Mood boosting in the days of chronic stress, natural support for depression and anxiety
By Abby Vallejo, RD, CPT
Has there ever been a time where we have collectively needed such a mood boost as in the times we live in now?
All of our lives have been affected as we have done the best to adapt, roll with the punches and have tried to keep ourselves and our families healthy and functioning. It has been all too easy to tap into the stress and anxiety that seem to be looming in the air these days, permeating into our lives like a dark cloud and causing uncertainty and turmoil in even the most normal of daily routines.
We could definitely all use a little boost, a little more resilience and some peace of mind. An assurance that we are grounded and that our center is still there, no matter what we have been through, and an inner knowing that things are going to be ok.
It is helpful to remember, in times like these, that mother nature is a great resource and she provides us with many natural and gentle remedies to help us restore our innate balance, whether we are already on medication for mood or simply looking for some natural support.
It is worth mentioning that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, and about 50% of those diagnosed with anxiety also experience depression.
Depression has a high incidence around the world and is the highest contributor to disability. However, up to 40% of patients with depressive disorders do not respond well to antidepressant medications — this is where natural remedies can come in.
Herbs can be used either together with the antidepressant or anxiety medication (working with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner who can help you choose the appropriate herbs that have been studied clinically as adjunct treatments) or as a natural and effective alternative to prescription medications.
Now for a little bit of the science behind mood disorders and how they are linked to chronic stress.
Depression is associated with abnormal neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience, reorganizing itself by forming new neural connections throughout life) in the prefrontal cortex and limbic system. These brain regions are also involved in anxiety, fear and our behavioral control.
Chronic stress is one of the major risk factors for depression and anxiety and is associated with alterations in the brain that are linked to sleep and circadian rhythm disruption, impairment of cognition, memory and learning, changes in behavior, disruption of rational thinking and emotions.
Chronic stress can also lead to persistent systemic inflammation, a key feature of depression and anxiety. Ongoing inflammation activates our HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis and in turn produces more cortisol, which creates more stress and inflammation. Cells in the brain are very sensitive to inflammation.
Inflammatory mediators and inflammatory immune cells can cross the blood brain barrier and initiate neuroinflammation, or inflammation of the brain. These immune cells can also become cortisol resistant, meaning more and more cortisol is produced to dampen their effect — leading to a heightened neuroinflammatory environment that affects our behavior and sense of well being.
This cycle not only affects our brain but our gut health as well, via the gut-brain axis. This axis is the equivalent of a two-way street between our brain and our gut. The gut is where we make our feel good neurotransmitters, like serotonin, and it also houses our microbiome and most of our immune system. So if we have gut dysbiosis (imbalance) and chronic inflammation, that inflammation can also affect our brain and we are more likely to experience mental health issues such as anxiety and/or depression as a result.
It’s a fine and delicate balance where one thing leads to another. Individuals with a history of mood disorders are also more susceptible to gut dysbiosis due to chronic inflammation.
While this all sounds quite alarming and somewhat inevitable, especially in these stressful times, the good news is that we have clinical evidence for herbs that help elevate mood, and we can take this a step further by also addressing inflammation and balancing the gut, which also can help improve the anxiety and/or depressive symptoms.
Favorites for healthy mood and related support include:
St John’s Wort — The gold standard for those with clinical evidence for depression and low mood, it also enhances neuroplasticity and helps counter some of the effects of neuroinflammation (If you are on medications it is important to check for any potential interactions with your healthcare practitioner before taking St John’s Wort).
Saffron — Clinical trials found it to be just as effective as fluoxetine — it works against the consequences of neuroinflammation, is good for cognition and age related memory loss, has antioxidant and neuroprotective activity and no potential for interaction with antidepressants as it has nothing to do with neurotransmitters.
Rhodiola — Great for HPA axis, Rhodiola is an adaptogen that helps the body become more resilient to stress over time. Its clinical trials show improvements in mood, sleep and emotions, downregulation of stress-activated protein kinases and no potential interactions with antidepressants — just like saffron, as it has nothing to do with neurotransmitters.
Kava root — For anxiety and mood problems, Kava root is often great on its own as needed or combined with rhodiola (check for any potential interactions with medications your healthcare practitioner).
Boswellia, turmeric, omega 3 fatty acids — It addresses and helps reduce inflammation and neuroinflammation.
Rosemary, green tea, grape seed, garlic, ginkgo, resveratrol —
It causes an upregulation of Nrf2, a powerful antioxidant that detoxifies pathways in every cell in the body (Anxiety/depressive disorders are characterized by lowered antioxidant defenses and increased oxidative damage).
Prebiotics and probiotics — For gut health, prebiotics are used for balance and healthy immune function.
Exercise — It’s found to be just as effective as some antidepressants for boosting mood. n
Abby Vallejo graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay with a degree in Human Biology & Dietetics and went on to do her Dietetic Internship with Wellness Workdays, based in Hingham, Massachusetts. Abby is also a Certified Personal Trainer and enjoys training and counseling clients one-on-one to help them achieve their wellness and fitness goals. Abby worked in the vitamin and supplement industry while pursuing her nutrition degree and was delighted to return after earning her credential as a Registered Dietitian. She is passionate about balance, wellness and all things holistic. In her free time she enjoys going to the gym, traveling and spending time outside in nature.
Sources: Podcast: Dr Angela Hywood, Wholistic Matters: Herbs for Stress, Sleep and Nervous System
Webinar: Standard Process Clinical Education: Botanicals for Mood, Dr. Berris Burgoyne
Webinar: Standard Process Clinical Education: Natural Approaches to Healthy Mood, Dr Kerry Bone
Course: Wholistic Matters Continuing Education: Foundations of Herbal Support, Dr Marisa Marciano
Journal: Johnson JA, Johnson DA, Kraft AD, et al. The Nrf2-ARE pathway: an indicator and modulator of oxidative stress in neurodegeneration. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1147:61-69. doi:10.1196/annals.1427.036