Depression is a common medical illness, with rates increasing during the pandemic.
It can present as feelings of sadness and hopelessness but also irritability, frustration, and resentfulness, sometimes leading to violence. Depression and chronic disease often co-exist, such as with cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Those diagnosed with depression, or who have symptoms of depression, have a 64% greater risk of developing heart disease. Studies suggest chronic depression and other mental illnesses may also be risk factors for severe COVID-19 infection.
Depression can be triggered by stressful life events, certain medications, harmful habits, medical conditions, or may be due to genetics. These things cause changes in the brain that affects its development, growth, and function – which ultimately affects mood, sleep, appetite, decision-making, and reasoning ability. It can also suppress your immune system, making you more vulnerable to other illnesses.
While medications and psychotherapy are commonly prescribed methods of treatment, they are not the only solution. Research shows that healthy lifestyle choices may be just as effective as medications or can boost effectiveness of these treatments.
Exercise can both prevent and treat depression. Exercise immediately helps to increase the body’s endorphins or “feel good hormones” that improve mood, lower blood pressure, and promote quality sleep. Over time, keeping to a regular exercise routine enhances brain function. Choose a time to exercise that best fits into your daily routine. This could be an early morning walk around your neighborhood, a lunch hour exercise session, or working out at home.
Spending time outdoors improves mental health in different ways. Vitamin D, which your body makes from sunlight exposure, is an essential nutrient for brain growth and development. Sunlight also increases serotonin, a chemical that helps promote calm and decreases anxiety and depression. Fresh air and vitamin D both help to reduce inflammation throughout your body, preventing premature aging of the brain. Make it a point to spend time at least 15 minutes outdoors daily.
A diet rich in nutrients can also decrease the risk of depression. Omega-3 fatty acids, from fish and limu (seaweed), decrease inflammation and promote brain development and growth. Green leafy vegetables, such as lūʻau, Chinese cabbages, spinach, and kalamungay, contain nutrients that help increase serotonin while decreasing stress-causing hormones. Tea, such as māmaki or green tea, improves physical and mental resiliency – the the way our body physically and mentally responds to stress – in addition to regulating the chemicals that keep our moods and emotions in check.
Practicing habits that support mental wellbeing is necessary to stay healthy and strong. It can keep you motivated to take care of yourself and others. It promotes positive and stable emotions and mood, which will radiate to a better outlook on yourself, your family, friends, coworkers, and those you encounter in your community. In this time of uncertainty, we need all the positivity we can get.
October is Mental Health Awareness and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Promote and practice behaviors that support mental wellbeing today and throughout the year.