Balancing Moods Through Lifestyle Choices
Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety may be related to a number of different causes. Frequently, physicians prescribe drugs such as Prozac and Wellbutrin to alter brain chemistry in an attempt to normalize moods. While such prescriptions may be life-saving in certain cases, many doctors agree that these drugs are over-used and may have serious side effects. Perhaps a simpler approach to normalizing moods, one that attempts to restore normal brain chemistry through lifestyle and nutrition, is needed. A deficiency of certain neurotransmitters, or more commonly, deficiencies of precursors or important cofactors is a common contributing cause of mood disorders. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay signals between nerve cells throughout the body. They are responsible for passing along nerve impulses, and are very closely tied to how we feel. For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is frequently targeted for therapy in depression. Indeed, normalizing or maximizing serotonin levels in the brain is the main objective when using an anti-depressant such as Prozac. It is probably more common to see deficiencies in neurotransmitter precursors or cofactors important in the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain. Such precursors include amino acids such as tryptophan. Cofactors that are integral in neurotransmitter synthesis include essential fatty acids, B vitamins and trace minerals. Omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish and flax seed oil, are very important in regulating mood, as they are integral components of healthy cell membranes and permit efficient communication between cells, including nerve cells. Omega-3 fats also help stabilize moods by slowing the breakdown of mood-boosting neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Hormone imbalances are another common contributor to mood disorders. Hypothyroidism is the single most common organic cause of depression, and should be ruled out in all cases of depression. Additionally, estrogens, androgens such as testosterone and DHEA, and corticosteroids, synthesized by the adrenal glands in times of stress, can all alter the efficiency of nerve transmission. An imbalance in any of these hormone systems will greatly affect the way we feel. Blood sugar imbalances are another common cause of mood problems. Our moods are very closely tied to the level of sugar available in our bloodstream, and things that cause great fluctuations in blood sugar, such as poor food choices or excessive stress, will cause our moods to fluctuate widely as well. Addressing nutrition through healthy eating habits is a simple way to balance moods. Eating a whole foods diet will help ensure healthy moods by supplying higher levels of vitamins and minerals required for neurotransmitter synthesis. The higher fiber present in whole foods will reduce rapid increases in blood sugar and their sequelae. Eating regularly throughout the day will also help to reduce dips in blood sugar and the stress such dips can put on the body’s regulatory systems. Avoiding excessive use of stimulants such as caffeine, will help normalize these regulatory systems. Getting regular exercise is also important, as it improves one’s overall sense of well-being. Exercise releases feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, and also balances blood sugar and hormone levels, helping to keep our moods stable. Healthy sleep habits are also essential to healthy moods. Neurotransmitters are synthesized chiefly while we sleep. Hormone regulation is also closely related to quality sleep, for many of the body’s hormone systems have regular schedules of hormone synthesis and release, dependent on sleep. Oftentimes naturopathic physicians will prescribe supplements to help balance moods. These frequently include the cofactors and precursors to neurotransmitters mentioned above. It is now possible to identify neurotransmitter imbalances by measuring certain breakdown products in the urine. The results of this test allow a physician to design a treatment protocol that is specific for the neurotransmitter imbalance(s) of that individual, potentially avoiding ineffective or unnecessary treatments. Specific supplementation regimes can go a long way towards correcting a neurotransmitter imbalance in the brain, but when attempting to address the true cause(s) of depression and anxiety, one cannot overlook the importance of some basic lifestyle choices. Healthy eating habits and food choices, stress management, hormone balance and quality sleep should be integral parts of any mood stabilizing treatment. At those times when prescription anti-depressants are needed, adopting these basic lifestyle choices will only help to restore proper neurotransmitter balance and bring about healthy moods. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Dr. Kelly Owens is a naturopathic physician practicing at Battle Ground Healing Arts (360-687-0800). She specializes in treating women and children with the least invasive, non-toxic therapies available, with a special emphasis on prevention. For more information on naturopathic medicine, visit her website


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