The Best Diet for Those with Depression
The term depression has several meanings:
(1) As a human affect, it arises from the disruption of life’s normal balance, usually following a loss, conflict or trauma
(2) It can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition or the side effect of a medication
(3) It’s also a clinical syndrome of varying severity, based on brain chemical (neurotransmitter) disturbances and
(4) Finally, depression can result from any combination of all three processes. The causes are not fully understood, but are many and varied.
Depression affects the entire body. In addition to the more noticeable affects on the nervous system, moods, thoughts and behavior, numerous studies in a field of research known as psychoneuroimmunology have shown that depression affects the functioning of every type of body cell. Immune functioning, allergies, bone density, cardiac and vascular functioning, endocrine balance, digestion, fertility, ageing and longevity—any and all aspects of our physiology are inextricably tied to our mental, emotional and spiritual health (or lack of).
People from all walks of life and of all ages suffer from depression and its prevalence seems to be increasing. It’s estimated that 5-12% of men and 10-20% of women in the U.S. will suffer from a major depressive episode at some time in their life. The percentage of teenagers diagnosed with clinical depression has increased five-fold over the past forty years.
Symptoms of depression typically include chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, headaches, backaches, digestive problems, irritability, loss of interest or pleasure in everything in general and feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy. Commonly there can be a preoccupation with death that sometimes results in suicidal ideation and/or attempts. Treatment options vary widely, though any given treatment does not necessarily work for everyone.
The Role of Diet in Depression
Diet greatly influences the brain’s behavior. The levels of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which regulate our behavior and are closely linked to mood, are controlled by what we eat. The neurotransmitters most commonly associated with mood are dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Deficiencies, excesses or imbalances of these cause mental and emotional disturbances and affect our perception of pain and pleasure. Neurotransmitters carry electrochemical impulses between cells. Serotonin plays a role in mood, sleep, relaxation and appetite. Dopamine and norepinephrine play a role in hunger, thirst, digestion, blood pressure regulation, heart rate, respiration, thermoregulation, aggression and sexuality.
Adequate protein consumption and absorption (requiring proper digestion) is essential in order to have enough precursor amino acid building blocks in order to synthesize any neurotransmitters. Their production also requires nutrients such as fatty acids, Vitamin B3, iron, folate, Vitamin B6, copper, calcium, magnesium and lecithin, among others. The absorption of precursor amino acids depends on the consumption of adequate complex carbohydrates.
Note: The dietary recommendations and guidelines below include foods to which some individuals may have allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. In those cases, those foods should be avoided. Persons taking medications should not consume any of the herbal teas described without first consulting your physician/clinician regarding potential interactions. Dietary choices should be modified to meet your personal dietary needs. Consult your physician/clinician for further information regarding nutrition and your individual medical condition.
Dietary Recommendations and Guidelines
- Avoid sugar and both artificial and natural sweeteners of all types, even honey, molasses and fruit juice. Stevia is an acceptable “sweetener”.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and soft drinks.
- Avoid junk food, processed and refined foods, foods high in saturated fats or hydrogenated (trans) fats. Healthy fat choices include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and oils that are organic and cold-pressed.
- Identify and eliminate food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. Gluten found in some grains has been linked to depressive disorders. Gluten-containing grains include wheat, spelt, rye, triticale, oats, barley and kamut.
- Eat adequate lean sources of protein (0.8 g/kg body weight daily). Emphasize wild, cold-water fish (salmon, halibut, mackerel, etc.), legumes, nuts and seeds. Organically raised poultry and eggs are also good protein sources. Fermented dairy products are also acceptable (yogurt, kefir, cheeses, etc.)
- Every meal and snack should be balanced, containing some protein, fat and complex carbohydrates.
- Food choices should be whole foods (unprocessed and unrefined), organic whenever possible, including at least five servings daily of vegetables and fruits. Grains should be whole and unrefined, especially rice, corn, quinoa, millet and amaranth. Fresh food is always preferable to frozen and frozen is always preferable to canned.
Note: In addition to dietary interventions, adequate daily exercise, sleep, full-spectrum lighting and counseling or other mental/emotional support are important factors in reversing depression and are prescribed in conjunction with supplements, botanicals and homeopathy.
Work on things gradually one at a time. Pick the improvements that you can easily make and start with those first. Inform your friends and family that you are trying to eat differently so that you will feel better. Ask for their support while making these changes. Depression is a serious condition that requires support from a physician, counselor, or other qualified therapist. Be sure to check with your health care provider before making any changes to your health care routine to ensure that you get the best care possible.
Balch, Phyllis and James. Prescriptions for Nutritional Healing, 3rd edition. 2000. Avery.
Brown, Kathleen. Herbal Teas: 101 Nourishing Blends for Daily Health and Vitality. 1999. Storey Books.
Hafen, Brent, et al. Mind/Body Health. 1996. Simon and Schuster.
McIntyre, Anne. Drink To Your Health: Delicious Juices, Teas, Soups and Smoothies That Help You Look and Feel Great. 2000. Gaia Books.