Read Part 1 of this series, which digs deeply into nutrient deficiencies.
Here I present a model of biological root causes of anxiety and depression, designed by integrative psychiatrist Dr. James Greenblatt, called THE ZEEBRA. If you have anxiety or depression, it’s worth it to check each component in this model. One or more of these could actually BE the root cause of your anxiety, or they could be co-contributors. In either case, cleaning up these biological factors may significantly help your recovery.
“Psychiatrists have assumed, without proof, that depression results from chemical imbalances in the brain. Treatment has primarily consisted of prescribing medications that may restore proper balance. But even if we had medications that could do so consistently, shouldn’t we be looking for the causes of the imbalance?” ~Greenblatt
T is for Take care of yourself.
H is for Hormones and Herbs.
E is for Exclude.
Z is for Zinc (and other minerals like magnesium).
E is for Essential fatty acids and cholesterol.
E is for Exercise and energy.
B is for B (and other) vitamins.
R is for Restore.
A is for Amino acids and proteins.
The previous post delved into Z and B (minerals and vitamins), which is one place to start within this model. Another place to start is with the lifestyle factors T (“Take care of yourself”) and the third E (Exercise and energy). Here we unpack how these lifestyle factors affect anxiety and depression, and what changes to target.
T is for Take care of yourself.
This means get your sleep, stress management, and food in order. This is called “lifestyle medicine” in the functional medicine sphere. These are clearly big topics, so let’s zero in on specifically what the research tells us in these three areas.
This is tricky as sleep problems (from insomnia to oversleeping) are a symptom of anxiety and depression. However research shows that sleep problems can create anxiety and depression, and that it’s important to:
- Get checked for sleep apnea, which doesn’t just occur if you’re male and overweight! Women and lean people also have apnea and this is a serious condition of which mental health concerns are only one consequence. Read more about women and sleep apnea.
- Get a minimum of 8 hours of quality sleep per night. If this isn’t happening, make it a priority. I know, easier said than done! It’s up to you to make the time and space for quality sleep, and set up good sleep hygiene. If you still have sleep problems, you can try natural remedies (under guidance) or tech that resets your nervous system. My two favorites are the Sensate Pebble and Rest Assured.
It’s probably no surprise that stress is shown to increase anxiety and depression. I think we can all agree that uncontrolled stress has a negative effect on our mental health! One biological way that stress does this is by increasing inflammation. Unmanaged stress actually creates inflammatory biochemistry in your body and your brain. Anxiety and depression thrive in an inflamed brain.
Stress is a normal part of life, but sustained stress is not normal to our bodies. Besides reducing the stressors in your life that are in your control, the biggest intervention here is to work with the ways that you experience and react to stress. You can learn how to stay even keel amongst all types of stress. Therapy and meditation are great tools for this. Unwinding stress on a daily basis so that the effects are not chronic is highly useful. Talking, journaling, yoga, exercise – find what works for you and choose to make the time.
This is a big topic, but if we zero in on what the research tells us, it’s largely about sugar, protein, and inflammation.
- Sugar intake affects moods, emotions and mental health. This is because it drives your blood sugar up… and then down. Low blood sugar, high blood sugar, and wildly fluctuating blood sugar are shown to contribute to mood swings, anxiety and depression. The simple solution is to reduce sugar and refined carbohydrate intake. If this feels like a hard project, get help from a coach or nutritionist, or do my Functional Whole30 program which is a 30 day break up with sugar.
- Protein is essential to make amino acids to build neurotransmitters. If you’re vegan or if you don’t eat 65 or more grams of protein per day (3 palm size portions), then you can take free form amino acids, and even gear these towards the ones you’re trying to build (with guidance).
- Inflammation from any source can cause brain inflammation, anxiety and depression. Root out inflammatory foods from your diet like food sensitivities, junk food, and heavily processed foods and oils. Research shows that diets with plenty of fiber, fruit and vegetables decrease depression. My Functional Whole30 program offers a guided and experiential way to root out inflammatory foods.
E is for Exercise and energy
Exercise improves mental health – this is shown in the research. It’s not hard to convince people of this, yet it can be hard to get some people to actually DO it. Here are the three top reasons for this:
“I don’t have the time.” Choose to make the time. Put it in your calander as non-negotiable.
“I don;t like to exercise.” Find one or more ways of moving your body that you do like. Dance. Rollerblade. Bike. Swim. Hike. Find something you enjoy doing or you won’t want to do it.
“It’s too hard to exercise.” If this is because of a physical limitation, get help from a PT or trainer. There’s almost always SOMETHING you can do. If it’s a problem with energy…..
This refers to your experience of energy production. Do you feel like you don’t have the mojo needed to move your body and then recover from it? If so:
- First, you need enough of the nutrients we explored in the first post, especially vitamin B12.
- Then, you need to have decent adrenal function. You can assess this with my adrenal stress quiz, and test it with the DUTCH adrenal test.
- Your thyroid needs to be in good shape, this is under H in the model, more on this later.
- You need your mitochondria to work well. These are the organelles inside every cell that make your cellular energy called ATP. Mitochondria can be hungry or damaged. You can test with the Organix test. You can take mitochondrial fuel such as Mitocore.
In the next post we’ll go further into THE ZEEBRA model. Please let me know if you have comments or questions.