Mental health – a mind-body approach
It’s estimated that 350 million people worldwide are currently suffering from depression (Singhal & Baune, 2017) and that one in six people will be affected by a depressive disorder in their lifetime (Yirmiya, Rimmerman, & Reshef, 2015). There is no doubt that depression is huge burden on society and healthcare providers.
Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are often seen as entirely psychological in cause. However, more and more research is highlighting that chronic health issues, poor diet and lifestyle choices can, and will, negatively impact our mental health. This book is in no way negating the importance of psychological support for mental health issues, but it is merely attempting to raise the profile of a ‘whole body’ approach in supporting mental health.
The mind-body connection
It is strange that when diagnosing a condition, we prefer to restrict the diagnosis to one part or system of the body. If we have a blood problem we go to a haematologist, a gut problem, a gastroenterologist and a nervous system problem, a neurologist. However, if conditions cross our artificially drawn boundaries, which they frequently do, then there may be a loss of focus on the condition by health professionals.
This loss of focus is starkly apparent when a condition transgresses from the mind to the body and becomes psychosomatic. Somehow a psychosomatic health issue is viewed by many as a lesser issue than a purely psychiatric or purely bodily disease.
The reverse of psychosomatic is considered even less; i.e. soma-psychic – to transgress from the body to the mind. It is strange that we readily accept that our five senses work in a soma-psychic manner by transferring bodily senses to a psychic sense of self. However, we find it harder to accept that the ill-health or wellness of our body can also transfer to our mind and sense of self.
This book is effectively about soma-psychic and psychosomatic illness and wellness – how diet and lifestyle choices will, and do, translate to mental and physical illness and wellness.
The part of the brain most heavily associated with mental health, memory, emotion and mood is called the ‘hippocampus’. The hippocampus is the name used in biology for seahorses. It is the unusual seahorse-like shape of the hippocampus that has led to its evocative name. Just as seahorses charm and enchant the depths of the sea, our own hippocampus (when supported and nurtured) can help to enchant our own lives.
Researchers have noticed that there are a lot of scientific papers linking problems with the hippocampus to depression – in particular, the shrinking or failure regrow this part of the brain after stress. This has led to the formation of a theory about the causation of depression called the ‘The neurogenic theory of depression and anxiety’. In support of this theory is the fact that antidepressant medication has been found to decrease hippocampal shrinkage and encourage its regrowth (Miller & Hen, 2015).
Stress is so part and parcel of everyday life that it is almost seen as normal for all of us to be overwhelmed by too much stress. Sadly, excessive psychological stress can damage and undermine the function of parts of the brain associated with memory and our sense of mental wellbeing.
Over the past ten years, there has been an increasing awareness that there was something else ‘going on’ with mental health issues beyond a person’s individual psyche. An extremely large clue as to what else was going on in mental health issues was found as medicine gained a more comprehensive understanding of brain inflammation.
Brain inflammation (an overactive immune system within the brain) has been reported increasingly in depressive disorders. Interestingly SSRIs (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor drugs prescribed for depressive patients) have been found in several studies to have anti-inflammatory effects in the brain.
For many years it has often been thought that people suffering from chronic health conditions were depressed purely due to the debilitating symptoms of the condition itself. We are now reaching an understanding that chronic health conditions and mental health issues both have inflammation as a driving force – Inflammation may be the common cause of mind and body ill-health rather than just one health problem triggering the other. However, there is now increasing evidence that physical ailments may be drivers of depression and anxiety, in their own
Diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, arthritis, obesity, cancer, stroke and asthma are all health conditions which have all been observed to be strongly associated with depression and anxiety (Clarke & Currie, 2009). This indicates that, to look after our minds, we absolutely must look after our whole body – and this doesn’t mean overindulging it with fast food, sugar, stimulants, drugs and getting no exercise!
Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity
To be able to maintain a sense of mental wellbeing, parts of the brain must be able to grow, repair, adapt and survive the stresses that modern life throws at it. This chapter looks at neurogenesis (growth of neurons) and neuroplasticity (changes in neuronal form to be able to adapt to changes in life circumstances).
For neurogenesis to occur, the brain synthesises compounds called neurotrophins to help promote this regenerative process. Neurotrophins are sensitive to diet, nutrition, exercise and our sense of emotional fulfilment. This chapter examines how to support the generation of these vital compounds which can help to ‘fertilise’ new neuron growth in the hippocampus.
Many people with depression devour extremely large amounts of sugar and other simple carbohydrates. It was often thought that depressed people consumed more sugar because they desired the powerful ‘pick me up’ associated with sweet foods. There is now strong evidence to suggest that the exact opposite is true – that ingesting large amounts of sugar, consumed over several years, may be a significant cause of many depressive disorders (Knüppel et al., 2017).
Sadly, artificial sweeteners may not be the answer to avoiding sugar’s negative impact on mental health. Artificial sweeteners have been found to be associated with anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood swings and headaches (Choudhary & Lee, 2018).
Female hormones and sugar
Almost twice as many women as men suffer from depressive disorders. This large difference is in part due to the complexity and variations of female hormones throughout each month during a woman’s fertile years (Albert, 2015). Not only are female hormones needed to maintain fertility, they are also required for women and girls to support their mental health (Watson et al., 2010). Sadly, the modern world is a minefield laden with disruptors of oestrogen (endocrine disruptors). Plastics, pesticides and by-products of bleaching can all interfere with the finely tuned hormonal balance in women.
However, there is one powerful endocrine disruptor that many women choose to ignore – sugar! The metabolism of sugar in most cells in the body is heavily reliant on another hormone called insulin. It is thought that the interference of insulin in a woman’s hormonal balance is behind many of the negative effects which sugar exerts on female hormonal and mental health (Larsson et al., 2016; Jedel et al., 2010).
Diet and supplements
From the above it can be seen that high sugar intake has an extremely negative affect on mental health. On the other hand, a diet rich in whole foods, including an abundance of fruit and vegetables, exerts a profoundly positive influence on mental health. A thoroughbred of diets, with a strong track record for protecting against depression, is the Mediterranean diet (Lassale et al., 2018).
Dietary supplements are often taken as an insurance policy, with the hope that ‘They must be doing some good!’. However, with the aid of scientific research, a more finely tuned supplement plan can be achieved to support mental health and wellbeing.
Recreational drugs are used by millions of people all over the world to help them ‘feel good’. Sadly for many, this ‘feel good’ sensation is only fleeting and leads to addiction and mental health issues. In a way, recreational drugs are being used to deceive the brain and to artificially stimulate circuits to give the feelings of enrichment. The only way to truly enrich the brain is to nourish it with social connection, environment and diet.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain syndrome comprising of a variety of symptoms. The main symptoms reported by fibromyalgia patients are: fatigue, poor quality of sleep, muscle, neck and back pain, brain fog, depression and anxiety. Fibromyalgia can be triggered after physical or emotional trauma, particularly if there are feelings of injustice surrounding the cause of the trauma.
Unlike other disorders related to depression, fibromyalgia sufferers present increased levels of neurotrophins in their blood. Neurotrophins (mentioned above) are fertilisers for new neuron growth which support the integrity of the hippocampus, and so usually help to protect against depression. In fibromyalgia, it is almost as if a sufferer is feeling way too much through their overactive nervous system, leading to the chronic pain that is one of their major debilitating symptoms.
The gut-brain axis
Every single neurotransmitter in the brain also exists in the gut – for this reason the gut is often called ‘the second brain’. There are constant communications between the gut and brain via our nervous system and immune system (Evrensel & Ceylan, 2015; Petra et al., 2015). Keeping a healthy gut is essential when looking to maintain optimum mental health and wellbeing.
We all know that regular exercise is good for our health – but it is equally good for our mental health. Exercise can improve mental health and wellbeing in several ways. These include:
•Improving brain circulation to get nutrients in and waste material out of the brain
•Increased insulin sensitivity to ensure that glucose can power brain cells
•Being supportive of brain energy for mental wellbeing
•Increasing ‘feel-good’ endorphins
•Exercise in park or countryside environments can be another ‘feel-good’ factor and is called a ‘green prescription’ by many health professionals
Social and environmental enrichment
People are social creatures who thrive when they are cared about and have a sense of purpose and belonging. The brain fails to thrive or degenerates without social enrichment. Proteins in the brain called neurotrophins help to translate our feelings of social enrichment into structural improvements in brain integrity (Salinas et al., 2017).
In a similar way to social enrichment, people thrive in natural environments. Just a walk in a meadow or forest can work wonders for a person’s mental health.