Fundamental to integrative options—and to nutritional supplementation generally—is the notion that our bodies (minds included) are products of what we bring into and do with them. Or, as Dolnick says, “We feel better when we eat better and exercise. When we have control over our diets and activity, we’re controlling our lives, and that’s powerful in giving people a sense of satisfaction and calm.”
Unfortunately, today’s standard American diet—a.k.a. SAD—predisposes us to anxiety, stress, and depression, says Myers. By triggering systemic inflammation, SAD presents a real threat to mental wellbeing because inflammation doesn’t just cause muscle pain or hamper exercise recovery; it affects the brain. “When highly refined, over-sweetened foods and beverages are your only sources of ‘nourishment’”—and Myers uses the term loosely—“you’re going to see issues.” And people with major depressive disorder often do exhibit higher states of inflammation than those without.
Add it all up and you have “a population crying out for the benefits of real nutrition,” Myers concludes. Mellentin would agree, and he predicts that “we’ll see people turn more to ‘regular food’ than to supplements to improve their mood and sense of wellbeing.” As they do, they’ll likely bolster the current “free-from” movement that’s made everything from gluten to high-fructose corn syrup ingredients that today’s consumers avoid. “The idea that certain carbs are bad for your brain has taken hold among a small but growing percentage of consumers,” Mellentin notes, citing the traction that books like neurologist David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain enjoy.
Rooting Out Inflammation
But free-from diets are only one tool among many for improving mood and affect—and one for which supporting evidence is far from conclusive. More encouraging are findings about how nutritional ingredients act within the brain and body to make us, literally, feel better. “Natural supplements can help mitigate the effects of stressors or triggers for depressive states of mind to help restore healthy brain function,” Myers says. “And many botanicals, including rhodiola, ashwagandha, lemon balm, holy basil, and—my favorite—curcumin, support overall health in many other ways.” She calls these “side benefits instead of side effects.”
Curcumin, for example, is attracting attention for its anti-inflammatory properties. Its parent plant turmeric (Curcuma longa) has a long track record in ayurvedic medicine, and researchers are now sketching a clearer picture of how it’s earned its keep. Namely, the compound lowers levels of inflammatory biomarkers that travel to the brain where they do their damage. Myers adds that curcumin also “prevents the low levels of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine” associated with depression and stress, and that recent research suggests that it participates in neurogenesis—the formation of brain cells—which she says is inversely related to depression.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial published last year in European Neuropsychopharmacology1 investigated curcumin’s potential mechanisms. For eight weeks, 50 subjects with major depressive disorder (MDD) received either supplementation twice daily with 500 mg of EuroPharma’s patented high-absorption curcumin with turmeric essential oil—marketed as BCM-95—or a placebo. Analysis of pre- and post-intervention salivary, urinary and blood samples showed not only higher baseline plasma endothelin-1 and leptin levels in the curcumin group, but an association between those higher biomarker levels and the group’s greater score reductions on the Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology self-rated version (IDS-SR30), the study’s primary depression outcome measure.
Another study2, published this year in Phytotherapy Research, looked at the antidepressant effects of a combination of curcuminoids and piperine—an alkaloid in black pepper that increases curcumin’s bioavailability. The study, which used ingredient supplier Sabinsa’s (East Windsor, NJ) Curcumin C3 Complex plus BioPerine delivered in two daily doses of 500 mg for six weeks, concluded that the supplement was effective in reducing scores on the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) and thus had potential to alleviate symptoms of depression. “The authors suggested that the mechanism of action involved multiple pathways,” says Anurag Pande, PhD, vice president, scientific affairs, Sabinsa, “including the anti-inflammatory activity of curcuminoids, inhibition of monoamine oxidase, restoration of depleted levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and reduction of corticosterone-induced neurotoxicity.”
Studies like these demonstrate that curcumin “can be an effective and safe treatment for patients with major depressive disorder without serious adverse effects,” Myers says. Even so, she’d “like to see a greater emphasis on the fact that brain and mood health concerns are largely due to inflammation and aren’t just chemical imbalances. That’s one of the main reasons that curcumin performs so well in the realm of cognitive health.”
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