Mood Swings And Depression:
Let's Get To The Bottom Of It


by Rebecca K. Kirby, M.D., M.S., R.D.

It is estimated that 10 million Americans are on psychoactive medications. Drugs may modify the chemical environment of the cells and often alleviate symptoms, but they do not get to the root of the trouble. We need to give more thought to the nutrition of the brain. The brain, like other organs in the body, relies on a full spectrum of nutrients and the biggest user of these nutrients is the brain!


If you took 100 people, you would find a 10-fold difference in their need for any single nutrient.

However, brain cells like all other living cells commonly live under sub-optimal nutrition. This is true of everyone, but in particular those with mental illness. Studies of hospitalized psychiatric patients show that upon admission 25% were deficient in folic acid, 32% had deficient levels of vitamin C, and 10% had actual scurvy. In addition, suboptimal levels ol' B 12 were found at 30 times the prevalence of the general population. A deficiency in any one of these nutrients can cause an imbalance in the nutritional environment of the brain.

It is important to supply these nutrients to the brain. The brain must get from the blood those nutrient elements that are furnished from what we eat and drink. Certain nutrients are essential, meaning lhat our body cannot manufacture them, and they must be replenished or eaten daily.

With a poorly nourished brain you may experience depression and mood swings that interfere with functioning. Mood swings are normal and depression is appropriate at times, but an out of balance biochemistry can cause mood swings and depression to become so extreme that they interfere with normal activities.

In a study conducted in Great Britain, 80% of people with mood disorders noticed that food choices affected how they felt. They named sugar and alcohol as food stressors, and supportive foods were water, vegetables, fruits, and oil-rich fish. In his book. The Brain Chemistry Diet, Dr. Michael Lesser says that reducing refined carbohydrates and cutting out the "whites" will keep the blood sugar and accompanying mood swings under control. The "whites" are not a bad laundry day but represent foods that have been refined to improve shelf life and are no longer whole foods. These include white sugar, white flour, white rice, and white oils and fats (highly refined vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats).

Whole foods are generally metabolized at a slower rate to provide better blood sugar control, and they can provide what is needed to aid the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Highly refined carbohydrates or simple sugars affect insulin release and contribute to hypoglycemia and subsequent mood swings. The slower metabolism of protein and fats can help slow down someone in an agitated state.

All cell membranes are made up of fats(lipids). The brain is the fattest organ in the body and requires fat-soluble vitamins to protect the cell membranes. The omega-3 fatty acids are the most abundant of the essential lipids in the membrane of the brain.

The omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be effective in treating cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and bipolar disorder. Dr. Andrew Stoll's research published in The Archivcx of Clinical Psychiatry showed that persons diagnosed with bipolar disorder improved in only four months when supplemented with concentrated fish oils versus placebo.

So, again, our body chemistry creates brain chemistry. The brain is a chemical factory that produces neuro-transmitters and derives the raw materials for synthesis from amino acids, with vitamins and minerals as essential cofactors.

Did you know that amino acids, vitamins and minerals, as well as fatty acids, can be measured in each individual? We are all unique so the biochemical make-up and requirements differ from one person to the next. Dr. Roger J. Williams explained this principle as biochemical individuality. It you took 100 people, you would find a 10-fold difference in their need for any single nutrient.

That is why it is important to measure your nutrient levels. Finding the right molecule to address your particular biochemical need is the basis of Orthomolecular Psychiatry. The Nobel scientist, Linus Pauling, who coined the phrase Orthomolecular, said, "The functioning of the brain is affected by the molecular concentration of many substances that are normally present in the brain. The optimal concentrations of these substances for a person may differ greatly from the concentrations provided by his normal diet and genetic machinery."

The optimal nutrition that we must supply to the body by the food we eat is unknie lo each of us. Here at The Center For The Improvement of Human Functioning we measure the levels of these different components to better understand each individual's biochemistry.

To study what nutrient deficiencies were found in people with depression who came here to The Center, I conducted a review of a dozen random charts. I found overtly deficient plasma vitamin C levels in 25%. The brain is the second biggest user of vitamin C, requiring 15 times the vitamin C beyond the level found in the plasma. Rich sources of vitamin C include citrus 1'ruiis, peppers, strawberries, melons, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and dark green vegetables.

Three particular B vitamins, ribo-flavin, niacin, and B6, were found to be low in those co-learners with the diagnosis of depression. The B vitamins are essential for normal brain function and a healthy nervous system: a deficiency of any one of which can cause depression. Riboflavin, B2, is found in milk, yogurt, liver, and dark green leafy vegetables. Niacin, B3, is found in meat, tuna, peanuts, and whole grains. B6 is found in whole grains, fish, dark green vegetables, beans, and brov, n ,'n.e.

Half of the charts I reviewed revealed a magnesium deficiency in those with depression. Low magnesium can cause depression and insomnia, plus depression can lower magnesium. One international study showed that higher rates of depression and suicide were seen in countries where magnesium is deficient in the diet. Magnesium is found in whole wheat, dried beans, nuts, and collard greens (again, a dark green leafy vegetable).

Zinc and chromium were also found low in one quarter of those individuals with depression. Stress lowers zinc and raises copper which can contribute to agitation. Zinc is calming and has been found to be decreased in bipolar patients. A balance of zinc and copper is important. Zinc is found in oysters, meat, egg yolks, whole grains, split peas, and pecans. Chromium is vital in the regulation of blood sugar which is important in controlling mood swings. Good sources of chromium include whole wheat, oysters, eggs. meat, iind potatoes.

We need fats from whole I'oods. All of these individuals with depression had high levels of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable products like corn, safflower, and cottonseed oils which we tend to consume out of balance with the products that have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids like fatty fish, walnuts, flax seeds, and soybeans. Deficient levels of the omega-3 fatty acid, EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid, were found in 40% of those reviewed. This fatty acid is a precursor to anti-

;l'lammatory substances which is important not only in conditions like arthritis, but an exaggerated inflammatory response can also depress mood.

Whole foods can provide a wealth of essential nutrients for the brain. There are even serotonin-promoting foods such as walnuts, pineapple, plum. tomatoes, eggplant, and avocados which may help lift a blue mood. Remember to avoid refined starchy foods, sugar, and caffeine when agitated. But don't sweat the imperfections. Enjoy whole foods the majority of the time and feed your brain well.


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