Food for depression: How your diet can help improve depression
Food for depression: Have you ever thought about the effects of your daily food intake on your health? Most likely you know by now that for instance an over-consumption of processed sugars could lead to diabetes or trans-fatty acids (referred to as trans-fats) have the potential to raise your cholesterol levels. However, the effects of diet are not limited to your physical well-being. A number of studies have shown certain foods to be either beneficial or detrimental for brain health. Here we focus on a very prevalent disorder, depression, and provide you with a guide on what ingredients could enhance and reduce the risks of developing depression. You’ll be surprised by the number of foods having an effect on the course of depression.
Food for depression: A recap of major depressive disorder and conventional treatments
Depression has become one of the most prevalent illnesses in both developed and medium to low-income countries. One out of 7 people will be depressed at least one time in their life and depression is estimated by the WHO to be the second most frequent cause of death by 2020. The triggers contributing to developing depressive behavior can vary from person to person.
Probable factors are stressful life events, alcohol, and drug abuse, lack of social support, family history or financial status. Despite treatment options being available, only 1 in 4 people have access to medication and from those, only 60 % harness the positive effects of the treatment. Those two factors make depression a very challenging and complex illness. Taking antidepressants is not pleasant as many side effects have to be accepted by the patients. The large number and severity of these side effects are down to the fact that such medication artificially interferes with the brain’s neurochemistry. In a healthy brain, a neurotransmitter balance is maintained naturally, whereas in depressed individuals an imbalance is observed. Here the antidepressant drug seeks to restore this imbalance raising mood and alleviating the symptoms of depression. Unwanted side effects such as nausea, weight gain, dry mouth or blurred vision are a result of this artificial interference.
In the past years, new research has highlighted numerous ways to decrease the risk for developing depression in the first place. One big field was found to be food for depression, which has proven to minimize the risk of depression. Food for depression is suggested to be a treatment option which should be paid more attention to since the right nutrition contains important ingredients mimicking the action of potential antidepressants. Unlike antidepressants, all this happens on a completely natural basis without the patient having to deal with side effects.
Food for depression: Positive effects of nutrients on depression
Food for depression: Antioxidants
Action Mechanism: The high content of antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables have protective qualities as they reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a cause of neuronal damage which in turn promotes depression.
Examples: Goji berries, blueberries, dark chocolate, pecans, boiled artichoke, kidney beans, cranberries, blackberries, cilantro, etc.
Food for depression: Polyphenols
Action Mechanism: Improvements of BDNF levels. BDNF is a brain-derived neurotrophic factor responsible for nerve cell growth. At the same time, levels of inflammatory markers are reduced which were found to be high in depressed individuals.
Examples: Cloves, star anises, cocoa powder, celery, dark chocolate, flaxseeds, chestnuts, etc.
Food for depression: Folate and Vitamin B12
Action Mechanism: Promote the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine, responsible for mood and pleasure respectively. Which makes it a great food for depression.
Examples: Feta cheese, salmon, cottage cheese, eggs, sardines, lamb, nutritional yeast, etc.
Food for depression: Magnesium
Action Mechanism: It directly regulates synaptic function by reducing levels of calcium and glutamate. Increased amounts of those chemicals are great for food for depression.
Examples: Avocado, almonds, black beans, figs, yogurt, banana, spinach, pumpkin seeds, etc.
Food for depression: Fiber (found in whole grains)
Action Mechanism: Fiber able to positively influence the gut’s microbiota and bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Together they play a role in influencing the central nervous system (the brain) altering important neurotransmitters in the brain, inflammation and the stress response for the better. Making it a great way to take food for depression.
Examples: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beans, peas, lentils, pears, whole-wheat pasta, oat flakes, etc.
Food for depression: Omega 3 fatty acids
Action Mechanism: They improve neurotransmission in the brain through improving membrane fluidity. The neurotransmitters can move more easily.
Examples: Salmon, herring, cod, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon fish oil, etc.
Food for depression: Oleic acid
Action Mechanism: Oleic acid is synthesized to oleamide which has important actions related to mood (improved binding of serotonin to its receptors).
Examples: Cheese, almonds, pasta, dairy in general, beef, chicken, eggs, etc.
Food for depression: Zinc
Action Mechanism: The substance forms new circuits in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for storing long-term memory) and promotes the growth of neurons.
Examples: Chickpeas, cashew nuts, mushrooms, spinach, chicken, lamb, pumpkin seeds, etc.
Food for depression: Negative effects of nutrients on depression
Food for depression: Omega 6 fatty acids
Action Mechanism: One of the substances when metabolizing these types of fatty acids is the so-called arachidonic Acid. This was found to promote the inflammatory stress response responsible for increasing depressive symptoms. Not a great food for depression.
Examples: Chicken, beef, eggs, sausage, burgers, pizza, beef, etc. (these foods have an increased ratio of omega 6: omega 3)
Food for depression: Trans-fatty acids
Action Mechanism: They interfere with the brain’s neurotransmitter serotonin responsible for lifting the mood. With too much trans-fats, inflammation occurs leading people to become deprived of this neurotransmitter. Not a great food for depression.
Examples: Fried food, margarine, chips, cake, crackers, cream, etc.
Food for depression: Sugars
Action Mechanism: Sugar suppresses BDNF, the natural antidepressant. Together with high fat intake, BDNF production is reduced. Sufficient BDNF is critical for brain health and helps to keep brain-related conditions at bay.
Examples: Almost all foods contain sugar. This list is for foods which contain exceptionally high amounts: Soda, fruit juice, ketchup, sports drinks, chocolate, flavored coffee, iced tea, protein bars, breakfast cereal, etc.
A video giving you more tips on foods to consume when feeling depressed:
Food for depression: Alcohol
So far we have talked about food for depression, now we turn our attention to a very common, socially-accepted drug: alcohol. Here the situation is clear: Alcohol has a negative effect when it comes to depression, but how can it be that chronic alcoholics develop depression with such a high frequency? Here are a few more explanations apart from social, economic and legal circumstances which lead to depression:
1. Alcohol abuse and depression are linked by genetic factors when it comes to proper neurotransmitter functioning. The risk of depression is increased with chronic alcohol consumption due to a specific gene (CHRM2) coding for a receptor. This receptor is responsible for eliciting an array of effects in the brain and if disrupted can even lead to a change in personality. Agreeableness, conscientiousness and lower openness are reported. Those characteristics are thought to contribute to the course of depression.
2. A difference in metabolism with alcohol: Alcohol exposure may cause metabolic changes increasing the risk of depression. Increased content of alcohol in the system can lead to a lower production of MTHFR, an enzyme which plays a role in the metabolism of folate. This, in turn, leads to less folate in the body. As described above, reduced levels of folate have a negative effect on depression confirming a direct relationship between alcohol abuse and increased depression.
3. Altered circadian rhythm: The circadian rhythm is your internal clock regulating alertness and drowsiness at regular intervals. This helps you sleep and wake at roughly the same time every day. With overconsumption of alcohol, this rhythm can get disrupted in individuals who are already predisposed to an abnormal circadian rhythm due to a specific gene.
A disrupted sleeping pattern which is the consequence of a malfunctioning rhythm is another factor contributing to depression. Especially the REM-sleep (when dreams are made) is disrupted in depressed individuals leading to chronic insomnia. Normally a good REM-sleep is used to properly process and resolve emotional impacts of memories.
Do you use food as an antidepressant? Let us know in the comments below!
Patrick has completed a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing an online course in journalism. His aim is to inform the general public about science-related topics. He looks to achieve this by keeping his work simple, yet precise and informative for everyone.