• Savannah Regensburger

The Mental Health Roller Coaster: Along for the Ride

Wow - so much life has happened the last six months. To quickly summarize: I drove over 1,000 miles to start a new life in San Diego where I started a new job in clinical research that allows me to work with patients everyday who are battling cancer. In August when I first started this adventure, I had never been more excited. For as long as I could remember I have wanted to move to southern California. However, this life changing move took a quick turn for me.

 

GROWING PAINS AND THE BLACK CLOUD

With almost 20% of the US adult population suffering from different forms of mental illness, I feel the need to share my experience and shed light on the science behind what is happening in the brain during these difficult times.


I’ve struggled personally with depression and anxiety for many years. The symptoms of these mood disorders were heightened in the transition from Colorado to San Diego. For the first time in my life, I was completely alone. I lived in a brand new place, I missed my family, and I had very few people to interact with. With that came the question: did I make the right decision for myself? To truly reflect where my mindset was at for the first few months of my time in San Diego, here's a bit from my personal journal:


“Depression is a switch that’s turned on without warning. One day you’re excited, thriving, happy... and out of nowhere, you’re in this black cloud and cannot escape the fog. Every day you wake up and wonder if today will be the day that you reach the end of the tunnel. Everyone encourages growth but never explains how painful growth is.”

SOCIETY AND THE MENTAL ILLNESS STIGMA

I'm humbled to say that I have escaped that black cloud. After battling the struggles of mental illness myself, and almost losing someone very close to me who I love with all of my heart from mental illness, a fire has ignited in me to share about the brain and overall well-being. Ultimately, society portrays a highlight reel of what life is. We compare ourselves constantly to others, and we struggle to talk about mental health as an important piece of optimal health. Most definitions of health involve nutrition and exercise, but neglect the importance of emotional well-being. We fail to piece all of the puzzle together and fail to connect and share our individual stories.


You're not alone. Confidential help is available for free:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.


We have to be the change that the world needs and that starts on an individual level. I wanted to share this in hopes that it resonates with anyone who has felt this way before. In times of struggle, it is important to know that we are not alone, and we are certainly not the first person to ever experience these feelings. In times of transition, growth, and change, these feelings can often become overwhelming - however, there are many ways to navigate this roller coaster.


THE IMBALANCE

In the midst of the whirlwind that mental health is, it is helpful to understand what is going on in your brain and body when you are feeling this way. So what exactly happens when we feel depressed or anxious? In short, depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by a feeling of sadness that is accompanied by a loss of interest in activities. Anxiety on the other-hand is a persistent worry and fear about situations that occur everyday. In those who chronically suffer from depression and anxiety, the conditions can have a profound effect that alters functioning on a daily level. So why do some people experience these imbalances more than others?

Sure, there are neurotransmitter deficits involved in these disorders, but there are many pieces of the puzzle that lead to the diagnosis of these conditions. Here's the idea: genetics, chemistry, environment, and diet combined can cause an imbalance in a person's neurobiology. If family relatives have experienced mental illness, there is a higher likelihood that you will also experience it. The environment that one is living in can have a extensive impact on how the brain perceives a situation and can cause a major shift in brain chemistry.


For some, medication can make an astonishing impact. The difficulty with pharmacological treatments is that it can often take months of many trials and the use of many different types of medication that works best. There is also a difficulty for some to have access to the resources needed to have a correct diagnosis. This leads us to the discussion of the "happy" neurotransmitter and how we can take control of it.


THE CONNECTION BETWEEN DIET AND MENTAL HEALTH

Serotonin plays a large role in mood it is also naturally made in the body. As I discussed in my previous blog, 95% of the body's serotonin receptors are carried in the gut and and are influenced by what we eat. With the majority of serotonin receptors positioned in the gut, we can consider how our moods are affected by the food we eat. There is a direct link between our stomachs to our brain - so if our gut is unsatisfied and poisoned by foods, our brain will be as well.

HOW TO EMBRACE THE RIDE

Throughout personal experience, my classes, and a lot of research, I have found some ways to navigate through depression and to promote overall health and well-being daily:


1) Focus on diet and gut health. As explained above, the gut is directly linked to the brain. This means not only are you feeding your body, but you are feeding your brain. Consider adding a probiotic to your daily schedule, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate unnecessary added sugars and saturated fats (read more on the mind-gut connection here).

2) Drink lots of water. Shockingly, 75% of the population is chronically dehydrated. The older we get, the less we feel thirsty. But with the human brain being 80% water, it is important to be consistently hydrated. Increasing hydration will allow the brain to function better, increase efficiency, and improve memory. (I typically try to drink about one half of my body weight in ounces per day. I also keep a large water bottle on my desk to remind me to drink water throughout my day).

3) Make sure you are eating. Shockingly, almost 40 million people are living malnourished. Especially when feeling down, it can be easy to forget to eat or eat very little. Focus on integrating healthy proteins, fats, and carbs into your diet to ensure you are reaching daily nutrients. (I often use MyFitnessPal to track my macronutrients daily).

4) Take daily supplements. Often with malnourishment comes a deficiency in necessary vitamins and minerals. Though blood testing will help pinpoint deficiencies, it is generally necessary to take a multivitamin (with vitamin D), and as I mentioned above a probiotic.

5) Get sufficient sleep.

Sleep allows the brain to rest and cool down while allowing memories and knowledge to consolidate nightly. If you struggle with sleep due to anxiety or depression, try to supplement melatonin or dandelion root to help induce sleep. (Learn more about healthy sleep patterns here).

6) Get your body moving. This point is so important and has been detrimental to my battle with depression. Allow your body to move! Exercise, walk your dog, go for a run, even clean the house. Refrain from sitting stagnant all day. (Read more about the science behind the brain on exercise here).

7) Journal. Allow your thoughts and feelings to flow in a personal journal. Set goals, write out your thoughts, and try not to judge yourself or have expectations.

8) Meditate. Brain patterns physically change with meditation. Allowing yourself to take a few minutes each day to let your mind relax will help you get back into the rhythm of your schedule and provide a time of relief. (Learn how to mediate here).

9) Interact, be social and TALK ABOUT IT. Humans are social beings. Not only is brain development largely reliant on social interaction, but it keeps the brain healthy and slows down the rate of memory decline. Also, consider your support system. Ask yourself who those people are and let yourself know that it is okay to reach out to those close to you on a regular basis (they want to hear from you)!

10) Cut back on drinking. Though social interaction can be accompanied by alcohol, consider cutting back on consistent drinking. The brain is severely affected and impaired by the intake of alcohol as it blocks electrochemical signals necessary to perform tasks, and shows a connection to memory decay.


I CHALLENGE YOU

Whether or not you struggle with mental health, I encourage you to work towards optimal health and promote internal happiness daily. Often times, it is easy to get caught in the roller coaster that life is and it can be challenging to stop and consider how you are doing. Consider that health is more than just diet or exercise. Rather, health and wellness encompasses aspects of nutrition, exercise, and social interaction. Where ever you are at in your life, I encourage you to be mindful and consider your well-being often. YOU are worth it.

 

Thank you for coming along for the ride!


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