It is a guarantee that you or someone you know suffers from anxiety, depression or a related mood imbalance. These symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, are so common that society considers them a cultural norm. However, normalizing mood imbalance causes a few problems. One problem is that it encourages individuals and doctors to oversimplify the cause of these symptoms, leading to insufficient treatment. Mood disorders inherently cause a feeling of isolation in those who suffer from them. When diagnosis and treatment is oversimplified, it exacerbates this symptom. The rate of psychological distress today is quickly accelerating. If we are to be successful in halting this epidemic and providing relief for the people who suffer from it, a better cultural and medical understanding is crucial.
As with most other chronic conditions, mental health fluctuates along a spectrum of functioning and malfunctioning. This means that we all lie somewhere along the mood spectrum and slide back and forth in one direction or another as we are impacted by a medley of genetics, lifestyle factors, trauma and stress. We are all susceptible to developing imbalances in our mood, and we are all able to improve upon these imbalances or reverse them.
The CDC tracks something called “frequent mental distress” (FMD) among US adult populations to help understand the growth of mental illness and varying needs for intervention. FMD is defined as an individual who reports that they experienced emotional imbalance, depressed mood, anxiety, etc. for 14 or more of the past 30 days. In a 2004-2008 study, Over 10% of adults in the U.S. fell into the category of having FMD. This is a shocking number, especially knowing that this number is only growing each year. One in 10 people feels significantly depressed or otherwise emotionally imbalanced at least half of the month!
What’s going on? Why are we so dispirited? How can we address this problem? There still exists a false framework of belief in many corners of practiced medicine that mood disorders can be effectively treated using only a pill. It is not uncommon for a patient to report feeling depressed or anxious to their doctor and be offered an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety med without discussion about the underlying cause of the emotions, nor other treatment options. So first thing’s first: what’s causing this mental distress?
The short answer: Lots of things. Multiple things at the same time. One cause feeds into another cause and creates a vicious cycle of symptoms. Psychological symptoms can produce physical symptoms, and physical symptoms can produce psychological ones.
A more detailed answer: While all the causes of Frequent Mental Distress are not fully known or understood, we do have enough data to suggest that they will not be optimally treated using a unidirectional approach. Meaning, we need to appreciate the complexity of multiple causes of mental distress occurring at once and treat comprehensively, from several directions at the same time. While acknowledging the role of genetics is important, over-acknowledging it tends to prevent individuals from actively participating in treatment solutions other than medications, which can create long-term neurotransmitter imbalances: For example, diet plays a key role in the spectrum of mood disorders’ development and persistence. There is evidence that indicates that the pathophysiology of both anxiety and depression involves low-levels of chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can be traced back to an American diet that is rich in sugars, refined carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats, and low in micronutrients, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Lack of physical activity also plays an enormous role in the development and severity of mood disorders, and it’s no surprise. The CDC cites that fewer than half of American adults meet daily recommendations for physical activity and nearly 40% of adults are considered “completely inactive”. These are frightening numbers when it is a known fact that exercise promotes the production of endorphins and lessens the severity of mood symptoms. In fact, exercise has been shown to be at least as effective for depression as one of the leading anti-depressants prescribed today. Sleep debt and circadian rhythm disruption is also, in part, to blame for the rise in mood disorders because of the wide range of hormonal imbalances it causes. Last but not least, a culture of isolation, competitiveness, economic expectations and lack of community and purpose is highly correlated with the rate of anxiety and depression in individuals of all ages.
Now that we have this cloud of causes, how can naturopathic medicine help? One of the greatest advantages of the naturopathic approach towards health and disease is that it very much honors and utilizes the power of comprehensive and individualized care rather than relying on one sole intervention or therapy at a time. This means that the naturopathic model of treatment inherently understands the complexity of Frequent Mental Distress and seeks to establish balance in the entire system. Combining specific dietary changes with targeted orthomolecular nutrient therapy, stress management care, cognitive behavioral therapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc. helps in several ways: 1) It re-establishes a stable mental health environment, 2) It supports balanced neurochemistry in a safe, nontoxic way, 3) It values additional team support by way of cognitive therapies and trauma processing, 4) It addresses the many other chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, digestive disturbance, autoimmunity, etc. that occur with mood imbalances and contribute to chronic inflammation.
Does this mean that conventional medications are a bad thing? Absolutely not. Medications often provide life-saving options for individuals who suffer from mood disorders and we should all be eternally grateful for their existence and availability. What I hope to convey in this article and in my upcoming lecture is that there is more that we can do, and suggest a different order of treatment steps in many cases of Frequent Mental Distress.
Dr. Otto will lecture on this subject on Thursday, February 16th at Whole Health Concord. This presentation will explore the factors around the most common mood disorders and identify a roadmap for helping to better manage and improve these conditions naturally. Please join us and be part of the solution!