The Age of Anxiety was a term coined in the 1940s to describe the fraught and changed world after the war, but now with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, energy bills soaring and so much economic uncertainty, it feels like an apt description of our current turbulent times.
The trouble is, although mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are on the rise (and have been for years), the treatments haven’t really changed.
If your symptoms are serious you will probably be offered medication and perhaps psychological therapies. But many people don’t want to take pills, and therapy isn’t for everyone.
But there is good news, as recently highlighted in Nature, a leading science journal, with promising research exploring possible causes — and treatments. These include:
DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: The trouble is, although mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are on the rise (and have been for years), the treatments haven’t really changed
PRESS-UPS AND FASTING
When I was at medical school we were told that adults don’t grow new brain cells, so we should look after the ones we have (I thought at the time that this was a subtle dig at the culture of medical students drinking and destroying their brain cells).
But during the 1990s, when researchers started doing post-mortem human brain studies they found signs of new cell growth in brain areas such as the hippocampus, which helps regulate mood and memory. So we do go on creating new brain cells, even into old age, in a process known as neurogenesis.
But more recently, brain scans have shown that chronic stress alters this delicate balance, accelerating the death of existing brains cells, while slowing the growth of new ones. This not only spells trouble for things such as memory, it’s thought it could also be a trigger for depression and anxiety (though exactly how is unclear).
The best form of resistance exercise for boosting BDNF seems to be press-ups and squats, because they lead to big surges in blood to the brain, which in turn encourages more BDNF. Picture: file image
This could also help explain how some antidepressants work, as we know they can trigger cell growth in the hippocampus and other brain areas. One of the ways they do this is by stimulating the release of a chemical called BDNF, which acts like fertiliser for the brain.
There are drug-free methods to help boost BDNF and therefore the growth of new brain cells, including resistance exercise and intermittent fasting. The best form of resistance exercise for boosting BDNF seems to be press-ups and squats, because they lead to big surges in blood to the brain, which in turn encourages more BDNF. That is one reason I do at least 30 squats and press-ups most mornings.
As for intermittent fasting, both time-restricted eating (where you only eat within a reduced time window, such as from 10am to 8pm) and the 5:2 method (where you dramatically reduce calorie intake for two days a week) have been shown to boost BDNF.
A ZAP TO THE BRAIN
Another way to boost your mood could be to stimulate your brain with small electric shocks. The more radical version of the electric shock approach is called deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves implanting electrodes deep inside the brain in areas that regulate your mood.
DBS was developed to treat the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, and when it works it is impressive. While it doesn’t have quite as impressive an impact on depression, an analysis of 17 studies, published last year in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, concluded that it worked in more than half of cases of depression resistant to other treatments.
A far less invasive approach is to deliver weak electrical currents to specific parts of the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp — this is said to suppress a type of brainwave that’s more common in people with depression.
In a 2019 study by the University of North Carolina, 32 patients with severe depression were treated in this way and when they were re-tested after a couple of weeks, 70 per cent reported markedly improved symptoms.
If you don’t fancy electric shocks, what about light therapy? Your body runs on an internal clock that tries to keep your body in sync with the world around you.
At the start of the day it is exposure to bright morning light that resets your internal clock and gets you ready for the day.
But with the arrival of artificial light, these days we spend too much time indoors and stay up late, which is bad for our body clocks and our brains — and our mood, as it affects the production of hormones that help regulate it.
At the start of the day it is exposure to bright morning light that resets your internal clock and gets you ready for the day. Picture: morning commuters in London walk to work across London Bridge
An immediate way to boost your mood is to go for a brisk 20-minute walk first thing in the morning, which will help reset your body clock. Or you could try 30 minutes in front of a SAD lamp, a light box that produces 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity), similar to a bright summer’s day and around 50 times more intense than you would get indoors.
In a small study published in July, researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland allocated 22 women with severe post-natal depression to either 30 minutes a day of bright-light therapy (10,000 lux) or dim red light (the control group) for six weeks: 73 per cent of the women given bright-light therapy were no longer depressed at the end of the study, compared to 27 per cent in the control group.
AVOID JUNK FOOD
At least half the average Briton’s calories now come from ultraprocessed junk food (the sort of food that comes in bright packages with a long list of strange-sounding ingredients) — and there is a good chance that it’s having a bad effect on our brains.
In a recent study researchers at Florida Atlantic University surveyed more than 10,000 people about eating habits and mental health and found that the more junk food people ate, the more likely they were to report ‘mentally unhealthy’ or ‘anxious’ days.
Why is highly processed food so bad for the brain? As well as being full of salt, sugar and fat, it tends to be low in fibre and essential vitamins, which leads to chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Picture: file image
This follows a seminal study, published in 2017, by Australian researchers where people who were moderately or severely depressed went on a healthier Mediterranean-style diet — after a couple of months, around a third were able to come off medication.
Why is highly processed food so bad for the brain? As well as being full of salt, sugar and fat, it tends to be low in fibre and essential vitamins, which leads to chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. This in turn seems to lead to the rewiring of neural circuits, triggering depression or anxiety.
One vitamin that seems to be important for mood is vitamin B6, which is found in tuna, salmon, fortified cereals and one of my favourite spreads: Marmite.
A recent study by the University of Reading found that B6 in large doses helped reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in young people. To get a decent dose of vitamin B6, marinate salmon fillets in a mix of Marmite, soy sauce, honey and chilli. Sounds terrible, but it works!
One vitamin that seems to be important for mood is vitamin B6, which is found in tuna, salmon, fortified cereals and one of my favourite spreads: Marmite