Social Media and Mental Health

There has been increasing interest recently in the effects of social media and other technology use on our health, and in particular, mental health. While these technologies can be tremendously helpful in keeping us connected with loved ones and friends, particularly during the pandemic, there is a body of evidence suggesting that use of these platforms can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. Here’s one example of a study that found an association between higher Facebook use and lower feelings of wellbeing. This may be related to comparing ourselves to others or feeling like we have wasted time by scrolling.

Why are we driven to use social media despite its possible down sides? Theories have been presented that social media may have addictive potential. Social media can activate brain release of dopamine. This feel-good neurotransmitter is linked to activities that give us pleasure including food, sex and socializing. Getting “likes” on social media gives us this little burst of dopamine but this can also lead to addiction-like behaviour. And when we don’t receive this positive feedback, it can have negative impacts on mood and self-esteem. “Fear of missing out” can also lead to compulsive use. The is also evidence that we over-estimate how we will feel as a result of using social media – we predict that it will make us feel better but may in fact feel worse.

Social media can also have indirect impacts on our physical and mental health by using time that could be spent for sleep, exercise or lower-tech human interaction. A recent review of research studies found connections between higher social media use with lower offline community interaction, lower academic performance and relationship problems.

So, what can you do?

  1. Get informed about the risk of social media use and understand the ways that these powerful corporations are working to keep you hooked. If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”.
  2. Track your use. Most phones have an option to view your usage of different social media apps. Increasing awareness of the time spent and following trends over time can help us change behaviour.
  3. Make it less convenient to use these apps and websites. For example, check your notification settings. You can disable notifications so that these apps don’t distract you from your day. Consider having the sites “forget” your passwords so that you need to type it in each time. Even small changes that increase the effort required to access these sites can be a deterrent.
  4. Take technology breaks. Depending on how connected you are now, you might need to start slowly. Maybe take an hour off once per week (if you pair this with being active outdoors, you get an additive benefit). You could work up to taking a day off or even a little technology holiday occasionally. There is evidence that taking a break from social media can improve life satisfaction and well-being!
  5. Notice how you are using technology. I’ve spoken with many patients who reach for their phone or click to a website when they are feeling down, anxious or overwhelmed. Given what we know about the effects of these technologies on mood, this might not be the best strategy. Consider other self-regulating strategies that you could use in these moments that help you to cope with strong emotions instead of distracting from them. These might include breathing exercise or moving your body.
  6. Reach out if need support on managing your relationship with technology and social media. Boundary setting and accountability can be helpful in breaking tough patterns of behaviour.

Do your part to stop the spread of COVID-19

Have you downloaded the COVID-19 app on your phone? By installing it, the app anonymously tracks phones you've been close to in the past 14 days. If one of those phones is owner by someone who tests positive for COVID, you will be notified. This allows you to get tested (even if you are not showing symptoms) and avoid passing it on to your loved ones and contacts. The Canadian App has been applauded for rigorously protecting your privacy. You can read more here. To download it, search for "COVID Alert" in the app store on your phone.

Nutritional Psychiatry

If you have a heart attack, your cardiologist is very likely to speak to you (at least briefly) about what you eat. This is a good thing! The food you eat has a significant impact on your future heart disease risk. If you have an episode of depression, its fairly unlikely that your psychiatrist will talk to you about food. But there is a significant movement aiming to change this!

The food we eat impacts our body. And this includes our brain. Brains are very active metabolically, using a large amount of energy and nutritional resources compared to other organs. The brain relies on the food we eat for the building blocks of neurotransmitters (mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin) and healthy, balanced blood sugar levels for a steady fuel supply.

Inflammation is emerging as a significant factor in the development and progression of mental illness and a key way that diet impacts mental wellness. Individuals with osteoarthritis may have increased levels of inflammation in their knee. It seems that inflammation in the brain can cause anxiety and depression symptoms. A significant cause of inflammation that we can control is food choices. Certain types of fat increase inflammation while others decrease it. Fruits and vegetables have a wide range of anti-inflammatory components.

And there are the micronutrients – vitamins and minerals that we need relatively small amounts of. The North American diet is very rich in calories, people are getting more than enough energy from their food, but because of its processed nature, it is deficient in a broad range of nutrients needed to maintain mental health. Vitamins and minerals play key roles in the production of a range of neurotransmitters (those mood-regulating chemicals) and when deficient, this production is disrupted.

There’s also a new body of research about how the bacteria in our digestive system contribute to mental wellbeing. They actually make a large percentage of the serotonin (happy brain chemical) in our body. And the types of bacteria in our digestive system are influenced (for good or bad) by the types of food that we eat.

These are different mechanism of how food could impact mental health. But as a researcher, I want to understand the evidence. And it turns out, there is lots! There are studies that show that people eating a poorer quality diet (more refined food, more sweets, less veggies and fiber), have higher rates of anxiety and depression. There is also REALLY exciting evidence that diet can be used as a TREATMENT for depression. A randomized clinic trial (consider a top-notch form of research), gave people with moderate to severe depression either diet coaching or no treatment. After 3 months, the people changing their diet had cut their depression symptoms almost in half! And one quarter of them no longer met the criteria for having depression at all!

There are many risk factors for depression and anxiety, including genetics and life challenges, that we can not control. But diet seems to be an important factor which we CAN control. If you are looking to use diet as a way to support mental wellbeing, I would love to collaborate with you!

Exercise and Mental Health

We’ve all heard about the many benefits of exercise – living longer, decreasing risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. But how does exercise impact mental health?

Good news – it can help! In several different way too. And while it wan work quickly to improve symptoms, it can also change the conditions in the body that contribute to depression and anxiety, leaving you overall healthier, more balanced, AND feeling better emotionally.

Many people recognize the immediate benefits of exercise on mood.  Exercise causes the release of endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s feel good hormones.

Exercise can also have immediate benefits through an increase in mindfulness – the act of paying attention to the present moment.  Many forms of exercise require you to focus on what your body is doing and since our brain isn’t great at focusing on two things at once, this requires us to let go of ruminating thoughts about the past and anxious thoughts about the future and be present in the moment.

Exercise that involves others also has benefit, as social interaction can improve emotional wellbeing.  Also, exercising outdoors incorporates the mental health benefits of time in nature (Read more).

Beyond these immediate benefits, there seem to be longer-lasting effects. Regular exercise increases the size of certain brain regions which may be relevant to depression. Studies have demonstrated an anti-inflammatory effect of exercise. This is important because there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that mental illness, and a wide range of other illnesses are related to increased levels of inflammation. When inflammation levels are high, they amino acid tryptophan is converted into kynureinine instread of serotonin (one of our brain molecules that support mood.  The inflammation also causes increased breakdown of serotonin. (Read more about it in a previous post!)

And the clinical studies where patients are prescribed exercise show benefit.  High quality studies have demonstrated a reduction in depression symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder either alone or in combination with anti-depressant medications. There is also a documented improvement in anxiety and psychosis symptoms

Now the hard part – we know that exercise is important but how do we make it happen? I get it, it’s tough. Our lives are busy and low motivation can be a symptom of mental illness, making it extra tough to get started or stick with it. Personally, I'm not someone who LOVES to exercise so I am a HUGE fan of the 7-minute workout.  It is really quick (who doesn’t have 7 minutes?) and doesn’t require equipment or cost any money. Click here to check it out.  Other forms of exercise incorporate other mental health benefits such as mindfulness (yoga, tai chi), social interaction (a weekly walk or hike with a friend, a fitness class) and nature (kayaking or a walk or run in a conservation).

If you need help adding exercise to your routine, let me know! I’d be happy to help.

Recipe: BBQ Grilled Vegetables with Herbs

At my house we’ve been doing a fair bit of outdoor cooking. Most people think of putting meat on the grill but why not add your veggies too? This mix has been a huge hit – it makes eating your veggies a treat! My garden has had a huge crop of oregano, basil, chives and parsley so I used those herbs but you can use whatever you enjoy or have on hand.


3 zucchinis, sliced lengthwise
12 mushrooms
3 red peppers
3 roma tomatoes, sliced lengthwise
1 bunch of asparagus
1 large onion quartered
½ cup olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp diced garlic
½ cup of fresh herbs of your choice

Directions: wash and slice veggies and toss with ¼ cup olive oil and salt/pepper. Fire up your BBQ. Grill veggies until tender, about 5-10 minutes. In a bowl, mix remaining ¼ cup olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and herbs. Drizzle over vegetables, tossing lightly.

Fabulous New Food Guide

Did you hear? Canada got a new food guide and it’s awesome! You probably didn’t know this, although it shouldn’t be surprising – one of the lead scientists who developed it trained as a naturopathic doctor.

There’s a big emphasis on increasing vegetables and fruit which provide fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. And the other parts of the plate are covered by protein and a whole grain carbohydrate.  There is a shift towards including plant-based protein like legumes and nuts, which has health benefits as well as a decreased environmental impact. And the ¼ plate complex-carbohydrate portion promotes blood sugar balance which is important for health hormones, decreased diabetes and heart disease risk as well as promoting brain health.

Gone are the meat and dairy food groups.  Although they certainly can be part of a healthy diet, they are not required.  Their original inclusion as food groups is well known to be related to industry sponsorship and influence. This time around, Health Canada clearly stated “we will not be meeting with representatives from the food and beverage industry.” This is a big win for Canadians! The food guide is based on sound scientific research and not the influence of massive corporations aiming to protect their profit at the expense of the health of the population. 

The food guide also talks about HOW we cook and eat too. This includes being mindful of eating habits, cooking more often, enjoying food and eating with others – all factors known to contribute to healthier food choices and eating habits.

Click HERE to view the guide. And if you need help customizing your diet to your health concerns and goals, I’d be happy to help!  


Meal Planning

Did you make some changes with the new year? In my house we made a few.  The one that I’m most excited about is meal planning.  It’s something I’ve thought about for a while but never put into action.  The motivation comes mainly from being a busy mom of two these days; I’m looking to simplify and make my week as efficient as possible.  Have you read about decision fatigue? This is the idea that we can only make a certain number of great decisions in a day, by eliminating some (like what to eat) we can save energy and capacity for more important decisions including healthier choices (Read more). But meal planning has other benefits too! Helps manage grocery store spending by avoiding impulse purchases, helps with commitment to healthy food choices and reduces waste (did you know that rotting food is a big contributor of greenhouse gasses?)

Ever wonder what a naturopathic doctor eats? Keep reading for a peak.

There are a few ways to meal plan.  You can have a specific meal for each day of the week (ex. Tuesday chicken tacos with broccoli), use a specific ingredient (Tuesday chicken for dinner) or create a certain type of food (Taco Tuesdays -chicken, shrimp or bean). My family is using the second option.  On Monday’s we have tofu, Tuesdays we have chicken, Wednesdays we have fish, Thursdays we have beans. Each meal includes a large serving of vegetables -whatever is on sale, in season or looks good at the grocery store. Friday through Sunday are a bit less structured and may include occasional red meat, less healthy options and occasional convenience or restaurant food.  With this plan there’s still some variation – Thursdays might be bean tacos, bean burgers, black beans on zucchini noodles or any other legume-based meal. Breakfasts are fixed based on the day of the week (including meals like eggs and fruit, healthy pancakes and oatmeal with seeds and berries (or as my toddler calls it “oats and blues”)). There are three lunch options that we choose from including home made lentil soup and leftovers. 

This meal plan works for us; we consider ourselves “reducetarians” or “flexitarians” meaning we eat many vegetarian meals but include some meat as well.  This allows us to enjoy many health benefits of vegetarian cooking (high fiber, high nutrient density), decreases our grocery costs (tofu and beans are way cheaper than meat!) and has a positive impact on the environment and climate change while still enjoying some animal-based protein meals and avoiding deficiencies that can occur with the vegetarian diet.  While many people can benefit from eating this way, there are many who benefit from a uniquely tailored diet plan as well. If you’re not sure what your ideal weekly meal plan should look like, or you need help putting it into action, let’s connect!


Recent Award

I'm delighted to share that I recently received the inaugural Dr. Abram Hoffer Lecture Series Award.  It was awarded to myself and my co-author, psychiatrist Dr. Laura LaChance for our paper titled "Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid and Psychosis: A Review".  The award was administered by the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, with the support of Orthomolecular Medicine, as a tribute to Dr. Hoffer’s career and his contributions as a psychiatrist and clinician researcher, particularly in the area of orthomolecular medicine.You can read more about the award by clicking Here and read the winning paper by clicking Here.

I'm back!

My family has welcomed our new addition, a baby girl. Through the end of 2018 and into 2019 I have availability on Saturdays. Call the clinic to schedule. Look forward to connecting!

Maternity Leave Notice

Please be advised that on Aug 22nd I will be starting an 8 week maternity leave as I await the birth of my second child.
I will have back up care provided by Dr. Elise Benczkowski ND. During my absence you can book an appointment with Dr. Benczkowski by calling clinic reception. I will be returning to clinic in November and will be happy to partner with you on your health goals at that time.

Warmest regards
Dr Aucoin