Depression and Women: The Path to Balance

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc. Pharm.

Women are affected two to three times as often as men by most forms of depression and anxiety disorders and are four times more likely to suffer from symptoms of SAD or seasonal affective disorder. The gender difference is found at all ages after puberty. Millions of women today are diagnosed with depression and are being treated with antidepressant drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, known as SSRI’s, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Many woman experience behavioral or emotional changes associated with phases of their menstrual cycles as well as during pregnancy, post pregnancy, perimenopause and menopause. This has led researchers to conclude that the higher depression prevalence in women is due mainly to the wild swings in hormonal releases along with their feedback mechanisms to the brain during the female life cycle. These hormonal swings affect the production and breakdown of the brain neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinepherine, which are associated with the quality of feelings and emotions.

Serotonin is the main depression-relieving brain chemical or neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages from nerve cell to nerve cell in the brain and between the brain and the organs of the body. Adequate brain levels of serotonin are directly associated with emotional stability, an inner sense of well-being, relaxation, and promote restful sleep. Low levels of serotonin lead to the many symptoms of depression, which include: chronic despair, feelings of regret, numbness, lack of passion and sex drive, chronic fatigue and excessive hunger.

One or more of the following could cause low levels of serotonin: a decrease in serotonin production related to estrogen fluctuations, insufficient levels of tryptophan crossing the blood brain barrier, or a depletion of serotonin storage levels. In general, the female body, partly due to lower muscle mass, produces and stores less serotonin than its male counterpart. This is one important reason why muscle-building exercise is a key component of female wellness. A regular diet and exercise routine, including a daily protein-based breakfast, has a direct effect on healthy serotonin production. Most of our serotonin is produced in the early morning, when the first rays of sunshine stimulate the pineal gland and it converts the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin. Given these facts, it is vital for females to focus on starting each day with a balanced routine. During the hours of darkness, the pineal gland is stimulated to produce melatonin (the sleep hormone) from a hopefully adequate supply of serotonin. More than ever, “early to bed, early to rise”, “eat a healthy breakfast” and “get your exercise” are powerful suggestions for those seeking a balanced life.

Tryptophan is found in certain protein-based foods, including chicken, turkey, pheasant, beef, dairy, nuts, and legumes (beans). One of the richest legume sources of tryptophan comes from the protein found in the soybean. Having a nutritious shake made from whole-food fermented soy powder or a whey protein powder will provide the right type and amount of protein needed to produce an ample supply of serotonin. Adding fruit or berries and a tablespoonful of flax seed oil to this nutritious shake will satisfy the body’s need for sugar in the form of complex carbohydrates and omega-3 fatty acids. Both of these are also needed for proper serotonin production. It is advisable to add a good quality vitamin B complex and vitamin C to ensure that the body has adequate levels for healthy nerve and neurotransmitter formation.

When the body is provided with the proper building blocks of nutrition, serotonin is produced and released by the brain. Some of this serotonin is used up and some of it is reabsorbed within the brain and then converted into other chemicals such as melatonin. Ongoing serotonin production will adequately maintain serotonin storage levels, if brain chemistry is balanced and the building blocks for serotonin are present.

By using these natural means of producing adequate levels of serotonin each day, a woman can achieve the balanced brain chemistry required for joyful health and wellness.

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc.Pharm, earned her degree in Pharmacy from Dalhousie University in 1972. After extensive studies in herbal and nutritional medicine, RoseMarie integrated these disciplinary practices with her pharmacy education to become Canada’s first Holistic Pharmacist.