are endless apps and online communities to track your daily exercise and find support. Try some new things, like yoga, pilates or other fitness classes and find what works best for you. Just like diet, there is no one-size-fits-all to exercise.
Armed with this knowledge, you can take control of your mental health and improve your feelings of overall well being. Know that you have options and support is out there. Enlist the help of these tonic herbs and superfoods, a healthy diet and physical exercise to feel your best. If you have any questions, we’d love to hear from you!