Symptoms of depression, like low mood or fatigue, are experienced by many people and may occur at all stages of life. For some, this can be temporary, while for others it may extend over a longer period of time or perhaps even come to feel like a normal part of everyday life. Regardless of the duration, symptoms often include a reluctance to get up and start the day, feeling little or no motivation to do everyday things, over-eating for some and under-eating for others, lack of energy, reduced sleep and a general feeling of malaise.
Whilst low mood can often leave you feeling helpless, there are many ways nutrition can support the symptoms, and a nutritional therapist can help you identify any underlying nutritional deficiencies or mechanisms at play that may be contributing to symptoms. You may already know the underlying reason for your low mood (like an unhappy life experience), but there are still steps you can take that can have a positive effect on your wellbeing. Supporting low mood is not a case of a complete diet and lifestyle overhaul; rather, it is about knowing your restrictions and allowing small changes to lead to bigger changes in the long term. A good place to start is allowing some kindness to yourself.
Create a moment of calm with mindfulness
Low mood and the negative mind chatter that can occur can be exhausting. Take some time out from your thoughts by immersing yourself in a book, a sudoku puzzle or by listening to a podcast or some relaxing music. Performing these, and other, everyday tasks mindfully can also help the brain to reduce mind chatter, a source of anxiety. Engaging in mindfulness meditation helps to create a moment of calm, focusing on the breath as a way of connecting you to the present moment, and has proven as effective as CBT in the treatment of depression and anxiety.(1, 2) As well as Mindfulness courses, there are several mobile apps that offer support to beginners (Calm, Breethe, HeadSpace). Studies show that two months of regular practice can lead to structural changes in the brain, which leads to more positive emotional processing of negative stimuli, even when not in a meditative state, correlating further with a decrease in depression scores. (3) When it comes to mindful meditation, the more you practise, the easier it becomes.
Feel tension drain away with massage and magnesium baths
A massage is a great relaxer, to then ‘pick-you-up’ that can reduce both physical and emotional tensions, as well as reduce anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate, all of which are symptoms often associated with depression. (4) Other benefits of massage include improvements in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and improved sleep quality. (5) If you’re on a tight budget, local colleges often offer reduced rates with a trainee massage therapist. Another cost-effective option to aid relaxation is to bathe in Epsom salts, otherwise known as magnesium sulfate, or to simply soak your feet in warm water with added Epsom salts. Magnesium is an essential mineral required for many functions within the body, including the synthesis of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin, with levels of magnesium often depleted in those with depression. (6) Whilst research on the impact of bathing in magnesium to increase cellular levels is currently limited, consuming magnesium both in the diet and supplement form supports symptoms of low mood by not only supporting serotonin synthesis but also energy production, symptoms of anxiety and inhibiting the excitatory actions of the neurotransmitter glutamate, all of which are associated symptoms of depression.
Kick off your shoes
When mood is low, venturing away from home may feel like a step too far, but you don’t actually have to go far to benefit from the powerful effects of grounding, also known as earthing. This is the simple act of connecting your bare feet to natural earth – for example, grass, sand, or bathing in the sea. The earth contains an electrical current; by connecting directly with the earth (barefoot), you benefit from its electrons which have been shown to support a reduction of emotional stress, support a good night’s sleep and even help to ease muscle pains. (7) As this may not be viable in the UK year-round, grounding mats are available to help you benefit from the earth’s electrical circuit from the comfort of your own home.
Let the sun perk up your mood
If you are affected by seasonal low mood (SAD), make sure to get outside to benefit from the full spectrum of colours emitted by the sun, and particularly from blue light. When eye cells sense blue light, this sends a message to the part of the brain that controls sleep, alertness and depression, and signals day time, resulting in reduced production of the sleep hormone melatonin, leaving you feeling more alert. Receiving low levels of this important blue light, which is likely in the winter months due to reduced daylight hours, is linked with SAD and higher rates of depressive and anxiety-like conditions. (8) Counteract this effect by exposing yourself to as much daylight as possible with an early morning walk to ‘reset’ the internal body clock, or sitting by a sun-drenched window. Exposure to the sun also supports the skin’s production of vitamin D, with deficiency status linked with higher rates of depressed mood. (9) During winter months, when adequate exposure to the sun’s UV rays is not possible, supplement with vitamin D3, the most potent form of vitamin D, to efficiently maintain optimal levels and positively support feelings of
depressed mood. (10, 11) With poor sleep quality a common symptom of depression, continue to manipulate your circadian rhythm in the evening by reducing exposure to blue light from artificial sources (light bulbs, TV screens, mobiles and tablets) to signal the end of the day, supporting the natural production of melatonin to help you prepare for sleep. Consider fitting your bedside lamp with a red light bulb to reduce exposure to blue light in the evening, and ensure all lights are off whilst you sleep.
Be kind to yourself by helping someone else
Helping others via volunteering has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, as well as having a positive effect on hypertension (a symptom which can arise from chronically elevated cortisol levels often seen in depression). (12, 13) Incorporating small acts of kindness and consideration into your day – holding a door for someone, offering a compliment, giving up your seat on the bus or donating blood – can have a positive effect by increasing optimism. (14)
Weight gain a concern?
When low mood persists, eating habits often suffer, with cravings for highly refined and processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, sweets and bread common. This ‘carb-craving’ eating behaviour may be a way of self-medicating as it can lead to a release of tryptophan, the precursor to the happy hormone serotonin, into the brain. (15) This can become problematic when an excess of calories are eaten (especially from processed foods which are high in both carbohydrates and unhealthy forms of fats), without any increase in activity to compensate for the increased intake. Take control of your cravings by consuming a 25-30 gram serving of starchy and fibre-rich carbohydrates (40g oats, 1 small sweet potato, 1 cup of cooked quinoa, a banana, a serving of beans and/or chickpeas) with each meal to support the release of tryptophan without the over-consumption of calorific foods.
Nourish your mood with food
Whilst ensuring your meals contain a healthy source of carbohydrates, you should also ensure you are providing your body with plenty of tryptophan from protein-rich foods to ensure the body has a healthy pool for serotonin conversion. (16) Foods that are rich in tryptophan include oats, nuts and seeds, soya beans and tofu, red meat, poultry and fish, beans and lentils, dairy food products and eggs.
Antioxidant-rich foods protect cells from oxidative stress, which can arise in stress-induced conditions, but have also shown promise in reducing symptoms of depression. (17) These foods are often naturally brightly coloured, like berries, citrus fruits, brightly coloured vegetables, and even herbs and spices such as thyme, cinnamon and curcumin (derived from turmeric root). Start your day with an antioxidant-rich smoothie, blending two peaches, a handful of frozen blueberries, two tablespoons of hemp seeds, a tablespoon of oats and almond butter, and a few drops of vanilla essence with your milk of choice. This feel-good smoothie is rich in complex carbohydrates, tryptophan to support the production of serotonin, and short-chain omega-3s from hemp seeds, all with a delicious tropical flavour. The longer-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are vital for proper functioning of cells, required for the removal of toxins, and cell responsiveness to neurotransmitters such as serotonin. You can consume EPA and DHA in the diet by eating a couple of portions of oily fish per week. A super concentrated EPA and DHA fish oil supplement is also a fail-safe way to keep cells healthy and receptive. You can obtain EPA and DHA from mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring and sardines (tuna, if tinned, is not considered oily fish); all of these are also a source of tryptophan.
Make time for your meals
‘Mindless eating’ leads to mindless digestion, meaning that nutrients from the diet may not be digested properly. Nutrients including, but not limited to, those previously mentioned (tryptophan, carbohydrates, omega-3, antioxidants) are essential to lifting mood; without proper digestion of your meals, the body may be lacking in essential tools to support mood and overall health. To break down protein into its amino acids (including tryptophan), for example, stomach acid and digestive enzymes must be present in both the saliva and the stomach. You can engage in ‘mindful eating’ by limiting distractions (mobiles, tablet, TV), taking time to prepare your meal and enjoying the smell and appearance of the meal as you serve it. Not only will this support proper digestion but studies suggest a positive relationship between mindful eating and a reduction in depression symptoms. (18)
Want to dig a little deeper?
These achievable steps can go a long way towards perking up your mental well-being and helping you to take positive steps forward in achieving your health goals. If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.
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- Hofmann, S. G. & Gomez, A. F. (2017). ‘Mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and depression’, The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 40 (4), pp. 737 – 749
- Navarro-Haro, M. V., Modrego-Alarcon, M., Hoffman, H. G., et al. (2019). ‘Evaluation of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention With and Without Virtual Reality Dialectical Behavior Therapy Mindfulness Skills Training for the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Primary Care: A Pilot Study’, Frontiers in Psychology, 28, (10)
- Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W. W., et al. (2012) ‘Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state’, Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, (292), pp. 1-15.
- Moyer, C. A., Rounds, J., & Hannum, J. W. (2014). ‘A Meta-Analysis of Massage Therapy Research’, Psychological Bulletin, 130 (1), pp 3-18.
- Pinar, R., & Afsar, F. (2015). ‘Back Massage to Decrease State Anxiety, Cortisol Level, Blood Pressure, Heart Rate and Increase Sleep Quality in Family Caregivers of Patients with Cancer: A Randomised Controlled Trial’, Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 16, pp. 8127 – 8133.
- Eby, G. A., Eby, K. L. (2009). ‘Magnesium for treatment-resistant depression: A review and hypothesis’, Medical Hypotheses, 74, pp. 649–660.
- Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., et al. (2012). ‘Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons’, Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, pp. 1-8
- LeGates, T. A., Fernandez, D.C., & Hattar , S. (2014). ‘Light as a central modulator of circadian rhythms, sleep and affect’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, (7), pp. 443–454
- Woo, Y. S., Kim, S., Jeong, J. H., et al. (2019). ‘Vitamin D Deficiency/Insufficiency among Inpatients with Depressive Symptoms’, Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience, 17, (1), pp.121-124
- Shipowick, C. D., Moore, C. B., Corbett, C., et al. (2009). ‘Vitamin D and depressive symptoms in women during the winter: a pilot study’, Applied Nursing Research, 22, (3), pp. 221-5
- Jorde, R., Sneve, M., Figenschau, Y., et al. (2008). ‘Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial’, Journal of Internal Medicine, 264, (6), pp. 599-609
- Anderson, N. D., Damianakis, T., Kroger, E., et al. (2014). ‘The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: a critical review and recommendations for future research’, Psychological Bulletin, 140, (6), pp. 1505-33.
- Burr, J. A., Tavares, J., & Mutchler, J. E. (2010). ‘Volunteering and Hypertension Risk in Later Life’, Journal of ageing and health, 23, (1), pp. 24–51
- Pressman, S. D., Kraft, T. L., & Cross, M. P. (2014). ‘It’s good to do good and receive good: The impact of a ‘pay it forward’ style kindness intervention on giver and receiver well-being’, The Journal of Positive Psychology,
- Wurtman, J., & Wurtman, R. (2018). ‘The Trajectory from Mood to Obesity’, Current Obesity Reports, 7, pp. 1-5.
- Strasser, B., Gostner, J. M., & Fuchs, D. (2016). ‘Mood, food, and cognition: role of tryptophan and serotonin’, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 19, (1), pp. 55-61
- Gomez-Pinilla, F., & Nguyen, T. T. J. (2012). ‘Natural mood foods: The actions of polyphenols against psychiatric and cognitive disorders’, Nutrition Neuroscience, 15, (3), pp. 127–133
- Winkens, L. H. H., van Strien, T., Brouwer, A. et al. (2018). ‘Associations of mindful eating domains with depressive symptoms and depression in three European countries’, Journal of Affective Disorders, 228, pp. 26-32