Nutrition and lifestyle medicine for depression: How I work with my clients

nutrition and lifestyle medicine for depression

If you are suffering from poor mental health and low mood, know that there’s a lot more you can do to get better besides medication and talking therapy. I use an approach called nutrition and lifestyle medicine for depression alongside positive psychology coaching. In this post I’m going to explain what it is and how I use it to help my clients overcome depression.

You can either read the post or listen to the podcast episode here on this site or via your podcast app on your phone.

What is nutrition and lifestyle medicine?

Nutrition and lifestyle medicine does what it says on the tin. It uses evidence-based therapeutic interventions to prevent, treat and often reserve chronic disease. And it does so by focusing on

  • food and nutrition
  • physical activity
  • restorative sleep
  • stress management
  • positive social connection and activities
  • avoidance of risky substances or behaviours
  • … and more. 

There are many chronic conditions that can often have their root causes in poor lifestyle choices. These include type two diabetes, heart disease or some types of cancer, but mental health conditions including depression are another type! And because of these complex root causes, the approach of taking a pill to somehow solve and fix everything is just not helpful. Medication absolutely has its place and can be life-saving, but it should not be seen as the only tool available. Particularly if you want to address those deeper underlying causes of your health struggles, then I really encourage you to consider an integrative approach that addresses WHY you are suffering in the first place. 

It goes without saying that lifestyle medicine is not the solution to all of our health problems. It is obviously less useful in acute emergencies or the operating theatre. But for conditions that are lifestyle related, nutrition and lifestyle medicine should absolutely be an important and vital part of the solution.

Nutrition and lifestyle medicine for depression

For depression specifically, I really do believe that this approach is going to become mainstream in mental healthcare in the future. 

As one fascinating research paper with the title “Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence” highlights:

Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially isolated. These changes in lifestyle each contribute to poor physical health and affect the incidence and treatment of depression. (1)

Depression is often seen as something that originates in the mind. Or worse, as something that is a sign of poor character strength and weakness. Perhaps you’ve been made to feel this way…?

Not only are these beliefs incredibly damaging, but they also fail to acknowledge the lifestyle component in depression. For many sufferers, lifestyle factors undoubtedly play a huge and fundamental role in the development of their depression. 

Even when people experience intense periods of stress (as is often the case with depression), we really need to pay attention to how this stress is affecting the body long-term. And therefore, we need to focus on addressing those bodily changes through lifestyle interventions. 

If someone has lost their job and livelihood, for example, we need to consider how this stress is impacting the way their body works and how this in turn affects their brain functioning and mental health. How can we then support this person through dietary and lifestyle interventions to help avoid the development of depression?

This is really where any kind of successful treatment for depression needs to be holistic and personalised. There are so many factors that influence our mental health. And again, poor mental health including depression is not just something that originated from the mind.

I am 100% pro talking therapy and I really do think it is incredibly valuable when you find the right kind of therapist for yourself. Working on yourself and the way you handle your thoughts and feelings is so powerful. Coming to terms with your past is, too. But if your diet and lifestyle are disease-promoting rather than health-promoting, good health may still not be within reach. The mind and body (and soul!) are deeply linked and affect one another.

Lots of people know that certain lifestyle changes help with depression

I know from so many people who have been struggling with depression that physical exercise, for example, is one of the main coping tools to help them feel less depressed. 

And the same applies to dietary changes. In fact, just this week I had an email from a past client who started to really focus on her diet in an effort to loose the extra weight she had gained during lockdown. To her surprise the fog and low mood had started to shift just from changing her diet alone! She couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t too surprised, but it’s still always amazing to hear. Research supports this, too, as the whole area of nutritional psychiatry is gaining more and more popularity and importantly credibility. 

If you are suffering from depression, you’ll also know that sleep can be all you want to do, and yet struggle to get enough of (at least in terms of quality) at night. If you can’t sleep well, your mood and mental health are going to suffer. 

Lots of people are also aware that their mood drops during winter and some use special light therapy lamps to ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms. 

And whilst depression makes you want to crawl into a little hole and avoid social contact, most people also know that socialising in positive ways actually helps you to feel a lot better. 

There are many more examples, but in short, nutrition and lifestyle medicine is not hocus-pocus. It is an evidence-based approach and a lot of people have firsthand experience of how their lifestyle choices either improve or worsen their mental health.

So how do I use this integrative approach with my clients?

Well, every person with depression is different. As I have said many times before, two people can experience the same type of depression symptoms and yet their root causes can be very different. Their health plans will therefore look different, too. 

Alongside being trained in nutrition and lifestyle medicine, I have also gained a coaching qualification in positive psychology which I very much weave into my work. 

So whilst there are differences and no two clients are the same, there are certain aspects of nutrition and lifestyle medicine that I cover with pretty much every client.

Key aspects that I focus on with every client

One is making sure that your diet is really supporting good brain function, and is anti-inflammatory, full of nutrients, diverse and simply nourishing. And then along with that, ensuring that your digestive system can break down your foods and absorb nutrients properly. And that your microbiome is in good shape and supporting your gut health. 

Sometimes just from focusing on diet alone, you can start to feel a lot of positive benefits in different parts of your life. For example, you might find that you start to sleep better and have more energy. Often what then happens is that my clients naturally want to start exercising. They feel more motivated and can see that taking positive action for one’s health really does make a difference to how they feel.

So nutrition, movement and sleep are key cornerstones of my work.

And depending on what else is happening in my client’s life (I am very much guided by their situation, their symptoms and goals) we might focus on things like:

  • Social interactions
  • Reducing how much stress you are facing
  • Improving the way you handle any stressors that you can’t avoid
  • Spending time outside in nature
  • Engaging in purposeful activities
  • Picking up hobbies again
  • Engaging in self-care and making time for yourself

 

Other important elements of my work with my clients

And alongside these nutrition and lifestyle changes, I always recommend evidence-based supplements or herbs to further aid healing. Which particular supplements I recommend very much depends on all of my client’s symptoms. Sometimes I focus on mood boosting nutrients, promoting energy or sleep, or supporting digestion. For others, it’s more about reducing inflammation, calming the nervous system, or aiding detoxification. It really depends on all the other symptoms that my clients experience. 

A big element of my work also deals with growing your self-worth and confidence which we do throughout our sessions together as and when it naturally comes up. Reconnecting with your values and the things that matter to you personally. Identifying your strengths and the ways through which you want to contribute in this world. Finding ways to be at greater ease with all thoughts and feelings. Again, it really depends on what is coming up for you and what you would like to focus on.

Now all of these changes don’t happen overnight (sadly) and that’s why I’ve stopped providing single consultations. Honouring how long healing journeys can take, I now work with my clients over six months together instead of the odd consultation here and there. In that time, we are focused on finding out what works best for you and what you actually enjoy doing. After all, making positive changes should just not be another thing on your to-do list leaving you to feel overwhelmed and stressed out! Your path to better health and wellbeing should be personalised, enjoyable and sustainable in the long run. 

And one of the best aspects of this integrative approach is that all kinds of symptoms can start to improve, and not just the one you came to have support with. Why? Because you are really focusing on promoting health, rather than trying to suppress particular symptoms. Become health-focused as opposed to disease-focused!

All in all, I hope it’s becoming clear that nutrition and lifestyle medicine has huge potential for people suffering from depression. It simply makes sense when you consider human evolution and how we used to live over many centuries. What and how did we eat in the past? How much and how did we move our bodies each day? How much and how did we socialise? What did we use to do during the day? What did our homes and living situations look like? Plus, just consider the many things that are part of modern-day living these days but never existed before. It’s really worth considering how far we humans have moved away from our evolutionary blueprint. And then think whether there are parts of your daily life that aren’t aligned with the way we humans are designed to live. 

Key take-away points

An invitation to you

If you are interested in becoming a client, please feel welcome to schedule a free half hour Zoom call with me via this link. It gives us a chance to talk about your health and your goals, and what you’ve tried so far to get better. Together, we will then also figure out whether my work is the right choice for you at this time. I was able to overcome depression fully using a nutrition and lifestyle approach alongside positive psychology tools. And now it is now my mission to help other achieve the same.  

References

1 Hidaka B. H. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of affective disorders140(3), 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2011.12.036

Hello, I'm Claudia

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

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