In Part One of this series, I delved into the fact that depression and anxiety are not problems of JUST the brain or JUST the body. There is a definite mind-body connection, and the best treatments (and prevention) for depression and anxiety treat both. I also started going into the root causes – everything from childhood trauma to candida – and the solutions that might be able to help you. If you haven’t read Part One yet, click here to go back and check it out!
Lots of people think “holistic” = “natural” or “alternative.”
But that’s not actually what holistic means!
A “holistic” approach looks at a person as a whole. Rather than seeing each part of the person – say their digestive system, or hormones, or mental health – as separate entities, holistic medicine views them all as interconnected.
(Sometimes, that does mean we use natural and alternative approaches to healing.)
But it always means that we’re looking at YOU as a whole person and not just a set of symptoms or a diagnosis.
I think that’s so important to make clear as I dive into the 2nd part of my series on treating depression and anxiety holistically.
Today, I’m going to explore how environmental exposure to toxins and hormone imbalances can play a role in depression and anxiety. It might seem crazy to think your detox pathways or PCOS could be related to depression or anxiety – but they can! Today I’ll explain exactly how and what you can do about it.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of my series, go HERE and read it first! Then come back and dig into Part 2!
What Toxins Are (And Aren’t)
Toxins is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. But what does it really mean?
A toxin is any chemical or compound that has noxious or harmful effects on living organisms.
Toxins can come from outside us (our environment) but they can also be generated internally. For example, our hormones can become toxins if they stick around too long. They must all be “detoxified” – broken down and cleared from the body in order to make room for new fresh hormones to be produced. We also produce toxins in the gut.
But, the major source of toxins is the outside environment.
We have THOUSANDS of toxin exposures every single day. Here are just some of the most common ones:
- Smog in the air we breathe
- Touching receipts coated with chemicals
- Pesticide residue on food
- Prescription medicine contamination in drinking water
- Hair & beauty products made with dangerous chemicals
The EPA estimates that in 2014, 4 billion pounds of toxic chemical waste was released into the air, water or placed in some type of land disposal in the U.S.
(And they consider this an IMPROVEMENT over the 4.7 billion pounds released in 2002!)
It’s likely that at least 25% of the United States population is dealing with heavy metal poisoning, too.
And while our body is equipped to deal with toxins (that’s what our liver is for!) the amount of toxic exposure humans have today is overwhelming. That’s why so many people’s detox systems are overburdened. We can’t detox at a rate fast enough to keep up with all the toxins coming in!
This leads to fatigue, allergies, skin reactions, accelerated aging, autoimmunity, brain fog, yeast and bacterial overgrowths, and… increased depression and anxiety.
How Toxins Mess With Our Brains
The brain is a powerful and vulnerable organ.
The brain is made of nearly 60% fat. And that’s a problem – because many chemicals and toxins are fat soluble (including the nefarious heavy metals!).
The brain is so susceptible to toxin damage that there’s a specific name for toxins that negatively impact the brain neurons’ function: neurotoxins.
Neurotoxin exposure is a direct cause of depression and anxiety because they cause neurotransmitter dysfunction and inflame the brain.
This creates problems with brain signaling.
Neurons work by secreting specific brain chemicals (primarily serotonin and dopamine) out of the end of one neuron (called vesicle) into the space between the neurons (called the synapse).
Ideally, these chemicals are taken up by the receptor sites on the next neuron meant to receive the message. When that happens, a response signal is stimulated, and it continues on down the line to next neuron. If too much of any one brain chemical is released, it should be reabsorbed into the storage vesicles. This is called reuptake.
It’s sort of like your neurons are all playing a game of telephone.
But when toxins get in the way, the game gets messed up. The next neuron can’t hear the message clearly and passes it on wrong – or maybe not at all.
The toxins (and the inflammation caused by them) block the receptor sites on the neurons from taking up the chemicals – aka “hearing the message.” Your neurons don’t get the signal.
And that means you don’t feel the effects of serotonin or dopamine, because they aren’t able to do their job.
Then, the serotonin and dopamine that should have been taken up start building up in the synapse.
Your body goes into action: it knows it can’t let too much of these chemicals accumulate. It starts creating enzymes to break down the serotonin and dopamine that are stuck in synapse.
The end result? Your reserves of serotonin and dopamine are lowered.
Depression and anxiety are both a result of the receptor sites in your brain being “shut down” and the lowered serotonin and dopamine this ultimately causes.
Signs Your Detox System is Overburdened and Needs Help
If you’re dealing with symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s a sign your detox systems could be overburdened – along with these other signs:
- Memory, concentration, and focus problems
- ADD or ADHD
- Skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis, hives, rashes)
- Overeating & food cravings
- Autoimmune conditions
- Feeling chronically flu-like
- Yeast overgrowth (Candida)
- Bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Food intolerances
But – all of these symptoms can be related to OTHER problems as well – which is why it’s so important to get accurate lab testing, and not just guess at a diagnosis based on symptoms.
Here’s what I commonly see with my patients:
A patient with depression or anxiety will also have digestive tract infections or dysbiosis, yeast overgrowth, or food intolerances.
These promote inflammation in the gut, and the inflammatory cytokines circulate in the blood and travel into the brain across the blood brain barrier, impacting brain function.
(What do I do to help? Glad you asked! After testing, I use specific amino acids like 5-HTP, tyrosine, and GABA, plus nutrient cofactors to deal with shut-down receptor sites and neurotransmitter deficiency. At the same time, I’m addressing underlying root causes of the gut infections.)
How To Address Depression & Anxiety Related To Toxin Exposure
The solution to depression and anxiety caused by toxin exposure is to address the cause of the inflammation: those toxins!
That means limiting exposure as much as you can: get a water filter, air purifier, buy organic, switch to natural beauty products, etc.
From there, I start by enhancing detoxification pathways with nutrient protocols, hydration, herbs, saunas, skin brushing, and lymphatic system support so the toxins can be broken down and excreted from the body.
Next, I use lab testing to identify where in the detox pathway things are getting gummed up. Is your Phase 1 or Phase 2 liver detox malfunctioning? Proper testing can tell us!
I also use Organic Acids Testing and Heavy Metals testing to see exactly what toxins you’re dealing with.
I have to give a warning here: you MUST be careful when doing detox work. It can be dangerous to stimulate detox and have the body suddenly dump toxins from storage into circulation.
It’s never good to detox someone who still has a leaky gut or gut issues – and it can make your gut issues get worse.
You shouldn’t feel sick when detoxing – this usually indicates pulling toxins out of storage faster than your body can clear them.
An experienced practitioner can help you detox safely.
Depression, Anxiety & Hormones
I’ve saved the best (worst?) for last: hormones!
On some level, almost all depression & anxiety is related to hormone imbalances.
Neuroscientists at the National Institute of Mental Health have even stated that most depression in the United States is caused or contributed to by HPA-axis dysregulation (also called adrenal fatigue) and hormone imbalances.
The most important players for depression and anxiety are cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. Together they can trigger a biochemically-induced depression.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s has to be just right. Too high or too low, and you can have lots of problems. But it’s tricky because your cortisol levels shouldn’t be steady throughout the day: they should follow a predictable arc of rising quickly in the morning when you’re exposed to light and slowly lowering throughout the day.
(That’s why cortisol problems can be easily overlooked! You can’t just look at one reading – you need to look at both levels throughout the day, and the rate at which they rise and fall to get the complete picture of cortisol health.)
Low cortisol levels are related to depression – and in particular, are linked to postpartum depression. Low CAR response (the rise of cortisol first thing in the morning) can also be related to depression.
But – high cortisol (especially high at nighttime) is also related to depression – both high and low levels can cause similar symptoms. Again – that’s why you must have accurate testing!
What messes up cortisol levels?
The big triggers for cortisol imbalances are are sustained and chronic stress! It can be mental OR physical stress – anything from a stressful job, being a super-busy new mom, or over-exercising can wreak havoc on cortisol levels.
Sex Hormones Imbalances
Progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone are the primary sex hormones – but they can also have a huge impact on mental health and depression and anxiety in particular.
Here are just a few of the many ways sex hormones can directly impact mental health:
Progesterone helps balance blood sugar levels. Remember – the brain is dependent on adequate glucose to function. Low progesterone levels can lower the supply of glucose available to the brain. This decrease in “brain fuel” contributes to the most common psychological and emotional symptoms of PMS like:
- Memory lapses and loss
- Inability to concentrate
- Decreased stress tolerance
Estrogen and progesterone also have a strong effect on the neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation:
- Progesterone binds GABA receptors (which decreases anxiety and depression)
- Progesterone raises serotonin hormone levels in brain
- Estrogen increases dopamine activity in the brain
That means, any change in hormone levels (even subtle ones!) can contribute to psychological symptoms.
Unfortunately, the treatment given to many women who do experience mood symptoms with their monthly cycle is the hormonal birth control pill.
This drives me crazy as it only compounds the problem!
Birth control pills deplete the body of essential vitamins and minerals like folate, b vitamins, and magnesium – all of which are involved in the synthesis of chemicals for brain health (among other things!).
This can result in intensified depression, anxiety and PMS! A number of studies have linked depression with the use of oral contraception.
Studies have also indicated that using the Pill for extended periods of time can alter the gut microbiome, especially predisposing users to candida overgrowth and other bacterial and fungal issues.
The nutrient deficiencies that are induced by the Pill are largely due to the influence on the gut microbes, where many of these nutrients are synthesized. (So again, many of these issues point back to the gut – make sure you read Part 1 of this series!)
But that’s not all…
Every cell in your body has receptors for thyroid hormone – including the brain!
(That should give you a clue to how essential a healthy thyroid is for overall well-being!)
Thyroid hormone makes progesterone receptors more sensitive. This means that low thyroid hormone can mimic the symptoms of low progesterone. (Remember the fun PMS stuff we talked about in the previous section??)
Low thyroid hormone can also directly impact neurotransmitter levels. It can cause low dopamine levels – which translates to lack of motivation, drive, and willpower.
Taking Control Of Anxiety & Depression
No matter what root cause (or causes) of depression and anxiety you’re dealing with, there are certain steps you take with your diet and lifestyle to help alleviate symptoms.
For some of my clients, just making lifestyle and diet changes is enough to completely alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety! Here are some things to try in all the major categories:
- Eat plenty of healthy fats (like avocado, coconut, and olive oil)
- Avoid processed foods and excessive sugar
- Some people can benefit from removing dairy & gluten
- Choose organic foods (especially the Dirty Dozen)
- Aim for 10 servings of fruits & veggies per day
- Focus on eating for balanced blood sugar (avoiding processed carbs!)
- Exercise has been shown to be as effective in most cases as antidepressant drugs for alleviating depression
- Find what works for you and what you ENJOY doing
- If you haven’t been exercising regularly, just start with 20-30 minute walks daily
- Turn off screens 1 hour before bedtime
- Schedule enough time for enough hours (8 hours or more)
- Sleep in a dark room, with the temperature slightly cooler
- Active stress management is something I recommend for ALL my clients (no matter what health concern they have)
- Meditation, yoga, tai chi or qi gong, making art, dance, journaling are some of my favorite options for managing stress
- Making a conscious decision to “switch” from fight-or-flight mode to rest-and-digest mode
- Consider working with a counselor or therapist – especially if unresolved emotional issues are a factor for you
Next Steps For Treating Anxiety & Depression
After reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed.
It seems like you could have hormone issues, toxin exposure, gut issues, and maybe yeast overgrowth, too! (Plus there’s definitely some past trauma lurking that needs to be dealt with….)
As one of my mentors in Chinese medical school used to say: “You are entitled to more than one problem at the same time!”
The truth is that while some people have one primary cause, the majority of depression or anxiety cases is due to a “perfect storm” of factors.
Everything we’ve discussed in this series can be interrelated:
- Having dysregulated cortisol levels can not only contribute to changes in the brain and brain chemistry, but can alter the way the immune system operates, leaving us more prone to inflammation and more vulnerable to infections in the gut
- Having a leaky gut from food intolerances or infections will affect the brain directly, but will also be a major contributor to detox system overwhelm
- Having low thyroid function can cause symptoms of low progesterone
The complex way all these systems interacts means one thing: you don’t want to go this alone!
I really believe everyone should have a trusted practitioner by their side, guiding them through the process of healing.
The right practitioner (trained in a holistic approach like Functional Medicine) can untangle the strings of depression and anxiety and get back to feeling like yourself!
If this resonates with you, I’d be honored to have you book a 20-minute consult with my team. These consults are totally free and a chance for us to share how we are trained to help you!
→ Learn more and book a free consult with my team here.