I have often thought to write about how diet and nutrition affects the mind, and about my experiences in the clinic over the years treating patients with all manner of mental and emotional health issues. Perhaps you have depression, or suffer from stress, anxiety or have angry or aggressive tendencies. What about your failing memory, or do you get confused from time to time? Don’t worry, you are not alone, all of these are common in society and are an inevitable part of the lives of many of us.

I have often been asked by patients to write on topics like depression, anxiety or phobias, but I think it is more relevant to look at the subject “mood disorders” instead. Apparently, one in ten of us have some sort of mood imbalance that can range from barely noticeable to the pretty obvious, from the sublime to the ridiculous!

You’d be surprised how many people you will deal with today who actually have some sort of issue, but you would never know about it. I have suffered for years myself with anxiety, and I have written an entire article on this topic which you should be able to dig up online. It was only when I read an article explaining what anxiety was, that I recognised my own behaviours and could then understand how it was affecting others.

This series will focus on the brain. There are usual various hints and tips I would like to share with you about what I feel are important points to bear in mind when it comes to diet and nutrition, lifestyle and your mind.

When you are twenty years of age, you generally have little concern for your mental or emotional health. But one day this all changes, you wake up and discover you have turned 40, and you may notice that as you age into your 50s, 60s and 70s that you may not be “the sharpest tool in the shed”, your short term memory has seen better days, your attention span, focus and concentration are starting to slip, and you may even be a little slow or unsteady on your feet.

Genetics do play a role in brain health, no doubt, and some of us are blessed with incredible brain power regardless of age. But for the most of us this is simply not the case, and anything we can do to improve the functioning of the brain as we age is a bonus. Well, there are ways this can be achieved.

Everything you eat and drink will affect your mood, behavior, and many aspects of your brain function. If you are hungry, you may feel irritable and restless, whereas a person who has just eaten a meal, particularly a meal containing high grade protein, may feel calm and much more satisfied. Are you sleepy? Have you noticed how you feel more productive after a cup of coffee and a light snack? I have always noticed that people who are breakfast skippers, or just eat less at certain times of the day and more at others, or grab whatever they can because they are plain “too busy” are much more prone to become apathetic, moody or just plain difficult to live with.

Mood disorders can vary in intensity from being appropriate response to a stressful situation right through to being a full blown psychiatric disorder requiring medication. Research over the years has revealed that even though mood disorders originate in your brain, their physiological effects can effect just about any part of your body. According to Australian brain nutritional expert Henry Osiecki, the brain is now seen as an organ in direct communication with your immune and hormonal systems, and any event that influences this communication has a significant effect on not only moods and behaviour, but immunity and overall health and well-being.

Compared with most other organs in your body, your brain has very high energy, oxygen and nutrient requirement and uses an amazing 20 to 30% of your energy intake at rest. When your brain gets what it wants your moods can be so much better. Any changes in energy or nutrient (foods) intake can profoundly alter both brain chemistry and the functioning of nerves in the brain, and particularly levels of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are really just “brain hormones”, and their role is in keeping you thinking and feeling (and acting!) well.

Beat the blues – naturally

Do you like “blues” music? It is one of my favourite forms of music. Imagine if they had called it “depression” music. Blues was born in America in 1912 when a musician wrote a song which was originally written for the working class who were down on their luck. Blues music is about issues we all face from time to time like money or relationships problems. We all get the blues from time to time; it is a part of being a human being! The hormone called serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone is the one we need to look at when it comes to the blues, and it was discovered not that long ago that serotonin is not only manufactured in the brain but in your digestive system as well. Some experts now call the gut the “second brain”.

There are natural methods of increasing serotonin levels. One of the best ways is exercise. Unfortunately, in the worst irony, when you are feeling blue, you usually don’t feel like getting up and moving, yet making the effort can dramatically improve you mood. The impact which exercise can have on depression has often been overlooked, but it needs to be re-emphasised. People who are on antidepressants may improve, but the way for them to really get back to functioning well, is to get them moving, and I have verified this with countless patients over the years.

Researchers have found that exercise over a long period of time is much more effective than short term exercise, and would you believe that exercise has even found to be better than anti-depressants in several studies. The exercise doesn’t have to be prolonged or violent. On the contrary, take a walk or a mild run near the water on the beach, near a river or around a lake like Taupo.

Have you noticed that water has a calming effect on you? Apparently, water infuses the immediate atmosphere with negative ions, which are known to trigger the release of serotonin. The other positive spin off of exercise is the feeling of accomplishment that gives a person a valuable boost to self-esteem. People who exercise regularly just feel better in themselves.

Indulging in a massage can also work wonders. Studies have shown that depression diminishes with massage therapy. When you feel down and out, your emotions take on physical reality manifesting in tight muscles and restricted movement. In turn, these uncomfortable symptoms can fuel anxiety and depression. In addition, did you know that relaxing in a sauna or a hot bath is a mood-booster, because serotonin is released when the brain gets the signal to cool down. Add a few drops of lavender oil and see what happens – magic.

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Eric Bakker is the clinical director of The Naturopaths and holds a Bachelor Degree of Science majoring in Complementary Health Care, as well as separate diploma qualifications in Naturopathy, Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy. Eric has 20 years clinical experience in natural medicine, and received post-graduate natural medicine training in Australia, India, America as well as New Zealand. Eric has four children and lives in the sunny Hawkes Bay

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