Nutritional Deficiencies & Mood Disorders: Do Supplements Work?

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Last year, during my major depressive episode, I figured that depression was such a recurring problem for me that it could not be merely psychological. I was noticing that certain foods would give me stomach aches or have me fall asleep, only to wake up super hungry after my nap! My body was often tired, even after having adopted a regular fitness routine from the age of 18. I thought that maybe my body was lacking nutrients, because, despite my exercising, I still had very poor eating habits and never saw food as my friend, but rather more like an enemy that mostly hindered my fitness goals. One day, I remembered that as a child my father would always tell me to eat fish because it made me smarter, and that would get me excited about eating it every time. So with that in mind, my excitement found me again as I went to work doing intensive research on the effects of food and nutrition on the brain. Countless–maybe some, needless–clinical appointments were booked in an attempt to find deficiencies, diseases or intolerances within my body. I had to know; my resolve was set to attaining full rehabilitation in mental, physical, and spiritual health if I was ever to get back on my feet again.

Scratching the Surface of Nutrition & Mood

The Second Brain

Let’s start with gut health. The gut is considered in science as a second brain in which 100 trillion bacteria and millions of microbial genes contribute to the health of the actual brain. (Kranjac, Psychology Today) This party of organisms is called gut microbiome. When gut health is compromised, not only does it put the body at risk of physical disease, but it also puts you at risk of neuropsychiatric/mood disorders. The gut becomes inflamed when we are chronically stressed and/or regularly eat pro-inflammatory foods (here’s a list), which worsens depression and anxiety. Dr. Emily Deans states in her column Evolutionary Psychiatry for Psychology Today:

Now the immune system works wonders and inflammation saves your life nearly every day from all the pathogens out there like the flu and strep, but chronic levels of inflammatory response also lead to all sorts of chronic disease, for example depressive disorders, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis and multiple sclerosis…the gut microbiome plays a key role in regulating our immune response. Thus the make-up of our gut microbiome could make the difference as to whether we are sick or well, both mentally and physically. 

There is a lot to take in about the gut, like the fact that about 80-90% of serotonin (an important chemical in the body in charge of balancing your mood) is produced there. The gut microbiome can be improved by switching to more wholesome foods, increasing good bacteria (with the help of a probiotic or pickled food, for example), and lowering stress. This reduces chronic inflammation, which makes us feel better.

Vitamin D(efficiency)

Did you know that a lack of vitamin D can worsen or cause depression? A recent review of 14 studies done at St.Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Canada, found a correlation between depression and low levels of Vitamin D. What’s more, is the case for S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder), where many people’s moods worsen during colder months, when the sun is not at it brightest and, by the afternoon, not present at all. The ray that carries vitamin D is the UVB ray,  and without enough of it, vitamin D stores can deplete. (Archer, Psychology Today) You need to go outside to get it, but a vitamin D supplement will also help to restore proper levels. Another study proved that vitamin D supplements successfully improved the moods of three depressed women after 12 weeks.

You Must Love Fat

You may or may not be aware of this by now, but Omega-3 fatty acid improves cognitive performance and decreases inflammation in the gut. Cognitive performance not only includes mood, but also memory and accuracy, among other things. In fact, some symptoms of Omega-3 deficiency include mood swings, tiredness, and poor memory–all very common symptoms of depression as well.

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My Experience so Far

I must admit, I am a little reluctant to share my experience. I don’t want anybody to start restricting their diet as I have for so many years, even after having learned this information. I’m working with a holistic nutritionist to learn how to balance out my meals and to change my rocky relationship with food. Since last year, during my “nutrition craze”, I have tested the above-mentioned research claims on myself. Paying close attention to how I feel after I eat something. Here’s my experience:

I know now why I love summer so darn much, and that’s because it makes me so happy. In the winter, it’s usually painfully hard, no matter how much sleep I get, to get up in the early mornings. I feel bitter and sad like I cannot seize the day. It’s winter right now, and the nutritionist got me to use Ddrops, which are helping my mood tremendously in the mornings. I found sugar to be an instant trigger for depression. I get terrible gas, stomach ache, and high levels of anxiety when eating a certain amount of wheat, so I keep it at a minimal. And, incorporating healthy fats into my diet has been the most beneficial thing for me thus far. It has allowed me to experience fewer mood swings over time, and now they happen very rarely. I also used to wake up highly anxious, like in a frenzy, but now that almost never happens. On top of eating foods like olive oil, coconut products, nut butter, and meat, the nutritionist has also recommended I use Genuine Health’s Omega-3+ Joy. They are big pills, and four per day is the recommended serving. To be honest, I’m never keen on taking these pills ’cause they’re so big, but they are worth it.

My relationship with food is being reconstructed. I’m going to give myself credit here and say I am halfway there. Disordered eating is an issue that has plagued my life and planted deep roots I was only recently aware of, and am now trying to pluck. It’s my hope that this information will prompt you to ask yourself some questions, and seek professional help from doctors, dietitians, and/or holistic nutritionists.

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Resources
Archer, Dale. “Vitamin D Deficiency and Depression.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 July 2013, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201307/vitamin-d-deficiency-and-depression.
Deans, Emily. “The Gut-Brain Connection, Mental Illness, and Disease.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 6 Apr. 2014, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201404/the-gut-brain-connection-mental-illness-and-disease.
Heyes, J.D., Your depression may be due to vitamin D deficiency https://www.naturalnews.com/039643_depression_vitamin_d_deficiency.html
Kranjac, Dinko. “Mood Disorders and the Disrupted Gut Microbial Milieu.” Psychiatry Advisor, 29 Sept. 2016, http://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/depressive-disorder/mood-disorders-and-the-disrupted-gut-microbial-milieu/article/525983/.
McIntosh, James. “Serotonin: Facts, What Does Serotonin Do?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 29 Apr. 2016, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/kc/serotonin-facts-232248.
Zehring, Brad, DO, The Importance of Nutrition  in Psychiatric Treatment, http://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/practice-management/the-importance-of-nutrition-in-psychiatric-treatment/article/400073/
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A Good Book for People with Low-Functioning Depression

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In a low-functioning state, we are severely depressed, and the issue feels like it is much bigger than ourselves. Of course, we need to seek professional help. But as I like to emphasize, the other half of healing is the help we give ourselves. While self-help material mostly targets high-functioning individuals (people who can go about their day despite being depressed), there may be one or more books we encounter that will change our outlook on life even in a low-functioning state. Perhaps Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed is that special book for you.

Brave Enough is a book of quotes from Cheryl Strayed’s previous texts and speeches. Cheryl Strayed is an award-winning essayist with beautiful prose, even as she speaks. I like to listen to Cheryl and her co-host Steve Almond on Dear Sugars, my favorite podcast. In Brave Enough, she talks about choosing a career, shitty life circumstances, friends, family, trust, falling in & out of love, and the necessity to change your life.

The book is a short read with large text, making it easily digestible. In fact, some pages only have one sentence. This is good because reading the book may not feel like a chore. I Personally found that, from the middle to the end of the book, it seemed like a few quotes had the exact same message but were written in a different way. It can be annoying for someone who is high-functioning to read very similar passages over and over again, but a low-functioning person might need a lot more encouragement to change, move, or shake. And so, it helps to have things repeated to you a couple times.

You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.

Are there any books that helped you see things in a different light? I’d love to know!

When You’re too Depressed to Stay in School

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I spent five years kind of confused in university. I could easily say they were wasted, but the last five years have witnessed the biggest personal growth of my life thus far.

When this blog first started, I wrote that I was frozen with fear about dropping out of school. I nearly finished the program but I was struggling to get certain credits. And last winter, there I lay, stiff in bed, curled under layers of sheets protecting a body of glass. I wondered, “would I disappoint my father and myself by taking a break from school? Would I be a fool if I decided never to go back?” I was also very embarrassed for taking too long to finish school. These were all mind-traps created by me, inspired by expectations of my environment.

I gave myself an entire summer to think it over. Didn’t take long to decide; I was mostly building up the courage to tell my family I’d be putting my education on pause. When I’d find the strength to get out of bed, I was on the floor, squatting, sitting or laying down. Nerves flying through the roof. Frantically mapping out my year in plans A, B, C, and D, until I exhausted my options. It was a very sad time.

Proven Coping Methods

While I was in school, there were ways I tried to cope with the stress. I lessened my courseload from five classes per semester to four. I sought help from therapists at the health & wellness centre. Once, I asked an instructor for more time on a project. I ended up speaking with the centre for disabilities at my school, and they offered to help in various ways: providing a quiet space to do exams, allowing extra time for all tests and assignments, getting tested for learning disabilities if you think you have one (costs $$$ though, but is partially covered by the school’s health insurance), and other things that I can’t remember now. You surely have a centre for students with disabilities at your school. You don’t have to have a recorded disability to ask for help, but they help students who are really struggling. Rules might be different at each school, though. These methods all helped me. What ultimately led to my demise was a matter of not having any more money for my education and my basic needs.

Evaluating the Situation

Maybe you’re slipping through coursework. It’s not due to laziness, but because you’re stressed out or feel lost. Maybe your body is present in class but your mind is not, despite not having any distractions in front of you. Perhaps you’re not even sure that you want to continue with school at all. Well then, it’s okay to give yourself a break. Things need to be thought through thoroughly. But you also need to breathe, and not think at all about your worries every moment of every day. When we’re anxious and depressed we think a lot. Our brains have a hard time shutting off. And that can be hard. But it’s worth a try.

Be Extra Careful

I can’t stress enough the importance of planning out your schedule or your leave with an academic advisor. It may be in your best interest to also speak with a therapist at school about everything that is going on. Weighing out the pros and cons of staying and leaving is also best. Thinking decisions through thoroughly and seeking guidance is crucial.

The best lesson I learned from my break is to never get caught in pressures put on by our environment–family, society, friends, coworkers, etc. We must make decisions to the benefit of ourselves. We might have been put on this earth for a reason, but pleasing others isn’t one of them.

How to Make The Best Out of Therapy

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If we attend therapy, how can we help ourselves get the best out of it? Here are some methods:

Listening with an open heart.

Take it in. Take it ALL in! Silencing our thoughts; not thinking about a reply until we’ve (briefly) considered what the therapist has just said.

Thinking about a detailed answer before responding.

For example, if asked, “how long have you felt this way?” it wouldn’t be helpful to reply with a vague answer that beats around the bush, such as, “Well, I’ve been this way for a very long time.” This answer provides a shield, keeping us from opening up to someone. Personally, I feel my chest tightening and my back curling when I’m asked a personal question like this.  But being as specific as possible, like thinking about approximately what age our symptoms started to appear, after which incident or phase, and how frequent our symptoms have been since then. So, a better answer is: “I remember feeling upset very often as a child, probably around 10 years old. I just started distancing myself from friends and family. I remember being bullied by a few kids at school because of my weight.” The professional with whom you’re working can then ask you more questions that will uncover the reason behind your emotions and behaviors.

Recording sessions with permission.

Asking to record an audio version of  sessions on our phone or bringing a notebook. The best counselors/therapists don’t let us leave without session notes that further treatment. We can write them ourselves or ask for a copy of notes and strategies discussed during the appointment.

Suggesting homework if none is given.

This applies to when your therapist/counselor is helping you achieve something, or getting you to do something you used to love doing again. We can ask if they have any suggestions on how to get back into the groove of things. Self-development happens mostly outside of therapy.

Keeping session notes where we can see them.

Single sheets of paper can be hung on the wall of our bedroom, office, a private space, or a closet. We can also keep them in a folder or binder on the desk, or next to bed. The point is for our notes to be easily accessible. We may review them a few times a week, once a day, or whenever we need to.

Maybe it’s not the right fit.

We may explain our issues to a therapist and all they say is something like, “What do you think you can do about that?” or, “You tell me what to do about that.” I’ve even gotten, “So how can I help you?” and that can be frustrating. I mean, we don’t go to therapy to have someone help us think, and we certainly don’t go in knowing exactly how the therapist can help us. But we go to gain someone else’s (positive) perspective on our matters and to gain new ideas on how to deal. So, if we have no idea what we think we can do for ourselves, or how they can help us, we must kindly reply that we don’t know, which is the reason we’re seeking help.

If we don’t feel a connection, or if talk therapy no longer works, then it’s best to seek help from someone who specializes in the exact area we need healing. For example, the help of an eating disorder specialist for disordered eating, an intuitive counselor if we are interested in developing intuition, a pastoral therapist if Christian faith is important to us. Even a life coach! The goal is just to find someone who understands where you’re coming from.

 

 

Searching for Meaning and Aiming for Progress

Meaning-Progress

It’s hard to keep my eyes open on the bus every morning. I work the night shift and it’s taxing. I crave sleep and the comfort of my room, sometimes food as well. Today, I got up from my seat on the bus in an effort to stay awake. I settled between two people in front of the back doors, and with every stop, the bus got more crowded, people moved closer to me, and claustrophobia kicked in:

“Look at all these people,” I thought. “They have germs. We’re all breathing the same air. Is it just me or is it getting warmer in here because we’re all breathing the same air?  I think I can smell everybody’s B.O….” 

I exited the bus before I had to.

Saved from rush hour, I thought about the day I will reclaim the privilege of sleeping at night. It’s not the worst thing ever, but this job sure is difficult. I’m trying to rebuild financial stability after five years of not having any ground, you know? Trying to figure out the course of my life while collecting a steady paycheque. Thinking about my future has got me so stressed out, I wish I would stop worrying somehow.

Without difficult, lonely, or desperate moments, self-improvement can’t happen. Life-changing events crash into our lives and wreak havoc as quickly as a dangerous storm, but unfortunately, it may take months or years to rebuild. We have to remain patient, because nature takes its time, and life is only natural.

Here’s a great quote about patience and work:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
—Frederick Douglass, 1857

So please, just keep working on yourself. One day, we will see the fruits of our labor.

4 Simple Methods To Manage Anxiety Attacks

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At the moment of an anxiety attack, your reasoning goes out the window. Thoughts race, and any attempt to catch up to them is as good as none. If you’re like me, you may experience shortness of breath as you watch the world tumble before you. Negative thoughts are hard to control during anxiety/panic attacks, but over time I’ve learned to incorporate certain techniques to lessen their impact. There’s no quick fix to get rid of frequent, intense levels of anxiety, but I believe in holistic practices that help us manage them so they become less frequent. (I have high levels of anxiety less frequently now, but it is easily triggered by financial worries, huge crowds, self-consciousness, and other triggers that get me worried about my future.) These tricks work by slowing down the whole process of an attack:

Deep Abdominal Breathing

Taking deep breaths helps reduce anxiety attacks by allowing you to be more present with your thoughts. For me, it’s as if I’m giving myself time to think about why I’m feeling this way, and it just allows me to calm down a bit. Here’s how to do it: Inhale deeply from your diaphragm as soon as you realize you’re having an anxiety attack, and exhale deeply. Do it on the spot discretely, in through the nose and out the same way.

A Gentle Pep Talk

You can repeat to yourself, in your mind,“I recognize this emotion, but I am not this emotion,” until you calm down. It might take a while before that happens, so be patient. Separating yourself from the feeling of anxiousness tricks your brain into observing the experience as something that is simply happening to you, and not something that is part of your identity. In other words, you are not an anxious person, but you are experiencing anxiety at the moment.

Take One Step at a Time

Last year I went through a major depressive episode spanning the length of that entire year.  Summer was rock-bottom, but to the advice of my counselor at the time, I pushed myself to start taking walks outside. Sometimes I would get seriously nervous about going, so I started telling myself I just needed to get downstairs to the building’s main entrance. I wouldn’t walk too far, and that was key for me. This method is for when you are too anxious to move and get yourself anywhere. If the task is broken down into small steps or miniature goals, you’ll find it easier to push through the anxiety.

Don’t Feel Guilty

I used to feel guilty about my sensitivity; actually, while my self-judgement isn’t as bad as it was before, feeling guilty is still something I need to work on. But everyone’s level of sensitivity to environments and situations is different. We also carry experiences from our past that may make us feel the way we do. It’s totally okay if you can’t handle being somewhere like an overcrowded bus, or a funeral, or a call centre while your friend can!

All that is important is that we manage our emotions.

Staying Thankful While Depressed

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Bad days happen, and sometimes so do bad weeks. But even as I’ve had such a day, I can still think about the many blessings in my life and the very fact that I live in a country where several opportunities are available to me, with even better ones can be created at my discretion.

We should all be thankful for at least one thing in our lives. See if you can find something, big or small, that you are happy about. It’s a simple practice that can help ease your mind immediately after a negative experience or a terrible day.

One of my favorite TedxTalks is by Iskra Lawrence where she mentions a mental list of gratitude she pulls out whenever she starts feeling down about herself. I now use this method myself in the exact same situations Iskra discusses in the video.

Gratitude is a great act of self-care, especially when we feel so sorry for ourselves for whatever reason. Gratitude lifts our moods by changing our perspective on life just a little. We have to soothe ourselves with habitual practices that will eventually separate us from misery.

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It’s the midnight hour and I’m reflecting on the day I just had. It was a shit day–I literally got shit on by a pigeon! And you know what? The entire week wasn’t all that good either: I started growing tired of my new job, despite only being 3 weeks in. My feet hurt so much from constantly standing at work in an unsuitable pair of shoes (that’ll have to be worn until I can afford a proper pair). Missed some familial events, and I haven’t saved a cent from my first paycheck. The latter triggered a depressive episode that lasted the entire weekend because I feel stuck in a perpetual cycle of never having enough money just to live. It seems like any efforts to break from this level of poverty are in vain. Spending every earning of my first paycheck on debts and rent caused me to give up my goal of having my own place, making more than enough money to live, and ever going back to school. I feel as though my goals aren’t worth working towards.

Sigh.

But writing tends to heal my wounds. I can move on if I can let it out in writing. Fact of the matter is, I’m a dreamer. I dream of my lovely home I’ll share with my hubby and kids. I dream of the loyal dog I’ll have by my side, and I dream of falling in Love–in deep, flaming hot, true Love. I believe in magic: I see the beauty in many things, which is often hard for many people to do. I stop and notice the little details, like the heart of a cherry blossom growing on a bush, or the butterfly fluttering in the field. I love to take in such details. I read and watch everything fairy tale related. That’s who I am. I don’t want to lose myself to such lethargy. So, maybe I’ll just keep aiming for my goals. I mean, it’s best for me to remember that life is never working against me, but rather for me.

I hope you remember that too.