The Age of Fear was a term coined in the 1940s to describe the fraught and changed world after the war, but now with the Russian attack on Ukraine, rising energy bills and so much economic uncertainty, it feels like an apt description of our current turbulent times. .
The problem is, while mental health issues like depression and anxiety are on the rise (and have been for years), the treatments haven’t really changed.
If your symptoms are severe, you will likely be offered medications and perhaps psychological therapies. But many people do not want to take pills, and therapy is not for everyone.
But there is good news, as highlighted recently in Nature, a leading scientific journal, with promising research into possible causes — and treatments. Among which:
DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: The problem is that while mental health problems like depression and anxiety are on the rise (and have been for years), treatments haven’t really changed
PRESS-UPS AND FASTING
When I was in medical school, we were told that adults don’t make new brain cells, so we have to take care of the ones we have (I thought at the time that this was a subtle dig into the culture of medical students who drank and their brain cells).
But in the 1990s, when researchers started doing post-mortem brain research, they found signs of new cell growth in areas of the brain like the hippocampus, which help regulate mood and memory. So we continue to create new brain cells, even into old age, in a process known as neurogenesis.
But more recently, brain scans have shown that chronic stress alters this delicate balance, accelerating the death of existing brain cells and slowing the growth of new ones. Not only does this pose problems for things like memory, but it’s also thought to be a trigger for depression and anxiety (although it’s unclear exactly how).
The best form of resistance exercise for boosting BDNF seems to be push-ups and squats, as they lead to large swings in blood to the brain, which in turn encourages more BDNF. Image: file image
This could also help explain how some antidepressants work, because we know they can cause cell growth in the hippocampus and other brain regions. One of the ways they do this is by stimulating the release of a chemical called BDNF, which acts as a fertilizer for the brain.
There are drug-free methods of stimulating BDNF and thus the growth of new brain cells, including resistance exercise and intermittent fasting. The best form of resistance exercise for boosting BDNF seems to be push-ups and squats, as they lead to large swings in blood to the brain, which in turn encourages more BDNF. That’s one of the reasons I do at least 30 squats and pushups most mornings.
With regard to intermittent fasting, both time-restricted eating (where you eat only within a limited time window, such as from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and the 5:2 method (where you drastically reduce calorie intake for two days a week) have been shown to stimulate BDNF.
A ZAP TO THE BRAIN
Another way to boost your mood is to stimulate your brain with small electric shocks. The more radical version of the electric shock approach is called deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which electrodes are implanted deep in the brain in areas that control your mood.
DBS was developed to treat the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, and when it works, it’s impressive. While it doesn’t have that impressive effect on depression, an analysis of 17 studies published last year in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience found it worked in more than half of cases of depression resistant to other treatments.
A much less invasive approach is to deliver weak electrical currents to specific areas of the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp – this is said to suppress a type of brain wave that is more common in people with depression.
In a 2019 study from the University of North Carolina, 32 patients with major depression were treated in this way, and when retested after a few weeks, 70 percent reported markedly improved symptoms.
If you don’t feel like electric shocks, what about light therapy? Your body works on an internal clock that tries to keep your body in sync with the world around you.
At the start of the day, it’s exposure to bright morning light that resets your internal clock and sets you up for the day.
But today, with the advent of artificial light, we spend too much time indoors and stay up late, which is bad for our body clocks and our brains — and for our mood, as it affects the production of hormones that help regulate it.
At the start of the day, it’s exposure to bright morning light that resets your internal clock and sets you up for the day. Photo: London morning commuters walk to work over London Bridge
An immediate way to boost your mood is to take a brisk 20-minute walk early in the morning, which will help reset your biological clock. Or you can try 30 minutes for a SAD bulb, a light box that produces 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity), comparable to a bright summer day and about 50 times more intense than indoors.
In a small study published in July, researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland assigned 22 women with severe postpartum depression to either bright light therapy (10,000 lux) or dim red light (the control group) for six weeks for 30 minutes a day. : 73 percent of women who received bright light therapy were no longer depressed by the end of the study, compared with 27 percent in the control group.
AVOID JUNK FOOD
At least half of the average Brit’s calories now come from ultra-processed junk food (the kind of food that comes in clear packaging with a long list of odd-sounding ingredients) — and chances are it’s having a bad effect on our brains.
In a recent study, researchers from Florida Atlantic University surveyed more than 10,000 people about diet and mental health and found that the more junk food people ate, the more likely they were to report “mentally unhealthy” or “anxious” days.
Why are highly processed foods so bad for the brain? Not only is it packed with salt, sugar, and fat, but it’s also low in fiber and essential vitamins, leading to chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Image: file image
This follows a groundbreaking study, published in 2017, by Australian researchers, in which people who were moderately or severely depressed followed a healthier Mediterranean diet – after a few months, about a third were off the medication.
Why are highly processed foods so bad for the brain? Not only is it packed with salt, sugar, and fat, but it’s also low in fiber and essential vitamins, leading to chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. This, in turn, seems to lead to the rewiring of neural circuits, leading to depression or anxiety.
One vitamin that seems to be important for mood is vitamin B6, which is found in tuna, salmon, fortified cereals and one of my favorite spreads: Marmite.
A recent study from the University of Reading found that large doses of B6 helped reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in young people. To get a decent dose of vitamin B6, marinate salmon fillets in a mix of Marmite, soy sauce, honey and chili. Sounds awful, but it works!
One vitamin that seems to be important for mood is vitamin B6, which is found in tuna, salmon, fortified cereals and one of my favorite spreads: Marmite