Nutrition for Depression
Depression may be described as feeling miserable, unhappy or blue. Most of us feel this way at one time or another for short periods. True clinical depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of loss, frustration, sadness, or anger interfere with daily life longer than a week or two. It can be so devastating and severe that it completely takes over one’s life. One patient noted he would amputate an arm if it meant his depression would lift.
It is commonly believed that depression is caused by an imbalance of a neurotransmitter in the brain called serotonin. Interestingly, there is no scientific evidence that drug therapy truly works. In studies in which scientists lowered serotonin levels to induce depression, the experiment failed. Other studies found that dramatically increasing serotonin levels in the brain failed to relieve depression.1
Several symptoms of depression can be directly linked to nutritional deficiencies in the typical American diet: sugar/artificial sweeteners, trans-fats, caffeine, and simple carbohydrates. A recent report from Britain linked poor diet to growing cases of depression.2 The artificial sweetener aspartame has been shown to deplete serotonin, and a study out of Spain found that trans fats cause inflammation and raise the risk of depression by 48%.3 Nutritional deficiencies greatly affect the body’s production of vital amino acids. Neurotransmitters, created from amino acids, are chemicals which send nerve impulses between the brain cells. Serotonin, a key neurotransmitter made by the amino acid tryptophan, helps to regulate feelings of anxiety as well as contentment, and also plays a significant part in regulating depression. Many adults do not have sufficient levels of tryptophan because their intake of whole sprouted grains, nuts and seeds are too low.
Magnesium deficiency, common in the typical Western diet, also has been confirmed to cause anxiety and depression.4 Interestingly, people with conditions linked to magnesium deficiencies — including IBS, celiac disease, fibromyalgia, migraines, TMJ disorder, heart palpitations, heart disease and a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse — are more commonly found to have anxiety disorders.5
When looking at depression, we have to look at gut function. There are actually two brains; one in your head and one in your gut.According to Dr. Emeran Mayer, professor of medicine, physiology and psychiatry at UCLA, “the majority of patients with anxiety and depression will also have alterations of their GI function.” What is really fascinating is that 95% of serotonin is housed in the gut. Serotonin acts as a mediator, keeping the brain above up to date with what is happening in the brain below. Such communication is mostly one way, with 90 percent traveling from the gut to the head. Avoiding harmful foods and drinks that disrupt gut function can be extremely helpful with the serotonin pathway to your brain.
Depression absolutely can have emotional root causes, and these are best addressed with a good therapist. In addition, avoiding depression or recovering from a depressive episode can be greatly enhanced by making changes to your diet and lifestyle, and adding appropriate supplementation to boost serotonin levels and stimulate brain function.
Depression can warp your image of yourself, your life, and those around you. Those with depression typically see the world through a negative lens, unable to imagine that any situation or problem can be resolved in a positive manner.
Symptoms of depression can include:
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
- Irritability, agitation or restlessness
- Dramatic change in appetite, often with weight gain or loss
- Hard time concentrating
- Feelings of guilt, self-hate and worthlessness
- Becoming isolated or withdrawn
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Fatigue, lack of energy
- Sleeping too much, or not enough
Depression can appear as anger and discouragement, rather than feelings of sadness. If depression is very severe, there may also be psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions.6
Things to avoid
REFINED SUGAR. Noted British psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet conducted a fascinating analysis of the relationship between diet and mental illness. He found a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of both depression and schizophrenia.7
- Sugar squashes activity of a vital growth hormone in the brain called BDNF. This hormone takes good care of the neurons in the brain, and it plays a key role in memory function by triggering the growth of new connections between neurons. BDNF levels are critically low in both depression and schizophrenia; both syndromes often lead to shrinkage of vital brain regions over a period of time. Chronic depression eventually leads to brain damage. Evidence from animal models also shows that low BDNF can trigger depression.8
- Sugar and high fructose corn syrup consumption creates chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation throws a monkey wrench into the workings of the immune system and the brain. It is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis and a greater risk of depression and schizophrenia. Mother Nature gave us a sweet tooth to encourage us to eat healthy fruits in our native environment. Unfortunately, we were not designed to process modern sugars, and our cravings have become our undoing.9
BPA. Bisphenol A (BPA) found in plastic water bottles and other containers acts as a toxin to the nervous system and has been linked to depression and cognitive decline.
COMMON DRUGS. These drugs can contribute to depression by depleting vitamins and minerals. Talk with your healthcare provider before discontinuing any medication.
- pain killers
- anti-Parkinson’s drugs
- birth control pills
- ulcer drugs
- high blood pressure drugs
- heart medications
- psychotropic drugs
BLOOD SUGAR “BOUNCERS.” Avoid or greatly reduce caffeine, alcohol, smoking and foods with transfats or excess sugars. Alcohol in particular can exacerbate depressive feelings and should be avoided when symptoms are present.
Another good idea is to investigate any potential food intolerances which can lead to blood sugar instability and malabsorption of nutrients. These can be done through your physician.
Foods (and Actions) that Heal
A multitude of research indicates that a “traditional” dietary pattern characterized by (organic) vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains are associated with lower odds for major depression or dysthymia and for anxiety disorders.9
Omega-3 fatty acids can also lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. Get omega-3s through pumpkin seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed and oily fish like tuna or salmon. The best fish for EPA are:
- Mackerel (1,400mg per 100g/3oz)
- Herring/kipper (1,000mg)
- Sardines (1,000mg),fresh tuna (900mg),
- Anchovy (900mg)
- Salmon (800mg)
- Trout (500mg)
- Tuna, being high in mercury is best eaten not more than three times a month
Check your homocysteine level. Your homocysteine level is an indicator of your B vitamin needs.
- Eat B vitamin rich whole foods – Meat, fish, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
- Folic acid is found in green vegetables, lentils, seeds and nuts. B12 is only found in animal foods – pastured meat, wild caught fish, pastured eggs and raw dairy. Take a vitamin B-complex supplement. Contact us for details.
- Cabbage: Contains vitamin C and folic acid. Cabbage protects against heart disease, infection and stress, as well as many types of cancers, according to the American Association for Cancer Research. Cabbage can replace lettuce in wraps or salads, it can be put in a stir fry it, made into soup or juiced. To avoid gas after eating cabbage, add a few caraway, fennel or cumin seeds before cooking. Cabbage is also a good source of blood-sugar-stabilizing fiber, and the raw juice of cabbage is a known cure for stomach ulcers.11
- Eat high-selenium foods. Dark molasses, raw cacao, and brazil nuts help improve brain function and vanquish depression. Cacao can be good for mood because it releases endorphins in the brain, but stay away from milk chocolate or other high-sugar candy varieties of chocolate.
- Avoid most grains: Grains in general that have not been made into sourdough or soaked are high in phytic acid, which binds to calcium, magnesium and zinc. Gluten in particular has been implicated with shutting down blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.
- Take this time to address root causes of what’s bothering you. Depression is a useful tool to cast light on emotions you have been suppressing. Although it helps to talk to friends and family, a good therapist, counselor or chaplain can provide an unbiased ear. Don’t be put off by cost; many therapists offer sliding scale fees. It’s a worthwhile investment in your long term health.
- Natural sunlight is a proven cure for depression. If you are lacking natural light, invest in full-spectrum lighting for your home or office.
- Studies have found that regular meditation can be just as effective as SSRI’s in preventing a relapse of depression.
- Exercise, exercise, exercise. Pick an activity and stick with it, at least 3 times per week. This will alter your brain chemistry in a positive way.
- Turn off the news. Indulge your lighter side: watch funny movies, find more ways to laugh. Laughter is very healing.
- No screen time after 10pm. Keep your cell, computer and phone out of your bedroom. These devices interfere with deep sleep, which you need to keep hormones balanced.
Supplementation Program for Depression
Get a Nutrition Genome analysis for more information on which b-vitamins you need the most, and what form is best. Folate in the brain is the necessary building block for many neurotransmitters (including serotonin), and if your body is not processing it correctly, this can make a major difference.
The nerve endings in the brain contain the highest concentrations of vitamin C in the body after the adrenal glands and lens of the eye. It plays a huge role in producing GABA. Choose 100 percent l-ascorbate, fully reduced and GMO free only.
Depressed people often lack a fatty acid known as EPA. Participants in a 2002 study featured in the Archives of General Psychiatry took just a gram of fish oil each day and noticed a 50-percent decrease in symptoms such as sleep disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, decreased sex drive, and unexplained feelings of sadness. When supplementing omega 3 fish oils you want at least 1,000mg of EPA a day for a mood boosting effect. That means supplementing a concentrated Omega 3 Fish Oil capsule providing 500mg, once or twice a day and eating a serving of any of the above fish three times a week.
Up to 80% of the population is deficient in magnesium due to poor agricultural practices and processed food.
3. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/7364603. Ibid.
4. Neuropharmacology. 2004 Dec;47(8):1189-97.
10. Am J Psychiatry. 2010 Mar;167(3):305-11. Epub 2010 Jan 4.