Hello and welcome to my blog
Here in the UK the days are getting shorter and for many reasons some people expect to feel a bit low, but it doesn’t have to be like that. In this blog today I discuss several different approaches to combating depression, as depression goes beyond just feeling low or feeling fed up with work or relationships, or the lack of. There are different reasons behind depression, degrees of severity and a variety of symptoms which vary from person to person.
You can have depression and not even know, I have had that, I just thought how I felt was ‘normal’ until I started to look into bio-hacking and other ways to improve my brain and biochemistry, then I felt fantastic, had more patience and less anger, I enjoyed doing my work, and wanted to have fun, nothing was a mental effort or chore anymore, I realised I probably did have some sort of depression before.
Lets look at some biological causes of depression
The brain is in charge of everything in your body and it can make you feel awful all by itself. The brain in part controls inflammation, but there are other ways the body can become inflamed. Certain foods and common everyday substances are inflammatory, an inflamed brain is often a depressed brain.
The brain requires constant stimulus and loves novel stimuli, this means learning a new activity, anything from a language or musical instrument to a new sport. A bored brain can be a depressed brain.
We are designed to move and movement not only keeps the body and joints healthy, it is also key for firing up the brain, and certain pain gates in the brain stem, a lazy body leads to a depressed brain.
Hormones play a bigger role than I thought in mood and unbalanced hormones, particularly testosterone can have a huge effect on mood. Unbalanced hormones will often cause a depressed brain.
There are also genetic components involved in depression and addiction and the two genes that I think are key in depression and are over looked are COMT and MTHFR. Both these genes are involved directly or indirectly in the making and breaking down of neurotransmitters e.g dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. If your neurotransmitters AKA your brain chemistry are all over the place then your mood will be all over the place too. MTHFR is involved in how well you remove toxins and heavy metals like mercury from the body, a build of any toxin makes most people feel awful. Problems with neurotransmitters will lead to a depressed or anxious brain. Genetic defects doesn’t always cause a depressed brain, particularly if you know about it and what to do.
Inflammation is your body’s response to injury, illness or stress and it is normal for short burst of acute inflammation to occur to promote healing. When it becomes chronic, as in it is there 24/7 that is the problem.
Poor gut function, leaky gut or eating a processed, high-toxin load, cheap vegetable oils, high-sugar diet can induce an inflammatory response. We are learning more and more about the gut brain connection, as this is still quite a new topic in scientific research.
It is easy now to cut sugar and processed foods from our diets, it just requires a bit of discipline. Is it really worth feeling crap, tired and miserable just for the sake of a few mouthfuls of cheap poor quality food?
Eating resistant starches such as inulin or green banana flour helps with gut health and feeds the useful bacteria. Other gut friendly compounds are polyphenols found in coffee, very dark chocolate, pomegranates, green tea and many other vegetables. Polyphenols are very beneficial for the mitochondria, which are the powerhouse of the cell and you can read more about mitochondria in this blog. Dysfunctional mitochondria cause a whole host of health problems, including fatigue and low mood. It is easy to buy a capsule containing concentrated polyphenols. Boswellia species of plant produce frankincense and boswelic acids, which have shown to be anti inflammatory, providing a useful alternative to NSAIDs which can irritate the gut.
Progesterone, testosterone and oestrogen are sex hormones and are made from cholesterol. Some people think of testosterone as a hormone of rage or aggression, but in the correct amounts in men and women, testosterone is a hormone of stability. Low levels of testosterone can wreak havoc on mood in both sexes and low testosterone coupled with high oestrogen is becoming more of a problem, due to hormone disruptors like phthalates found in many household chemicals like cleaning products cosmetics and other environmental pollutants. The best way to find out if you have low testosterone is to take a blood test. Progesterone, another sex hormone has many jobs in the body and in terms of mood, progesterone can be thought of as a calming and sleep aid hormone. Waking up at 2am or 4am is often a sign of low progesterone.
There are numerous ways to increase testosterone, from using herbs such as tribulus terrestis and maca, changing diet to ensure you get enough zinc and fat so the body can make its own sex hormones, as they are made out of cholesterol to taking bio-identical testosterone or something like 7-Keto DHEA to alleviate the symptoms. Alcohol and excess sugar (more than 75g in one go) cause testosterone levels to drop for several hours or more. Low thyroid will also cause low mood and fatigue, more about thyroid and the tests to take for thyroid function are in this blog.
3.Genetics and depression
Genetics and depression are not talked about that much. I mentioned MTHFR and COMT earlier, I like these genes because if you have a defect (technical term is a mutation or SNP) in one of them (from a gene test) you can do something about it by modifying diet, supplementation and lifestyle so that you are not affected. I am in the process of starting a gene testing service with a doctor, so functional genetics is my favorite topic at the moment. I think lots of people would benefit from having a gene test and then getting appropriate, useful advice from qualified health care professionals on what to do next. Most people have never heard of MTHFR or COMT, so knowing they exist and what they do is the first step.
The COMT gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called catechol-O-methyltransferase, which is involved in breaking down oestrogens and neurotransmitters, as high levels of neurotransmitters can cause anxiety, addictions and insomnia. Too much oestrogen has a negative impact on mood too. Mutations in COMT are linked to bi-polar, panic disorder, anxiety and OCD, but lifestyle plays a role too, so just becasue you have a defect the COMT it does not mean you will have mental health issues.
MTHFR can get very complicated very quickly. Briefly, MTHFR gene makes the MTHFR protein and over 60% of people have a defect in this gene, so about 2/3 of you reading this blog, it is implicated in cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue and more. Importantly the MTHFR protein is important in a process in the body called methylation, which I am not going to go into in detail. Methylation controls which genes are turned on an off, removing toxins and is important for making neurotransmitters, like serotonin. A properly functioning MTHFR gene and protein help the body down excess heavy metals like lead, mercury, aluminium and cadmium and many other toxins so they can be removed from the body. So when MTHFR protein is not working correctly, toxins and nasty metals can build up and harm the body, but also levels of iron and B12 will accumulate to high levels and cause damage too. People with MTHFR gene defects can’t metabolise vitamin B9 in the form of folic acid and it can build up and be harmful. People with MTHFR defects so should take methyl folate or folicinic acid, only if they need it and avoid poor quality ‘fortified foods’ like cheap breakfast cereals as these contain folic acid. One of the reason people who switch to a low carb diet and feel great is because they accidently stop eating bread, cereals and cereal bars which contain added folic acid, and get folate from green veg instead.
The MTHFR protein plays a role in converting homocysteine into methionine. High levels of homo cysteine are a big risk for heart attacks and strokes, so you don’t want it to build up. Methionine does lots of things including helping with depression and inflammation. Methionine is converted in your liver into something called SAM-e (s-adenosylmethionine), which is anti-inflammatory, supports your immune system, helps process brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine and melatonin. So too much homocysteine = bad, not enough methionine = bad
If you have a faulty MTHFR gene, your body has the following issues;
- Trouble removing toxins
- Making / processing brain chemicals
- Metabolising folic acid
- Lowering homocysteine (cardiovascular risk)
- Replenishing methionine (useful)
All of the above means the risk of illness and mental illness such as depression is increased or you might feel dreadful all the time and not know why. The next step would be a gene test as it is beyond the scope of the blog to give advice on the results of a genetic tests. More about genetics and MTHFR in later blogs
Regardless of age taking up a new hobby or learning a new skill is key for etching new neuronal pathways, your brain can re-wire at any age and this new stimulus is also helpful is warding off depression. The social interaction of being part of a group if you choose to do your hobby with others is key in preventing or overcoming depression. Even if you feel like being alone all the time, your brain wants you to be with a ‘tribe’ and social interaction with the right people is key in beating depression.
There is a debate into which kind of movement or exercise is beneficial. If you do nothing, then just going for a walk will fire up your brain and help lift mood. Doing an activity you enjoy is of course even better. Too much steady cardio or over-training can make depression worse as it stresses the body, thus causing cortisol to stay elevated, which after a while makes people feel awful and causes a host of other problems. Short burst of exercises, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) appear to provide more benefits than prolonged endurance work outs.
Complicated movements like gymnastics and dance are great for the as the brain has to keep to a rhythm, move in a complicated way, go upside down or spin and in some cases music is involved, which many people find beneficial. Music stimulates the temporal lobe in the brain and spinning or going upside down stimulates the vestibular system (inner ear) and a part of the brain called the cerebellum. Both of these areas of the brain play a role in mood. The frontal lobe, which is the CEO or king of the brain controls voluntary movement and is also heavily involved in mood, motivation, planning and personality. So moving around stimulates the ‘CEO’ part of the brain so it ‘lights up’ and adding in going upside down or music will make even more parts of the brain ‘light up’.
Breathing in a particular way, which is part of some styles of Yoga, Pilates and Tai-Chi can lower stress levels and aid with depression. There is a biochemical reason why certain types of breathing are very beneficial. If you breathe in through your nose, hold your breath until you need to breath out again (breath out through your nose), this will simulate nitrous oxide (NO) production in special cells in your nose. Nitrous oxide or NO has lots of benefits and the main one most people know about is relaxes smooth muscle and arteries, which improves blood flow to the certain body parts and reduces tension.
Thank you for reading my blog, more blogs coming soon on biochemistry, brains and bodies, in the meantime