Big, bloated, unhappy and depressed? There’s a link between diet and depression, according to new findings reported by the Wall Street Journal. Bottom line: If you’re eating wrong, diet can become depression’s best friend. Eat right, and diet and happiness become BFFs.
Everyone’s brain is hardwired to seek out foods on the high sugar, salt and fat spectrum. Mismanage that taste-treat rainbow and there’s no pot of dietary gold at the end. In fact, you might find a dark cloud that can sometimes actually lead to depression.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is more than just an old wives’ tale. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Researchers, led by epidemiologist Felice Jacka of Australia’s Deakin University, looked at whether improving the diets of people with major depression would help improve their mood. They chose 67 people with depression for their study, some of whom were already being treated with antidepressants, some with psychotherapy, and some with both. Half of these people were given nutritional counseling from a dietitian, who helped them eat healthier. Half were given one-on-one social support—they were paired with someone to chat or play cards with—which is known to help people with depression.
It’s common knowledge that talking about the way you feel can be one of the first steps to lifting yourself out of depression, but opening up about confusing and painful feelings can seem impossible when battling bouts of depression. Food may be a lot easier to reach for to regain and maintain a positive outlook.
Patients who received a program of nutritional counseling showed “significantly improved moods” after 12 weeks, according to the study cited in the Wall Street Journal. And now a new field called “nutritional psychiatry” is budding around recent findings on brain health and the link between food and depression. Easily accessible foods found by the researchers to help with depression were nuts, grains, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Our brains need the healthy fats and nutrients found in whole foods to function properly. Foods, like cashews, that contain high concentrations of magnesium, niacin and tryptophan are all mood stabilizing because vitamin B6 helps convert the tryptophan into serotonin (the main neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep) to aid magnesium in entering the body’s cells.
However, while you may find claims on the internet that a handful of cashews is equivalent to taking a dose of Prozac, such claims are refuted by a 2003 report in Psychology Today, which says: “The only surefire way to increase tryptophan to the brain is with dietary supplements. Taken in pure form, tryptophan works in a qualitatively different way than when obtained from a food source.”
A full dose of food-borne tryptophan cannot directly enter the brain the way it would when delivered through a supplement of medication.
In addition to mood lifters like tryptophan, probiotics are another must-have, according to the study the Journal cited. Tofu is an excellent source of probiotics, which help build the healthy bacteria in our guts that break down food into nutrients and help fight free radicals and disease. Looking for ways to get tofu into your diet? Try it at Asian restaurants in soups and salads, or sauteed with vegetables for an easy fix.
Eating right can help eliminate factors that can lead to depression, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Many of the ways in which African Americans prepare our traditional foods can lead to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and, potentially, based on the study cited by the Journal, depression.
Fried food and processed food most often are full of trans fats, which can wreak havoc on the digestive system, overtaking healthy bacteria that are known to inhibit delivery of serotonin to the brain. However, soul food favorites, like fish, sweet potatoes and dark, leafy greens such as collards and Swiss chard, also constitute some of the healthiest foods for our brains. Resources like The Healthy Soul Food Cookbook are great ways to get enjoyable recipes that promote longevity.
While dietary change is not a universal cure or a replacement for prescribed meds or therapy, it can help foster healthy brain development throughout our lives. Here’s a quick reference guide on nutrients mentioned in the Wall Street Journal’s article that may be helpful for choosing what to eat to fight depression:
This vitamin is needed to produce serotonin. Too little serotonin is associated with depression. We need vitamin B6 every day in our diet.
Sources: Pistachios, garlic, salmon and tuna, chicken, spinach, cabbage, bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados and whole grains.
This is the main omega-3 fat in the brain. It promotes production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a hormone that protects neurons and promotes the birth of new brain cells.
Sources: Wild salmon, oysters, anchovies, mackerel and mussels.
These help support the good microbes in our gut to help them stay alive.
Sources: Onions, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, bananas and oats.
These live bacteria and yeasts replenish the good bacteria in our microbiome.
Sources: Yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and other fermented vegetables such as turnips, cucumbers and carrots.