As part of my daily writing log I also track my mood and energy levels. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend — my mood and energy levels are consistently “good” or “very good.” This wasn’t always the case. Though I’ve never suffered from major depression, I know that I’m vulnerable to anxiety and mild depression, especially during times of stress (I wrote about one such time here).
When I’m not under stress my baseline mood is pretty good, but I’ve been wondering what’s going on with my increased resilience over the last few years — feeling steady and optimistic even in the face of big stressors (members of my extended family have weathered some serious illnesses — both physical and mental — during that same time period).
Could be I’m just older and wiser. But I’m not that old, or that wise. I suspect my nutrition and supplement regimen has the greatest effect. This post lists my “core five” substances for mental health and improved disposition.
Low Willpower Fixes
The problem with feeling mentally off (depressed, anxious, or fuzzy-headed) is that it’s often hard to muster the gumption to do the things that are proven to help. Exercising more, drinking less alcohol, consuming less sugar, socializing more, meditating, engaging in cognitive therapy, spending less time on social media — there is clinical research to support all of these approaches. But all of them require willpower and resolve, both of which may be in short supply if you are feeling depressed, anxious, or have brain-fog.
Taking supplements and eating specific foods, by comparison, is relatively easy.
At least if you like curry.
If you are taking psychiatric meds, don’t stop taking them because of this post. I’m not a doctor, and even if I were, I wouldn’t recommend that (at least not in all cases).
Consider consuming these five substances as a cheap, safe alternative to starting medication, or enhancing whatever your current medication plan is.
Or, like me, you may just like the idea of nutritionally enhancing your brain chemistry and feeling better than you otherwise would.
The Five, and the Research
1) Fish Oil
A number of studies show that adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids (found primarily in fish oil) help to alleviate depressive symptoms. This 2010 study found that “the use of Omega-3 supplements is effective among patients with major depression who do not have anxiety disorders”
“the use of Omega-3 supplements is effective among patients with major depression who do not have anxiety disorders”
This 2014 study concluded that “increasing fatty fish intake appears to increase the response rate in patients who do not respond to antidepressants.” This WebMD article provides a broad overview of the research. Even this paper entitled “Insufficient evidence for the use of omega 3 supplements in treating depression” found a “small to modest” positive effect from fish oil supplementation. Sure, fish oil may not be a cure all for mood disorders, but if you take a few supplements and each has a “small to modest” cumulative effect, you’re feeling better.
Mechanism: One hypothesis is that brain cell membranes, constructed partially of omega-3 fatty acids, are more permeable when adequate omega-3 fatty acids are available in the bloodstream.
Dose: Since I also eat fatty fish (primarily wild salmon and sardines), I only supplement 1-2g a few times a week (there are dozens of acceptable brands — this page reviews quite a few). To make sure your supplement is fresh, bite into a capsule and make sure it doesn’t taste rancid (it should taste mildly fishy, not like paint thinner). I wouldn’t recommend more than 4g/day unless you are a really big person. Keep refrigerated and consume with meals to avoid fish burps.
2) Vitamin D
This paper discusses a number of studies that look at vitamin D to treat depression. Many of them found a small but measurable positive effect. I wouldn’t necessarily include vitamin D on the list if it wasn’t for recent research from Rhonda Patrick, who is investigating how vitamin D regulates the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. Interesting!
Mechanism: Unknown, but the regulation of serotonin production warrants further investigation.
Dose: I take 2000-4000IU several times a week to maintain my levels. Many factors, including alcohol consumption, influence absorption and blood levels. Ideally you should get a a blood test and take the recommendations of your doctor if your vitamin D levels turn out to be low.
Curcumin, the principal curcuminoid of the spice turmeric, is a neuroactive chemical with many benefits. In this “rat torture” experiment, unfortunate rats were subjected to “unpredictable chronic stress” including tail pinches, overnight illumination, food and water deprivation, and swimming in cold water. Poor little guys! While the control rats appeared to become depressed (staying immobile for long periods of time), those rats who received curcumin fared much better, staying mobile and by all appearances more resilient. Curcumin “restored levels of dopamine and serotonin” in the rat brains.
“Chronic administration of curcumin did not affect depleted norepinephrine levels but restored levels of serotonin and dopamine.”
This study looked at the effects of curcumin on people, comparing curcumin to fluoxetine (Prozac). For patients with major depressive disorder, the positive effect was about the same (20mg Prozac vs. 1000 mg curcumin daily). There are other reasons to prefer curcumin over Prozac: it’s much cheaper, safer, doesn’t have sexual side effects (and may even enhance sexuality — curcumin boosts nitric oxide), and is helpful in preventing or alleviating a vast array of health conditions (including cancer, arthritis, and IBD).
Mechanism: Many. This paper looks at “the effects of curcumin in moderating hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal disturbances, lowering inflammation and protecting against oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage, neuroprogression and intestinal hyperpermeability.”
Dose: I take about 300mg of turmeric a day, in addition to eating curry. Most people can easily tolerate up to 10x that dose. Higher doses, though non-toxic, may cause headache and GI distress.
4) Lactobacillus rhamnosus
This interesting bacteria is found in dirt, kefir, and the human gut, and has been demonstrated to reduce anxiety via the neurotransmitter GABA. How and why do bacteria affect mental health? One theory is that gut bacteria have evolved to manipulate humans (their hosts) into being more relaxed and sociable (thus leading to more sex, and correspondingly more people [bacterial hosts]).
Radiolab’s “Gut Feelings” episode is a must-listen if this topic interests you.
Dose: Unknown. I ingest l. rhamnosus from store-bought kefir. Clover Organic Farms kefir states that it is “loaded” with live probiotic cultures.
5) Microdose lithium
Last on my list is element #3 on the periodic table: lithium. Microdose lithium, at approximately 1/6000th of the dose used to treat manic-depression, may be effective at reducing suicide and violence. Lithium may also be neuroprotective, reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve written more about lithium and why I mix a very small amount into our table salt here.
Dose: I generally mix 10mg chelated lithium into a full shaker of salt. So much less than 1mg/day.
There are cheap, non-toxic, thoroughly researched foods and supplements available that significantly improve mood, protect the brain against stress, and prevent disease. Healthy or sick, everyone should be ingesting at least some of these.
Just as important: social connection, exercise, mental attitude, sleep and circadian rhythms, good overall diet, not abusing alcohol and drugs. For me, remembering to “choose love” is the highest level, most effective metaprogram (in terms of overall happiness and anxiety reduction), with daily meditation being a close second. Third is remembering to accept uncertainty — I can’t know everything or control everything. While metaprogramming is helpful, having a solid “baseline” of functioning neurochemistry is equally important (and of course the two aspects feed back into each other).
What’s most effective for you, in terms of enhancing mood, staying sane, and not freaking out when life throws you a curve ball?
Update: I recently noticed a significant mood and energy boost from increasing my zinc supplementation, and discovered that there are several studies that look at the role of zinc as an antidepressant. Zinc combined with magnesium may be effective against anxiety as well.
The best food source of zinc is oysters, though beef and pumpkin seeds contain significant amounts.