Written by: Valerie Middleton, FNP
Many times patients will ask me what else they can do to feel better besides the medications they take. Or perhaps they are considering coming off of a medication because they have gone a year without feeling down and would like to try to wean off. Whatever the reason, there are a number of lifestyle interventions that one can pursue to set themselves up best for happiness and wellbeing. The following six things have been scientifically studied and are highly recommend both as adjunct treatment to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as the prevention of the latter.
Eating right really does make you feel better! Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between trans-fat intake and depressive symptoms. Conversely, there is a decreased rate of depression and anxiety when one increases good fats in the diet such as omega-3s. Eating foods rich in good fats such as salmon and nuts will make you feel better.
Hobbies help us to get in to a “zone”. Meditation is a prime example because the focus is on clearing one's mind. It doesn’t have to be meditation to achieve the same effect though. Knitting, woodworking, painting, fishing and cooking are all examples of hobbies that clear the mind similar to meditating. The end result is increased wellbeing and decreased rumination. Rumination plays a large role in maintaining a depressed and or anxious state of being.
Similar to the effect of a hobby, socializing helps keep us from ruminating. In addition, it has its own direct effect. Studies have shown increased levels of serotonin in both mice and humans that are present with others regardless of relation. So call up a friend or relative at least once a week and arrange to spend time. New to the area? Find a new “tribe” by looking online for groups that meet with similar interests. What do you have to lose?
There are so many studies showing the benefits of exercise on so many levels, particularly if able to be done outdoors with others. Increased levels of feel good neurotransmitters result in feelings of wellbeing, increased attention and concentration, increased ability to learn new information, anti-aging effects on the brain and of course the numerous health benefits such as weight loss and decreased blood pressure.
Fifteen minutes of direct sunlight (preferably morning) a day has been associated with significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Makes sense if you think about seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A disorder in which a person finds that in the winter months they have decreased mood. A key contributor may be related to vitamin D. Vitamin D, a fat soluble vitamin, crosses the blood brain barrier and may play a role in the transmission of important neurotransmitters associated with depression. So if you cannot get in the sun, try a vitamin D supplement. Typical daily doses recommended are 2000 IU a day but always speak to your pcp about what is best for you.
Of all of the above suggestions this one may be the hardest to do and may be the most important one to do. When you fail to get adequate rest your body goes in to fight or flight mode to a certain extent. This is not good on so many levels. First and foremost is the increased levels of cortisol in the body, the body’s natural steroid. What occurs in the short term with elevated cortisol is similar to if one were actually taking a steroid pill. You can become very irritable and or anxious, have sweet and salty junk food cravings, retain fluids and raise your heart rate and blood pressure levels. In the long term you are looking at decreased immunity to illness, depression, anxiety, heart disease, weight gain and diabetes to name a few. Many other neurotransmitters and hormones are affected by lack of sleep that result in deleterious health effects but I think you get the idea. Zzzzs are really, really important. Aim for 8 hours a night as this seems to be the magic number in terms of health benefits.