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How to Manage Stress and Depression with Food

Depression is difficult to live with for a variety of reasons, not to mention the physiological signs and symptoms that accompany it. While these physiological side effects of depression seem like the least of your worries, addressing them can free you up to deal with the harder issues. There is evidence that suggests that addressing your biological needs, through diet and exercise, can actually minimize other symptoms of depression as well!

What are some of the physiological signs of depression

  • Constipation or other digestive issues

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fatigue

Note: These are also common symptoms of Hypothyroidism. 20% of people with depression are actually mis-diagnosed people with hypothyroidism. Be sure to check with your doctor to ensure that you are properly diagnosed.

Stress and Depression The physiological symptoms of depression are all symptoms of chronic stress as well. Found in virtually all people with mood disorders is a hyperactivity of the body's HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal gland axis). If you want to know more of the specifics of this axis, the video provided will give you an overview, but to sum it up for our purposes: When you see hyperactivity of the HPA Axis, think Cortisol and think stress. Some suggest that it is our body's inability to regulate this axis which leads to depression, anxiety, and Bipolar disorder. One study done in Australia, suggested that there is one gene associated with depression. There are two forms of this gene. One form pre-disposes people for depression and the other does not. However, the gene alone did not determine whether or not people developed depression. Rather, chronic stress in the lives of people with this gene dramatically increased their likelihood for developing depression. The associations between family history, stress and depression are fairly well established. But the details of these relationships are not. It is clear however, that stress can wreak havoc on your body and your mind.

We can't pick our genetic make-up and we can't, and shouldn't, avoid all stress in our lives. But we can choose how we respond to the stress that occurs in our lives. Likewise, the ever growing field of epigenetics suggests that we can actually influence the expressions of our genes with our diet and lifestyle. And this impact can carry through to the next generation! How you treat yourself can impact your children and your grandchildren.

So how to we help our bodies and minds to cope? Here are some diet and lifestyle changes to consider. These can truly help in the short term to manage your symptoms of stress and depression, but will also help set you up for wellbeing in the future. Everyone is different however and it can be helpful to work with someone one-on-one to make a customized plan for your needs.

Foods to avoid

  • Sugar: Cortisol already increases blood glucose levels and if you have trouble regulating cortisol levels, you likely have trouble regulating blood sugar levels. Surprising places you will find sugar when you think you are eating healthy: YOGURT, breakfast foods, like cereal, and even oatmeal. As well as condiments, sauces and dressings. The recommended dietary intake of sugar is 25g or 6 teaspoons of sugar per day. You get about half (or more) of your daily recommended intake of sugar in one granola bar or one store-bought yogurt. And that organic fruit juice you drink every morning, it has just as much sugar as a soda. I cannot stress sugar enough in our culture! Sugar is not evil, but the way we consume it today has contributed to many of our problems.

  • Carbs and Starches high on the glycemic index: for the same reasons as sugar. The highly stressed out body cannot handle the quick sugar spikes from these kinds of foods. These would include things like bread, bagels, muffins, cereals, pasta (even "whole grain/wheat"). Healthier alternatives could include sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, starchy vegetables like squash, pumpkin, parsnips, zucchini, etc. One Caveat: it is especially important for women to make sure they are getting the necessary amount of carbohydrates for their body. Everyone is different, but women tend to do best when they ensure appropriate carb intake. Men tend to do better with fewer carbohydrates in their diet. (This is why working with someone one-on-one is crucial).

  • Foods high in phytoestrogens : This may also be more particular to women. If you are estrogen dominate these foods may contribute to worsening mood disorders and PMS symptoms because they act like estrogen in the body. They include soy products, beans, flax, etc. You may also want to consider a different form of contraception (especially for your young adolescent daughters).

  • Dairy: For some, dairy can be highly inflammatory and many people are likewise sensitive or allergic to it. Continuing to feed our body something it is sensitive to keeps our immune system focusing on less important things (dairy), rather than treating more important things. As stress and inflammation go hand in hand, reducing inflammation can minimize physiological stress.

  • Caffeine: This increases the hyperactive response in body and amplifies feelings of stress.

  • Alcohol: A potent mood amplifier.

Foods to enjoy

  • Leafy greens/green vegetables: This is a must for everyone under all circumstances. I think most of us could use an additional dose of greens in our life. They supply all sorts of bioavailable vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients with antioxidant properties.

  • Fats: yes, seriously, fat. Not the kind in fast food or seed oils. I mean fat from sources like avocados, olives, coconuts, grass-fed meets, butter from grass-fed cows, nuts, oily fish like salmon, etc. Go crazy on those kinds of fats. They contain essential fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D, and K. They also are great suppliers of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. The particular focus is re-balancing your Omega3:Omega6 fatty acid ratio. The average American consumes far too many Omega-6 fatty acids. Therefore, you want to prioritize Omega3s. Likewise prioritize Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats in your diet. Stay away from hydrogenated oils and trans fats at all cost! Saturated fat often gets a bad rap, but it is still beneficial to incorporate into your diet - it is the primary substance that makes up your cell membranes. There is so much more I could say here... perhaps a future post on fats will come!

  • All the fruits & veggies! This will give you a full profile of vitamins and minerals you need to support your health.

  • Protein that gives you a full profile of amino acids. These are the building blocks for neurotransmitters in your brain! Eggs (with the yoke), organ meats, etc. Quinoa is also a surprising source of many amino acids - even some that you usually don't find in plants.

Get Moving!

Finally, moving your body can be so helpful! It doesn't matter how you do it, simply that you do it. I found these free videos on YouTube for low impact cardio exercises. They are super easy to do at home and mild enough for anyone to try. Other activities that go a long way are walking, yoga, playing with your children (or pets), any activity that you love. You do not need an "exercise regimen" to incorporate healthy movement into your life!

I know that all of these things are easier said than done. It can be hard enough getting up in the morning let alone making yourself breakfast. So start small and work with someone on this. You are not alone! If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it can be very helpful to see a functional medicine practitioner or nutritionist in addition to psychologist. The synergistic effect of treating your mind and body can be powerfully effective

Playmore & Prosper is a collaborative community of health and wellness professionals who provide a unique, evidence-based, experiential approach to counseling and wellness services for kids and families. Our mission is to invite people into personal growth experiences through activity and the expressive arts. 

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