Depression and other mental illnesses; A multifaceted condition that may be resolved with dietary treatments.
These days with such chronic exposure to stress, many people are suffering from depression and anxiety symptoms. Statistics suggest that the number of people taking anti-depressant medications has increased within the last decade. Despite their popularity, clinical studies show that SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) drugs are only effective roughly 50% of the time. Aside from their less than impressive efficacy, anti-depressant and anxiety drugs come with negative side affects and can exacerbate symptoms in some people. Even if they work for an individual, weaning off of them is no easy task.
Recent research is starting to shed light on the topic of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. As researchers grasp a deeper understanding of the physiology of neuropathologies, they are starting to recognize that perhaps most mental illness patients’ symptoms can be cured or managed by addressing nutritional deficits, supplementing with neutracuetical compounds, and making dietary changes. It is recently theorized that depression is a symptom of an immune response in the brain, such as pain in a broken ankle.
Filling the Nutritional Gaps
A large list of essential nutrients have been discovered to play a role in depression as well as other mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. Depression appears to be a symptom of a brain that is not functioning at it’s optimal level, and is in fact caused by a number of different things. One of the biggest contributors is deficiencies in fundamental nutrients. As an example, deficiencies in Vitamin B6, B12, thiamine, and folate, magnesium,omega-2 fatty acids, zinc, iron and a number of other vital minerals and vitamins have all been found to be strongly linked to depression. Many of these nutrients play vital roles in maintaining nerve health, and aiding in the production of neurotransmitters. Deficiencies in protein and specific amino acids can also contribute to depression and anxiety. L-Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, while L-tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine and norepinephrine. These 2 amino acids are mostly found in animal protein, and can be hard to obtain through a strictly plant-based diet. Deficiencies in B6, B12, Iron or folate can interfere with the production of SAMe, which is important for creating neurotransmitters. When these key minerals are low, buildup of homocysteine can lead to glutamate excitotoxicity, which is discussed below.
Inflammation, Oxidative Stress, and Glutamate-mediated Excitotoxicity.
Researchers are starting to recognize the link between inflammation, oxidative stress, and glutamate excitotoxicity. These phenomena are related to autoimmune diseases, mental illness and neurodegenerative diseases.
Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for creating an action potential signal in the nerve cell. It is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the body and plays an important role in learning, memory and cognition. When glutamate becomes over-active however, it can stimulate a cell too much, causing an influx of calcium to trigger free-radical compounds to be released from the mitochondria. This causes tissue damage, inflammation, and even cell apoptosis (death). Glutamate excitotoxicity can cause neurodegeneration and shriveling of dendrites. This damage to the dendrites reduces the amount of synaptic connections made, inhibiting electrochemical signaling between cells. This reduction in signaling could potentially mimic the symptoms of having low level of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. If depression symptoms are caused by the damage due to glutamate excitoxocity, it may be hard to tell the difference between low serotonin levels, and neurodegeneration of synaptic connections.
What Promotes Excitotoxicity and How Can it be Nutritionally Managed?
Glutamate toxicity is still fairly mysterious, but there are some factors that are known to promote it. One of these is brain or spinal chord traumas. Glutamate excitotoxicity is also linked to consumption of foods containing free-glutamate compounds. Some examples of these foods are wheat, dairy, fermented foods, and MSG. Glutamate excitotoxicity has shown to play a role in depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Autism, Parkinson disease, Multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer disease, and a number of other autoimmune and degenerative diseases.
So how do you combat glutamate excitotoxicity? Magnesium is one studied nutrient that has been shown to reduce glutamate over-activity. The magnesium ion blocks the ion channel in the NMDA glutamate receptor. Other studies have shown that certain polyphenolic flavonol compounds reduce excitotoxiticity. Some of these include anthocyanins found in blueberries, and curcuminoids found in Turmeric. These compounds, among others are also known for their potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Much of the damage from excessive glutamate activity is due to oxidative stress and pro-inflammatory cytokine activity, therefor plant-derived flavonols have shown great efficacy is reducing these characteristics, thus reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.
Neurogenesis and Depression
Another key to the biochemical puzzle of depression is neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis is the growth of new neurons, dendrites or synapses. Drugs that show great efficacy in relieving depression seem to have something in common; the upregulation of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF is a neurotroph that mediates the maintenance, growth and repair of new neurons, dendrites and synaptic spines. People suffering from depression have reduced levels of BDNF in the brain. BDNF enables neurons to sprout new synaptic connections, promoting neuroplasticity and new neural networks to form. BDNF has been found to be an important protein for learning as well. If inflammation and oxidative stress are contributing to neuronal damage, BDNF is vital for combating this and preventing depression states.
Controversial drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine, LSD and DMT are being investigated for their use as anti-depressant treatments. All of these drugs upregulate BDNF and promote neurogenesis. Ironically, SSRI drugs have mild increase in BDNF as well.
It takes several weeks for SSRI drugs to have an effect. It is possible that it is not the increase in serotonin activity itself that is helpful, but perhaps the increase of BDNF secretion. If there are far more efficient ways to boost this mechanism though, SSRI’s may fall behind in the leading treatments for depression and anxiety. Some nutritional compounds that have been found to increase BDNF in the hippocampus include the flavonols mentioned above ; blueberries and turmeric, as well as compounds in sweet potatoes. Activities such as exercise, meditation, and listening to music promote the growth factor as well.
Based on the plethora of recent research, it is evident that mental illness’ such as depression and anxiety are multifaceted conditions. No single treatment will work for everybody, but it seems apparent based off of the literature that diet and nutritional supplementation can resolve or improve most cases of depression. In summary; addressing nutritional deficiencies, providing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support, and promoting neurogenesis and repair is a well-rounded recipe for tackling the problem of depression and anxiety.
About the Author—
After struggling with her own battle with depression and anxiety, Caitlin applied her biology background and passion for neuroscience in an effort to understand her own brain chemistry. After extensive research on current neuroscience literature, conferences, online courses etc, she developed a line of nutritional supplements for addressing the deficiencies that can contribute to depression and mental illness. Caitlin launched her company EntheoZen in 2014 and hopes to help empower people all over the world to take their brain health into their own hands and heal themselves. A portion of the company’s profits will be donated to MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) to support cutting edge research on psychedelic medicines for treating depression, PTSD, addiction, eating disorders, and many more ailments.
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