Today, I’d like to talk to you about a touchy subject — emotional health. Long ago, I lost track of how many patients I had treated whose physical health was affected by their emotions. In Western medicine, doctors are trained to separate mind and body, when the two are inseparable. In fact, I’ve found that treating emotional difficulties very often improves physical ailments dramatically.
That’s what happened with a patient I’ll call Brian. After several trips to the emergency room, Brian came to my clinic because he was having terrible digestive problems. No matter what he ate, he developed painful cramps and nausea. The tests done in the hospital looked fine. But if there was nothing wrong, why was he in such pain? The answer turned out to be something familiar to many of us — overwhelming stress. Click here to read more of Brian’s story.
Make Your Food Medicine
Emotions, like anxiety and depression, affect the body’s delicate balance of neurotransmitters — chemicals that produce feelings like happiness, sadness, fear, and restlessness. Some of these substances, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, may sound familiar. The pharmaceutical industry has tried to corner the market on feel-good — or at least feel-better — drugs. Billions of dollars of these drugs are sold every year, but more and more studies show that drugs are largely ineffective at treating depression, anxiety, and related issues. Furthermore, these types of prescription medications are famous for negative side effects, as well as for being addictive.
So, what does work? A nutritious and varied diet of whole foods is essential. I consider it the foundation for what follows. Foods containing the “good fats” known as omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are an excellent place to start. EFAs are vitally important to brain and emotional health. Cold-water fish — including salmon, mackerel, herring, and anchovies — are some of my top choices. If you aren’t fond of fish, look for purified fish oil supplements. I recommend a dosage of 2,000 mg daily in a formula.
Other good food choices include those rich in B vitamins, which support a healthy nervous system and brain functions. Brewer’s yeast, egg yolks, brown rice, avocadoes, leafy green vegetables, beef, fish, and legumes are good sources of B vitamins.
Walk This Way
Believe it or not, exercise improves mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. Another exercise benefit is a hearty dose of mood-elevating brain chemicals, like serotonin and tryptophan. There’s no need to join a gym or hire a coach to get the exercise you need. Just invest in a pair of comfortable shoes and enjoy a brisk 30-minute walk most days of the week.
Normally, I don’t encourage people to multitask, but here’s a simple way to get a double dose of mood improvement — listen to your favorite music while walking, working out, or relaxing. Studies show that music lifts depression and eases anxiety. The best music to get those results? Anything you enjoy.
Don’t Hide from Your Feelings
When was the last time you cried? If you’re emotionally distraught, don’t overlook crying as a quick and easy remedy. Years of studies have proven that tears are a healthy antidote to sadness or anxiety. So when you start feeling overwhelmed, don’t be ashamed to let the tears come. Better to release those emotions and move on rather than stifle them and prolong the misery. And gentlemen, this one does apply to men as well as women.
I was able to see how powerful a stress reliever tears can be when our house sold recently with the contingency that we move out in one week. Once the excitement of the sale wore off, we were left with the daunting task of packing and moving — without anywhere to move to.
After a few days of high-intensity stress, I burst into tears, fearing we had made a major mistake in agreeing to such impossible terms. But as soon as the tears were gone, my mood improved considerably. In the calm that followed, I was able to focus on productive activities, like taking care of my patients. And, as is so often the case, the problem was solved without any additional drama.
Dream a Little Dream
When sleep is a problem, we are more prone to emotional upsets. If you’re having trouble getting at least 8 hours of deep, restful sleep each night, I’d recommend reviewing my earlier newsletter on sleep problems. For example, levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin decrease with age. I recommend women take 2 mg (3 mg for men) an hour or so before bedtime. Extracts of the herb valerian are also helpful for treating insomnia. Take 300 to 600 mg about 30 minutes before bedtime.
Develop an Attitude of Gratitude
Instead of focusing on all the things that are going wrong, spend some time thinking about the many wonderful things in your life. Often, just changing the internal dialogue we have with ourselves to a positive message can make all the difference. So look outside — the sun is shining (or it will be soon), and the day is full of possibilities. Try keeping a journal recording the good things about each day, and you will very likely notice an improvement in your mood.
Practice Deep Breathing
People who are fearful or tense tend to take shallow breaths, using only their upper chest, depriving themselves of one substance we cannot live without — oxygen. “Belly breathing”, using your diaphragm to breathe fully and deeply, is relaxing and energizing, and it provides your body with much-needed oxygen. You can review my instructions for deep, healing breathing.
Supplements to Support Healthy Moods
Thousands of studies have tested herbal and nutrient remedies for emotional upsets. St. John’s wort and SAMe are among the most consistently effective treatments. St. John’s wort alleviates both depression and anxiety with few side effects, especially compared with prescription medications. I recommend a daily dose of 600 to 1,200 mg. Look for a standardized product containing 0.3% hypericin, the active ingredient.
SAMe (short for S-adenosyl-L-methionine) is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the human body. Research shows that SAMe (pronounced “Sammy”) eases depression symptoms by elevating levels of dopamine and serotonin, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Try a daily dose of 1,600 mg. If you’re taking other medication, discuss St. John’s wort or SAMe with your physician because these supplements may interact with certain drugs.
One caution: If feelings of worthlessness and loss — or agitation and fear, in the case of anxiety — are so severe that you are not able to function on a daily basis, don’t postpone getting professional help. Severe forms of depression or anxiety can be debilitating and should not be ignored.
Life is a series of ups and downs with no guarantees. We need to be proactive about emotional health so that we’re better able to deal with issues as they arise. Bolster your emotional resilience with a whole-foods diet, daily activity, plenty of restful sleep, and supportive supplements. Then when the inevitable difficulties occur, you’ll be ready, willing, and able to take them on.
Brian learned to control his stress through diet, daily exercise, and focusing on the positive side of life. He and his wife feel like they’re starting a new life together.