5 Nutrition Tips to Beat Depression
By: Violeta Puente-Duran
Major depression affects about 5% of people in Canada and at least one in eight people experience depression at some point in their lives (1). Depression, a mood disorder, can have many different underlying causes but is often a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Life events such as trauma, abuse, illness and stress can trigger depression at some point in a person's life (1). Depression is linked to lower levels of the feel good neurotransmitter serotonin. While low serotonin levels may only be a partial contributing factor to depression, there is no harm in attempting to increase levels through lifestyle and nutrition. Nutrition, in fact, can play a big role in a person's mental well-being. Let's have a look at some evidence-based nutrition tips to beat depression.
1. Eat your veggies
It's no news flash that vegetables are good for your health. They're not just good for your body but also for your brain. A recent meta-analysis (a collection of several different studies) concluded that eating a nutrient-dense diet that is high in vegetables and fibre reduced depressive symptoms in individuals with, mainly, non-clinical depression (2). A second meta-analysis that looked at several observational studies found that every 100g increase of vegetables in participants' diets was associated with a 3% reduced risk of depression (3). That's about a half cup of broccoli. A few veggies can go a long way! Vegetables are also loaded with antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect our brain cells from free-radical damage, which can contribute to age-related degenerative diseases and cognitive decline.
2. Eat like a Mediterranean
As much as many of us dream of living in the Mediterranean, that doesn't mean we can't eat like we're in the Mediterranean. Aside from its delicious flavours, the Mediterranean diet can help fight depression. A meta-analysis conducted by researchers in London in 2018 found that individuals who ate diets that were plant-rich had a 33% reduced risk of depression compared to those diets which least resembled a Mediterranean-type diet (4). A Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, fruit, nuts, olive oil, fish, moderate alcohol consumption and low in processed foods. There are a couple of mechanisms suggested by the authors of the study that can explain the protective effects of following a Mediterranean diet. Firstly, it is anti-inflammatory by nature. Contrarily, an inflammatory diet (to be discussed in point 3) can be damaging to, not just the heart and blood vessels, but also the brain. This is because inflammatory foods lead to an increased influx of pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines in the brain. Cytokines have been suggested to affect mood regulation by disrupting the production and transmission of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin (4,5). So plenty of reason to eat more whole foods and ditch the refined stuff.
3. Ditch the fast food
As discussed in the previous point, fast food is highly inflammatory in the body. Another research study from the U.K looked at data for over 100,000 participants in a total of 11 studies. Participants filled out questionnaires about their diets and were ranked by clinicians according to how inflammatory their diets were (6). Findings revealed that participants who were ranked as having inflammatory diets had a 40% increased chance of having depression or depressive symptoms (6). It should be noted that, although fast food is a major source of inflammation, it is by far not the only factor. Other factors that contribute to systemic inflammation include physical inactivity (sedentary lifestyles), chronic stress and anxiety, obesity, smoking and sleep disorders (5).
4. Eat your salmon
Fatty fish like salmon, trout, herring and sardines, are high in brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and contain two essential fatty acids called DHA and EPA. Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, are inflammatory. While we do need Omega-6 in the diet, the Western diet gets too much of it. The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is somewhere around 4:1. The current ratio in the Western world is around 30:1. That's because, unlike Omega-3s, Omega-6s are found in many foods containing vegetable oils, like soybean, and readily found in processed foods. One study showed that those diagnosed with major depression had higher Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios and lower total Omega-3 levels in their cells compared to healthy controls (7). What are the consequences of this high ratio? Inflammation. Heart disease. Depression. Bottom line? We need to consume more fatty fish and less processed foods. If salmon and trout are bank breaking for you, have sardines. They are a nutrition powerhouse.
5. Balance your Blood Sugars
If you want to improve your mood you'll need to keep your blood sugars from going on a roller coaster ride. Our brains rely on a steady supply of glucose for energy. In result, when blood sugar drops too low- hypoglycemia- this causes us to feel shaky, anxious, irritable, hungry, and so forth. Low levels of sugar in the blood triggers the adrenal glands to secrete certain stress hormones in order to bring glucose levels back up to normal. Low blood sugar moments can leave us feeling tired, low energy and unmotivated. Though there are minimal studies supporting hypoglycemia as a cause of depression, some studies have found a linear association between severity of hypoglycemia and severity of depression in people with type 2 diabetes (8). In order to keep your blood sugar levels happy (and your mood), there are several things you can do. Firstly, be sure to follow a low-glycemic diet. You can do this by increasing the amount of fibre and protein at each meal as these two nutrients help slow down digestion which slows the release of sugars into the blood. A high-glycemic meal or foods- such as white bread with jam- will be quickly released into your bloodstream and just as quickly send your blood sugars crashing. A low-glycemic breakfast, for example, might look like a slice of grainy bread with almond butter or egg and a cup of berries. Secondly, time your meals. Don't let the time fly by and forget to eat. It is definitely important to rest your digestive system and have each meal 4 to 5 hours apart, but it is okay to include small low-glycemic snacks, such as nuts or cheese, in between meals. A little fibre and protein go a long way!
Remember, depression is a complex disorder and its root cause may be unknown to you. Treating depression has no simple or obvious solutions. Do remember that there is a wealth of evidence supporting inflammation's negative impact on the brain. So take some time to write out your shopping list and fill it with some great anti-inflammatory foods, such as vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts and olive oil. Look for some colourful recipes and have a fun time in the kitchen!
If you'd like to improve your mood through food don't hesitate to reach out to our holistic nutritionist at everwell for personally tailored nutrition advice.