Diet is a hot topic in the field of psychiatry, with Science recently focusing on how the food we eat affects our mood and
There’s quite a bit of research linking nutritional deficiencies and mental health disorders. Commonly, these are — B vitamins, zinc, folate, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids (precursors to neurotransmitters).
Researchers are now focusing on the link between depression and chronic inflammation. We still don’t fully understand the cause of depression but it could be that its not just a brain disorder, but rather a body-wide disorder, with a dysfunction of the immune system and chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation.
Inflammation is the process of oxidation that produces unstable chemicals — called free radicals — which damage cell membranes and other structures.
Inflammation is like the hidden monster under the bed in mental health
Few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression, however, nutrition can play a key role in the onset, severity and duration of depressive symptoms.
Reseachers have shown links between the ‘overconsumption of high caloric, carbohydrate and fat diets and its contribution to poor physical, psychological and cognitive outcomes’.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
- Stress – acute and chronic stress is associated with increased inflammation, leading to negative mood and depressive symptoms.
- Sugar – eating too many refined carbohydrates has been linked to increased low-grade inflammation in the body
- Sleep deprivation – being awake is an inflammatory state, sleep disturbance is associated with increases in markers of systemic inflammation
- Toxins & Chemicals – exposure to drugs, chemical and industrial toxins triggers body-wide damaging of cells within the body.
- Pathogens – infections, viruses, bacteria, or tissue injury may trigger an inflammatory response.
Evidence suggests swapping out certain food improves our ability to resist infection and reduce our risk for depression and anxiety. This includes junk food and diets high in processed foods, ie. the typical Western Diet.
Increase Your Antioxidants
We can decrease the damage of inflammation to our cells, by eating foods high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are natural compounds found in foods that scavenge and neutralise free radicals. These include the vitamins A, C and E, and the minerals copper, zinc and selenium.
Quercetin is one antioxidant found in grapes, berries, cherries, apples, onions and broccoli. This powerful antioxidant has been found to have anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects and enhance memory function. Curcumin, the principal curcuminoid in turmeric, is another powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
Studies have demonstrated supplementing 1000mg per day of curcumin with piperine as a safe and effective add-on to standard antidepressants.
The Best Antioxidant Foods
- Berries – blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, grapes, apples.
- Eggplant, broccoli, leeks, onions, beans, artichoke, garlic, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, peppers, sweet potato, russet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, spinach, kale, parsley, tomato, red wine, tea, dark chocolate (the higher the cocoa content the better 70-99%).
- Nuts -Pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts rank in the highest of the nuts.
Are You Eating Enough Protein?
Protein contains essential amino acids, which make up the neurotransmitters your brain needs to help regulate your thoughts and feelings. Serving quality sources of protein with every meal helps you to feel full for longer too.
Good sources of protein can be found in lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), non genetically modified soy products, nuts and seeds. You can read more about protein requirements in my article here.
Eat Healthy Fats
Don’t be afraid of fat! The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. Essential fatty acids are needed for our brains to function and perform properly.
Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may be a promising natural treatment for mood disorders. Studies have shown patients with depression respond well to a diet containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
- oily fish – salmon, mackerel, sardines
- free range poultry
- nuts – walnuts and almonds
- extra virgin olive oil
- seeds – sunflower and pumpkin
- milk, yoghurt, cheese (if you can tolerate dairy)
Known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, vitamin D is actually a hormone. We get most of our vitamin D via the skin, up to 90%, after exposure to sunlight. You can read more about Vitamin D deficiency and its link to depression in my article HERE.
A blood test can confirm whether you have a vitamin D deficiency. The amount of vitamin D you need varies with age:
- Everybody under the age of 50 needs 5 micrograms each day (µg/day). (A microgram is one millionth of a gram)
- People aged 51 to 70 need 10 µg/day
- People 71 and over need 15.0 µg /day
Foods High in Vitamin D
- salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel
- cod liver oil
- canned tuna
- egg yolks
B vitamins act as cofactors in the synthesis and regulation of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that help to regulate our mood, and may offer an alternative or adjunctive treatment to standard care when deficiencies are present.
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis was undertaken to investigate the effects of B vitamin supplementation on mood in both healthy and ‘at-risk’ populations. It found evidence for the benefit of B vitamin supplementation in healthy and at-risk populations for stress.
B vitamins are naturally found in many foods, like leafy greens, eggs, legumes, beef, chicken, yoghurt, nutritional yeast, and sunflower seeds. B vitamins can also be easily destroyed by consuming alcohol and in cooking. Food processing removes foods of their B vitamin content, especially in white flour, white bread, and white rice.
Are you “eating your feelings?”. It’s helpful to take a moment to think and pause before you hit the pantry or fridge. Are you simply hungry, bored or tired?
Food timing is equally important. Eating high glycemic index foods at night increases cortisol and disrupts sleep quality.
When people are feeling depressed, stressed or anxious it’s common to use unhealthy eating (and drinking) patterns to help decrease these feelings and emotions.
When noticing these feelings arise, find an activity you enjoy, or make a cup of tea instead. Small changes like these can have profound affects on creating new, healthier habits.
A breath is a break
It’s unrealistic to expect our lives to be completely free from stress. There’s so many things we can do to actively reduce it.
Here are some tips
- Practice mindfulness like meditation, tapping, and breathing exercises.
- Be social. Reaching out to someone you can trust may be one of the hardest things to do when experiencing a depressive episode, however Social support is essential for maintaining physical and psychological health and increasing our resilience to stress.
- Spend time in nature – grounding exercises or taking a ‘nature pill’ outside for between 20 and 30 minutes calms the nervous system and reduces cortisol, our stress hormone.
- Exercise for just 30 mins a day increases serotonin levels in the brain. Joining group exercise activities is a great way to keep yourself accountable and engage socially as well.
Importantly, be kind to yourself, change takes time and repetition. With small, positive changes each day you can improve both your physical and mental health and quality of life.