Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health concerns in our society. They are often experienced as a complex set of emotional and functional challenges. The science of mind-body medicine helps us understand the ongoing connection between the mind and body and see how anxiety and depression may be triggered by a variety of factors. These can include nutritional, psychological, physical,emotional, environmental, social, and spiritual factors, as well as genetic tendencies or brain disease. While we often hear about a biochemical cause, meaning that certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters are out of balance, it is not clear if the level of neurotransmitters is the actual cause of anxiety and depression, or simply a symptom that a person is anxious or depressed.
Anxiety and depression are not the same, but they often occur together. It is not uncommon for people with depression to experience anxiety and people with anxiety to become depressed. There is also overlap in some of the treatments, so it is beneficial to learn about both conditions.
Depression is a common disorder, affecting over 350 million people worldwide. It is a disabling condition that adversely affects a person’s family, work, or school life; sleeping and eating habits; and general health. In the United States, the incidence of depression has increased every year in the past century, and now, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of ten people report experiencing a depressive episode.
Depression is typically characterized by low energy and mood, low self-esteem, and loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities. Symptoms include:
- Sleep disorders (too much or too little)
- Shifts in appetite and weight (too much or too little)
- Irritability or anxiety
- Chronic physical symptoms, including pain, gastrointestinal disturbances, headaches, etc.
- Loss of energy and fatigue
- Feelings of persistent sadness, guilt, hopelessness, or loss of self-worth
- Thinking difficulties, such as memory loss, challenges concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Some more facts about depression:
- Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression in their lifetime.
- Men and women experience depression differently—while women tend to experience sadness and guilt, men often feel restless or angry and are more likely to turn to alcohol and drugs to cope.
- Only 50% of people actively seek conventional treatment for depression, although a majority of people do find some relief through treatment.
- Depression causes unnecessary suffering and is a risk factor for suicide.
- Women and adults between the ages of 45 and 64 are most likely to meet the criteria for major depression; however, over 3% of youth ages 13-18 have also experienced a debilitating depressive episode.
Anxiety may be a normal reaction to stress, and it can serve as a prompt to deal with difficult situations. However, when anxiety becomes excessive, it may fall under the classification of an anxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that almost one out of five people suffer from an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental disorder in the United States.
Anxiety disorder is characterized by emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms that create an unpleasant feeling that is typically described as uneasiness, fear, or worry. The worry is frequently accompanied by physical symptoms, especially fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, and hot flashes. Emotional symptoms include fear, racing thoughts, and a feeling of impending doom. People suffering from anxiety often withdraw and seek to avoid people or certain places. While generalized anxiety disorder is the most common, there are other anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
While depression and anxiety are usually categorized as mental illnesses, we find it more useful to think of them as disruptions in brain health, which is directly related to the physical makeup and mechanisms of the brain, as well as emotional and relational issues.
This perspective highlights the need to take care of the brain, which, like other organs in the body, is impacted by our lifestyle. As such, what we eat, how we move, and the quality of oursleep impact the functioning of our brain. In addition, how we handle stress and other emotions, the quality of our relationships, and our sense of purpose all play a role in brain/mental health.
A new concept of the brain is emerging. Instead of being a static organ that doesn’t change after adolescence, the brain is now seen as having a lifelong dynamic ability to change in response to its environment. Neuroplasticity is the term used to explain the brain’s ability to change (from small cellular changes to complete remapping) in response to new learning, experience, or injury. This new understanding underlines the importance of paying attention to our brain health and development. The brain as an organ (like the heart) needs to experience a “brain-healthy” lifestyle.
Because all neurotransmitters are made from protein, nutrition can be used to improve mood. Foods high in the protein tryptophan, which turns to serotonin in the body, include avocado, pork, chicken, eggs and turkey. Eating foods high in zinc such as red meats, chicken, and eggs, while decreasing foods high in copper such as nuts, chocolate, soy, shrimp, lobster and sunflower or sesame seeds can help the body raise zinc and GABA levels to calm the brain. It is best to consult with a doctor to determine which foods are the best form of medicine for an individual’s particular health issue. Physical activities that can help with mood include any form of exercise that a person enjoys. Other options include acupuncture, yoga therapy, craniosacral therapy and other types of bodywork. While some people prefer doing relaxation therapy on their own, others benefit from a therapeutic touch. Considering all of the possible treatment options, a functional medicine physician can help to determine which approach is best, based on a patient’s needs and preferences.
If you suffer from anxiety and/or depression and are interested in trying a functional medicine approach, please call our office at (304) 263-4927.