Nearly forty thousand Americans take their own lives each year and depression appears to be a leading cause. Thankfully, lifestyle interventions can help repair your mind as well as your body.
Few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression. Depression is more typically thought of as strictly an emotional or biochemical matter. While it’s widely known that nutrition plays a key role in a person’s physical health, it directly affects emotional well-being, too. Here’s how…
More often than none, when someone is diagnosed with depression, the usual treatments include; medications, therapy and self-care. Self-care focuses on better sleep habits, exercise, and perhaps diet. Unfortunately, self-care and nutrition are certainly not the primary treatment used for mental illness or depression. When I went back to college to study nutrition, I was blown away when I discovered how little education is provided to physicians on the importance of nutrition for acute and chronic diseases. Far more time and focus is on medication, not prevention. Fortunately, a new Nutritional Neuroscience is emerging and shedding light on the fact that what you eat and drink plays a significant role with human cognition, behavior and emotions.
What we eat matters for every aspect of our health, but especially our mental health. The connection between diet and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract (gut), often called the “second brain.” (click here to learn more about the “second brain” from my blog post Nurturing Your Recovery – Nutrition)
Here’s how it works: Your GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters, chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. (Dopamine and serotonin are two common examples.) When we consider the connection between the brain and the gut, it’s important to know that 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut.
When the balance between the good and bad bacteria is disrupted, diseases may occur. Examples of such diseases include: inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), asthma, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, depression and anxiety. For example, IBD is caused by dysfunction in the interactions between bacteria, the gut lining, and the immune system.
Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn positively affects neurotransmitter production. A consistent diet of junk food, on the other hand, can cause inflammation that hampers production. When neurotransmitter production is in good shape, your brain receives these positive messages loud and clear, and your emotions reflect it. But when production goes astray, so might your mood.
Sugar is considered a major culprit of inflammation, plus it feeds “bad” bacteria in the GI tract. Ironically, it can also cause a temporary spike in “feel good” neurotransmitters, like dopamine. That sugar rush will only “feel good” for a short time, then followed by a “crash” that negatively effects your mood. When you stick to a diet of healthy food, you’re setting yourself up for fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook and an improved ability to focus.
In addition to your gut taking the hard hit as a result of poor eating habits, so does your overall body due to deficiencies in essential nutrients. The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with depression are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Many researchers credit the increase in major depression cases to the decline of omega-3 fatty acids from diet. Omega-3 can be found in salmon, sardines, tuna, marlin, anchovies, mackerel and herring. The two omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which the body converts into docosahexanoic acid (DHA), found in fish oil, have been found to elicit antidepressant effects in humans. You can also get your necessary dose of fish oil by taking supplements. IMPORTANT…make sure you choose a high quality source. Click here for the brand I recommend.
Other deficiencies that could contribute to depression are ~
Vitamin D helps with the production of serotonin, and we usually get it from exposure to sunlight. But mushrooms – especially reishi, cordycep and maitake. If you are deficient in vitamin D, your doctor may also recommend taking a supplement.
This essential mineral helps with everything from nerve and muscle function to keeping a heartbeat steady. But it’s also vital to the food-mood connection: A mineral deficiency can hurt the bacteria in your gut and cause depression and anxiety-like symptoms. Load up with natural sources such as dark chocolate, cacao nibs, almonds and cashews, spinach and other dark leafy greens, bananas and beans. To learn more about this essential mineral, read my blog post Magnificent Magnesium!
This type of B vitamin helps with dopamine production. Find it in leafy greens, lentils and cantaloupes.
These inflammation fighters are plentiful in berries, leafy green vegetables, the spice turmeric and foods with Omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon and black chia seeds. Dark chocolate also contains antioxidants.
Some studies have shown that preservatives, food colorings and other additives may cause or worsen anxiety and depression. So, eat real food. Food that is healthy and whole is the best bet! Think fresh fruits and vegetables.
Plant-based foods are full of fiber, which helps your body absorb glucose – or food sugars – more slowly and helps you avoid sugar rushes and crashes. Fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-filled carbs like whole grains and beans.
Fermented foods are packed with probiotics, which are certain live bacteria that are good for your digestive tract. Examples include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and the fermented drink kombucha. The best way to include fermented foods into your diet is to make them from scratch. Click for recipes – Sauerkraut and Kimchi.
A better diet can help, but it’s only one part of treatment. It’s important to note that just like you cannot exercise out of a bad diet, you also cannot eat your way out of feeling depressed or anxious.
We should be careful about using food as the only treatment for anxiety or depression. These suggestions are meant for mild to moderate forms of depression. If you are impacted from serious forms of depression, it’s important to seek treatment from your doctor or contact the number below if your are experiencing thoughts of suicide.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Janicak PG, Lipinski , Davis JM, Comaty JE, Waternaux C, Cohen B, et al. S-adenosylmethionine in depression: A literature Review and preliminary report. Ala J Med Sci. 1988;25:306–13
Bourre JM. Dietary omega-3 Fatty acids and psychiatry: Mood, behavior, stress, depression, dementia and aging. J Nutr Health Aging. 2005;9:31–8
Diet quality and depression risk: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Journal of Affective Disorders, January 15, 2018.
Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, July 2017.
How Not To Die, Michael Greger, M.D.