Posted on April 08 2018
In today’s Toledo Blade (Sunday, April 8, 2018) there is a very interesting front page article on the problems being experienced by users of anti-depressant drugs. According to the article, not only are more and more people using these drugs (like Zoloft, Prozac and Cymbalta), but people are using them for longer and longer periods of time. Nearly 25 million Americans have been using drugs like these for at least two years. That is a 60% increase since 2010, and 15.5 million people have been using the drugs for at least 5 years, almost double the number of such users in 2010.
While these drugs are widely regarded as effective and safe, the fact of the matter is that no one knows how safe they are for long term users, as they were originally developed for short-term use, based upon studies that lasted about two months. There is little data about their effects on people taking them for years. But clinical evidence is growing that long-term use can be accompanied by severe withdrawal symptoms and taking the drugs can cause other side effects like emotional numbing, loss of productivity, sexual problems and weight gain. In a recent survey of 250 long-term users, almost half who tried to quit taking the drugs could not because of severe withdrawal symptoms.
Even their effectiveness is coming into question, with some researchers, psychiatrists and physicians wondering whether their apparent improvement of depression symptoms is due to a placebo effect or simply the passage of time.
This newspaper article is a nice corollary to Chapter 12 in Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How Not To Die, which is focused on beating suicidal depression, responsible for nearly 40,000 deaths annually. Dr. Greger argues that the real challenge is not minimizing depression but rather it is creating and maintaining a positive psychological state of well-being. Just because you are not depressed does not mean that you are happy.
As he does in the rest of the book, Dr. Greger cites research studies and experiments that suggest that eating a plant-based diet can do as much as, or even more than, pharmaceuticals to improve your physical and mental well-being. The findings in this chapter are sometimes based on reports of the participants, or the data from surveys (like the Profile of Mood States or the Depression and Anxiety Stress Scale). But, even given the sometimes difficult-to-objectively-measure results reported, the research findings are impressive. For example, a study of Seventh Day Adventists as reported in the Nutrition Journal found that people who consumed a plant-based diet experienced significantly fewer negative emotions than people who were omnivores and ate meat as well as plants.
Of course, scientists always want to know “why?” In this case the researchers suggested that it was because the proinflammatory compound “arachidonic acid” found in animal products causes the brain to become more inflamed, stimulating negative feelings. There are data suggesting that people with higher levels of arachidonic acid in their blood may end up with a significantly higher risk of suicide and episodes of depression.
The top two sources of arachidonic acid in the American diet are chicken and eggs, with beef, pork and fish next in line. Studies of dietary patterns indicate that omnivores consume about nine times more arachidonic acid than those eating plant-based diets.
In a stringent test of this hypothesis, researchers took subjects and changed their diets to see what the effect might be. They removed eggs, chicken and other meats out of the diets of the omnivores and found that in as few as two weeks the subjects experienced a significant improvement on measures of their mood states. A major insurance company also tested the hypothesis, encouraging a group of overweight and diabetic employees to follow a whole-food, plant-based diet. Over the course of five months, the plant-based group experienced improved digestion, increased energy, better sleep, and their physical functioning, general health, vitality and mental health all improved.
A review of research findings by the journal Nutritional Neuroscience found that, in general, eating lots of fruits and vegetables may cut the odds of developing depression by as much as 62%. The standard theory of what causes depression is that “feel good” neurotransmitter monoamines in your brain (like serotonin and dopamine) are inhibited in communicating with other parts of your brain by an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) because people who are depressed typically have elevated levels of this enzyme in their brains. Antidepressant drugs were developed to boost the neurotransmitter monoamines. But it turns out that many plant foods (especially apples, berries, grapes, onions, and green tea) contain phytonutrients that naturally inhibit the MAO, thus making it easier for your brain to utilize its natural neurotransmitter monoamines without the need for drugs.
One of the building blocks of serotonin is an amino acid called tryptophan. A high carbohydrate diet facilitates tryptophan transport into the brain. In a year-long study, one hundred men and women were randomly assigned to eat either a low-carb or high-carb diet. By the end of the year, the subjects eating the high-carb diet experienced significantly less depression, hostility, and mood disturbances than those in the low-carb group. And, if you want to increase the amount of tryptophan in your diet, seeds such as sesame, sunflower or pumpkin are especially good sources of tryptophan.
You may also be pleased to learn that Harvard University researchers looked at the data from three different studies of over 200,000 Americans and concluded that drinking coffee can substantially reduce suicide risk. In fact, people who drank more than six (but not more than eight) cups of coffee a day were 80% less likely to commit suicide. But, it is better to drink your coffee without sweeteners. The NIH-AARP study found that frequent consumption of sweetened beverages may increase the risk of depression among older adults. In another study, people who were given high doses of the artificial sweetener aspartame (the equivalent of three liter-bottles of Coke) exhibited more depression and irritability and performed worse on certain brain function tests after only eight days than a control group on a low-aspartame diet (the equivalent of one liter of Coke per day). The real challenge in controlling consumption of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners is the amount that is used in a wide variety of processed foods, especially low-calorie products.
And, as is true of many other health outcomes, regular exercise reduces depression (by as much as 25%). In a study done at Duke University, a group of depressed older adults were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one group began an aerobic exercise program, the other took the antidepressant drug Zoloft. Within four months, the average individual on the drug had improved so much that the individuals were no longer considered depressed. But, it turns out that those doing exercise had equally beneficial outcomes. Exercise had worked as well as the drug, but with positive side effects rather than possible negative side effects.
Another theory of depression is that it is caused by a shrinkage of certain emotion centers in the brain due to the death of brain cells caused by free radicals (unstable molecules that cause tissue damage and contribute to aging). Autopsy studies of the brains of depressed individuals confirm this shrinkage. Eating anti-oxidant rich fruits and vegetables helps extinguish free radicals and may help protect you from depression. A study of nearly 300,000 Canadians found that greater fruit and vegetable consumption was associated with lower risk of depression, psychological distress, mood and anxiety disorders, and poor perceived mental health. Lycopene (the red pigment in tomatoes) has the highest antioxidant activity. A study of 1,000 elderly men and women found that people who ate tomatoes or tomato products daily had just half the odds of depression compared with those who ate them once a week or less.
Finally, a word about the effectiveness of anti-depressant drugs. Almost all published studies of these drugs show that they are effective. But when researchers applied to the Food and Drug Administration for access to all of the published and unpublished studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies, the results looked very different. When the unpublished studies are included, antidepressants failed to show a clinically significant advantage over placebo sugar pills for all but the most clinically depressed subjects, suggesting that for most patients it is mostly the patient’s belief that the pill will work that is effective, not so much the pill itself.
So, if you want to avoid the risk of becoming dependent on anti-depression pills, only take them for a short period of time. And better yet, try eating a more plant-based diet and exercising. If you think that flooding your body with the whole-food nutrients of 30 different fruits and vegetables every day would help you maintain a positive emotional state, then come into Objects of Desire Artful Living and let’s discuss the trio of Juice Plus capsules that you can easily incorporate into your diet.