We’re now in the depths of winter and for many of us, that means we’re thinking a lot about our mental health. Let’s be honest: Winter can be hard on our psyche; when the days are longer, warmer and sunnier, it’s a whole lot easier to feel happy and relaxed.
If we really pause and really observe ourselves, we may even realize we’re struggling with some seasonal anxiety or depression.
If this is you, you’re probably wondering what you can do to support your mental health. Well, as a functional medicine practitioner, I create custom lifestyle and dietary recommendations that help my patients support their mental health all year long. And interestingly, all those lifestyle plans have one thing in common: They aim to tackle chronic inflammation, which is intricately related to both depression and anxiety.
How is depression related to inflammation?
Whether it’s seasonal or year-long, if you struggle with depression, you’re not alone. In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. And sadly, the rise in mental health issues doesn’t look like it will slow down anytime soon.
So what does depression have to do with inflammation? As it turns out, a lot. Inflammation has the potential to trigger depression, exacerbate it, and even be the root cause. As the authors of a study (1) published in Frontiers in Immunology wrote: “While many factors play a role in the development of depression and fatigue, both have been associated with increased inflammatory activation of the immune system affecting both the periphery and the central nervous system (CNS).” In the same study, they explain that antidepressants have been shown to decrease inflammation, and higher levels of inflammation at baseline is often a predictor of how well depression treatments will work.
Pretty shocking, right?
Even more, research has also shown (2) that depression is more common in patients with autoimmune diseases compared to other chronic conditions — even chronic degenerative diseases — which can likely be explained by what they have in common: chronic inflammation.
How is anxiety related to inflammation?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders, which range from generalized anxiety and social anxiety to post traumatic stress disorders, affect more than 40 million Americans. Depression was the first mental health condition to be related to inflammation, but due to the similarities between anxiety and depression — and the fact that they often occur together — anxiety was not far behind.
Research has shown that anxiety symptoms are correlated with increased levels of inflammatory cytokines, which are inflammatory substances secreted by immune cells. Higher levels of inflammation have also been observed in patients with PTSD (3), panic disorders (4), and generalized anxiety disorder (5). Other studies, like one published in Behavioral Neuroscience (6), showed that people with lupus have higher levels of anxiety due to inflammation in the brain.
If you suspect chronic inflammation may be at the root of your anxiety and/or depression, you can take my Inflammation Spectrum Quiz to see just how much inflammation is impacting your wellness. To take it a step further, start working with a functional medicine doctor who will check your inflammation levels by running the following labs.
- Autoimmune Reactivity Brain Labs
- Microbiome Labs
- Wheat and Gluten Testing
- Food-Immune Reactivity Labs
- Predictive Autoimmunity Labs
How do you reverse inflammation for better mental health?
I always recommend working directly with a qualified practitioner if you’re trying to tackle chronic inflammation related to a mental health condition. That said, there are lifestyle and dietary changes you can make on your own that will help lower inflammation and ease the stress on your brain.
If you want to decrease inflammation, start by adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. This means decreasing your intake of sugar, dairy, gluten, alcohol, and processed foods. At the same time, focus on increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory foods like avocado, olive oil, fatty fish, leafy greens, antioxidant-rich berries, nuts and seeds, and healthy carbs like sweet potato. For more inspiration, check out the 9 inflammation-fighting foods I always have in my pantry + freezer.
Supplements are also an important part of fending off inflammation. I suggest starting with a vitamin D supplement (here’s everything you need to know about the “sunshine” vitamin). Next, I often recommend curcumin and resveratrol, which are famous for their anti-inflammatory properties, and glutathione, which can help bring balance to the immune system and is known as the “master” antioxidant.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression it’s easy to feel helpless. But learning about the intricate connection between these mental health conditions and inflammation can help give you some direction and allow you to be proactive in supporting your mental health. Changing your diet and lifestyle to be anti-inflammatory can have an impact on our mental health status.
And that’s something to celebrate this winter!
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Lee, C. H., & Giuliani, F. (2019). The Role of Inflammation in Depression and Fatigue. Frontiers in immunology, 10, 1696. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.01696
- Bagnato G, De Filippis LG, Caliri A, Bruno A, Gambardella N, Muscatello MR, et al. [Comparation of levels of anxiety and depression in patients with autoimmune and chronic-degenerative rheumatic: preliminary data] Reumatismo. 2006;58(3):206–11.
- Spitzer C, Barnow S, Volzke H, Wallaschofski H, John U, Freyberger HJ et al. Association of posttraumatic stress disorder with low-grade elevation of C-reactive protein: evidence from the general population. J Psychiatr Res 2010; 44: 15–21.
- Hoge EA, Brandstetter K, Moshier S, Pollack MH, Wong KK, Simon NM . Broad spectrum of cytokine abnormalities in panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Depress Anxiety 2009; 26: 447–455.
- Bankier B, Barajas J, Martinez-Rumayor A, Januzzi JL . Association between C-reactive protein and generalized anxiety disorder in stable coronary heart disease patients. Eur Heart J 2008; 29: 2212–2217.
- Schrott LM, Crnic LS. Increased anxiety behaviors in autoimmune mice. Behav Neurosci. 1996;110(3):492–502.
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