Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Brain diseases like depression, anxiety, ADHD, Dementia, Alzheimer’s or Autism are reaching epidemic proportions, and it’s estimated by 2020, depression will be the second most disabling health condition in the US (behind heart disease.) It’s estimated that around 3 million Australians currently live with anxiety and depression.
The traditional medical view on depression was that it occurs due to a deficiency in certain brain neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine or adrenalin and noradrenalin. As a result conventional treatment for depression is with Anti-depressant drugs which are the most commonly prescribed drugs throughout the world.
Many anti-depressant drugs work in the brain by mimicking neurotransmitters, activating receptors, or blocking the reuptake of neurotransmitters at the synaptic junction. While this may provide symptom relief for some, according to functional medicine expert Chris Kresser, ‘There is not a single peer-reviewed article that confirms depression involves a serotonin deficiency in humans.’ And research also helps show that increasing levels of serotonin in the brain via high doses of L-tryptophan (the precursor to serotonin) was ineffective at treating depression.
A more holistic approach to solving depression and brain disorders, comes from a more integrated approach that seeks to identify the root causes behind poor brain health. Brain related health disorders are highly complex, but recent research and clinical practice indicates that they share at least 3 common traits:
1. Inflammation is highly involved as a cause or result of the disorder.
Inflammation can come from excess body fat, toxin exposure, bad food, food intolerances, alcohol, poor diet, stress, and disease. Inflammation is a vicious cycle and can cause system wide damage.
2. All of the above diseases stem from poor gut health.
The gut has been called our ‘second brain’, and many neurotransmitters like serotonin or melatonin are produced in high amounts in the gut. Leaky gut, bacterial dysbiosis (imbalance), pathogens, stomach problems, food intolerance or simply a bad diet will dramatically compromise brain health. Science has shown that if we have a leaky gut, we also have a leaky blood brain barrier.
3. Brain health is significant influence by diet.
This links closely to the above factors given that a poor diet sparks both inflammation and poor gut health. In addition, compromised gut health will decrease nutrient absorption, and often cause nutrient deficiency.
Brainflammation Brainflammation is a real term that explains how a breach in the Blood Brain Barrier, can allow foreign substances to access the brain, and cause inflammation. This may be circulating immune complexes, toxins, bacteria etc, basically anything that has found it’s way into global circulation, can get access to the brain!
‘In my medical practice, the first thing I do when I am trying to find the root of inflammation is to remove the most common food triggers of brainflammation including gluten, grains/flour products, and dairy’ – Aviva Romm
A Functional Medicine Approach to Depression
Those with brain disorders like depression should consider an integrative approach to healing, rather than or in addition to a drug that perhaps addresses symptoms only. Investigating potential root causes like healing the gut, reducing inflammation and eating a quality diet are all key. We are the sum of our many habits, and all of the things we do ultimately shape our physiology. A great approach is one that seeks to implement a variety of practices that address nutritional, hydration, recovery, movement, stress and supplementation strategies.
Food – Eat a nutrient dense, whole food diet that is free from processed or genetically modified food is a no brainer! Processed foods, vegetable oils, genetically modified foods and pesticides are all key gut and brain disrupters. In addition to wholesome, nourishing food, it is advisable to seek to manage blood sugar and provide the body and brain with a stable source of energy. Blood sugar issues are a major cause for chronic stress and inflammation, and are at the root of many diseases.
Another key consideration is eating a diet rich in fat given that our brain consists of 60% fat. This means consuming healthy fats rich in saturated fats, and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids to help fuel our brain and nervous system. Every single cell has a fat lipid outer membrane, and the ability of the cell to communicate, function and thrive depends on the quality of this fat membrane. A diet rich in healthy fats like nuts, seeds, pasture raised meat, avocado or wild caught fish is a win for brain heal both for it’s anti inflammatory benefits, and for the density of nutrients. A diet high in hydrogenated oils (processed foods, or vegetable oils (canola and corn) will create an inflammatory cascade and brainflammation.
Find ways to reduce stress of all kinds as chronic stress is yet another sinister root cause of many brain conditions. This means investigating external stress like relationship tension, work dissatisfaction or a bad diet, or internal stressors like poor gut health, inflammation etc,
Too much or too little exercise movement
Movement is anti-inflammatory, so for an inflamed brain it is a miracle worker. Exercise has many benefits, but frequent, low intensity daily movement habits (think incidental exercise) is a potent brain health builder and anti aging strategy.
‘Exercise balances neurotransmitters – along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain. Keeping your brain in balance can change your life’ – John Ratey
Exercise balance brain chemicals, optimizes hormones and releases feel good endorphins for a happy, healthy brain. Research has found that people who exercise regularly experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise further helps those who have only partially responded to an antidepressants drugs
“Sixteen weeks of regular exercise is as effective as anti depressant medication in the treatment of mild to moderate depression” – Dr Sarah McKay, The Neuroscience Academy.
Enhance your bodies circadian rhythms to balance your brain by getting exposure to light in the day time, and especially first thing in the morning, and reduce exposure to artificial lights at night. Lights after dark significantly contribute to inflammation, physiological stress and a disruption to our body’s internal clock.
Light therapy (via sunlight or light box) has been shown to positively influence Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), depression and bipolar disorder. Exposure to nature and natural sunlight is anther win for improving health. Sunlight exposure increases Vitamin D, balances the water in your cells, and helps promote the release of nitric oxide which lowers blood pressure.
Chemicals & Toxins
Reducing exposure to toxins is very important. Alcohol is a known neurotoxin, so avoiding it is a must if you have brain symptoms or disorders. Toxins like xenoestrogens from our environment (plastics, perfumes) are endocrine disrupters and brain threats. Avoiding toxic substances in body care products, cleaning products, environmental toxins like mold or pollution are important for brain health.
Then there is the threat of internal toxins, like metabolic byproducts or bacterial endotoxins. Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) are part of bacteria and are a natural inhabitant of the gut. When gut health is jeopardized and leaky, LPS can enter systemic circulation, and affect joints, organs and the brain! This quote by Neuroscientist Dr Perlmutter says it all.
‘We see an upregulation of LPS (inflammation) markers that correspond to MAJOR Depression. Think of that! That major depression now is considered as an inflammatory disorder. Not in the brain by some identified reduction of serotonin, but rather representing a gut disorder. ’ - Dr Perlmutter 2015, Evolution of medicine Summit
If you have depression it’s a given you have a nutrient deficiency and need some supplemental support. In addition to this fact, if you are taking antidepressants, it’s even more certain you have nutrient deficiencies given that pharmaceutical drugs cause them. Typically antidepressant drugs create further deficiencies in Coenzyme Q10, Melatonin and L-tryptophan and B Vitamins, often worsening the problem. There are a variety of great supplements for depression, but of course we advise to speak to a qualified integrative practitioner to first look at the root cause of your issue. It would be wise to address gut health, inflammation, basic nutrients and mood support with supplementation.
Change can be overwhelming in the face of cognitive symptoms or depression, but it’s imperative to consider some of the above factors when it comes to building health, and addressing depression. There is never one cause, or one solution, and so a well-rounded approach will best change your brain and improve health.