While there isn’t one fixed diet that could essentially ‘cure’ depression, there are certain foods that are known to help alleviate symptoms and others known to fuel and drive depressive symptoms. In her recent webinar ‘managing depression through diet’ Dr Nina Bailey explains the importance of understanding the effect of food quality on mental health, and how our diet can be adapted to provide the key nutrients scientifically proven to reduce both the risk of developing depression and many of the symptoms experienced by those afflicted with depression.
What are we eating?
The agricultural and industrial revolutions have led us to 21st century diets that are dominated by packaged and processed ‘convince’ foods, offering little in the way of nutrient quality. The introduction of intensive farming methods, food processing, refining and the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers has led to cheaper, readily available foods but at a significant cost to our health. Our diets are now awash with energy-dense, nutrient-poor, ‘pro-inflammatory’ foods wreaking havoc on both our short and long term health. Consequently, as our intake of processed foods has increased, our intake of high-quality foods such as vegetables and fruit, wholegrains, healthy sources of fat and protein such as oily fish and organic grass-fed animal products, has been significantly compromised. Yet it is these latter foods that provide the essential building blocks required for growth and repair and for both physical and mental wellbeing.
Top tips for managing mood
Adopt an ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet
Evidence suggests that inflammation may drive some depressive symptoms, such as low mood, loss of appetite and reduced ability to sleep. Certain foods are known to exacerbate ‘whole-body’ inflammation with other foods ‘damping’ the effect and therefore helping to improve mood and many of the other symptoms related to depression. By choosing whole foods that are as close to nature as possible, and avoiding processed, refined products, we can reduce whole-body inflammation and optimise both physical and mental health.
Choose smart carbs!
Pro-inflammatory carbohydrates include sugar of all sorts, white rice and refined carbohydrates made from refined flour such as pizza, bread, most packaged cereals, biscuits, cakes, etc. Refined foods are essentially ‘anti-nutrients’ and will leech the body of vitamins and minerals which can, over time, lead to deficiencies in key nutrients that can have adverse effects on brain function. Refined sugar is the poison of our western diets, playing a direct role in the initiation and progression of inflammatory diseases!
Anti-inflammatory carbohydrates are the unrefined ‘whole’ carbohydrates that come packaged just the way nature designed them and include all fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and unrefined wholegrain products. These ‘whole’ or ‘complex’ carbohydrates release their energy slowly, ensuring that the brain and body receives the fuel needed to function at an optimal rate throughout the day. Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day (4 veg and 1 fruit) as these are brimming with nutrients, including fibre for optimal gut health, vitamins & minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Try to consume fruit and vegetables raw if possible, as it is in the uncooked form that they provide the biggest nutrient hit.
Choose good fats
Around 60% of total brain weight is fat, so eating the correct fats is therefore essential for brain function and for optimal cognitive function and mood. In particular, the omega-6 and omega-3 family of fats are required for brain structure and function; deficiencies in certain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) is associated with a number of neurological conditions including developmental disorders (i.e., ADHD), mood disorders and cognitive decline (mild memory loss to full blown dementia). A good balance of omega-6 and omega-3 is required in the diet as these two families regulate a number of processes related to immunity, inflammation and cardiovascular health. Diets dominated by omega-6 (from vegetable oils and many refined and processed food products) and low in omega-3s can result in inflammation that can ultimately affect brain function and mood. Increasing intake of oily fish and purified fish oils has been shown to significantly reduce inflammation and improve mood. Interestingly, of the two omega-3 fatty acids found in marine products, only EPA appears to have a therapeutic impact on depressive symptoms and including a daily dose of 1g pure EPA, in addition to the recommended 2 portions of fish weekly, can have a remarkable impact on mood, anxiety and sleep patterns.
Choose quality protein
Including a protein source in your diet several times a day will help clear the mind, boost energy, lift mood, promote relaxation and improve sleep as well as helping deal with stress. Focus on foods that are high in the essential amino acid tryptophan (such as nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs). Tryptophan is a key building block required for the production of neurotransmitters including serotonin (mood regulating) and melatonin (sleep regulating). When choosing animal protein products it is important to focus on those derived from animals that have lived organicically (free from antibiotics and chemicals) and that have been raised on their natural diets (grass fed instead of grain fed). Most products available are from intensively farmed animals raised on unnatural dietswhich affects the nutritional quality of the meat and dairy goods they produce. Organic, grass fed meat, whilst being generally lower in fat, will be rich in healthy fats (including omega-3), have a better amino acid profile and be higher in vitamins and minerals when compared to meat from intensively farmed animals. We are what we eat, but we are also what we eat eats!
Eat well, spend less
Whilst organic, grass-fed animal products (meat & dairy) are the healthiest option when choosing a protein source, pulses and soy products can be much cheaper than meat and can be used alone or to bulk out meat dishes (try replacing mince with lentils when making a shepherd’s pie, for example). Veggie sources of protein also offer additional nutrients (such as fibre) that are not found in meat. Tinned sardines, mackerel, pilchards etc. also offer quality protein, are extremely good value for money and are packed with omega-3 EPA. It’s also worth remembering that the nutrient content of fruit and vegetables begins to diminish as soon as they are picked, so only buy what you need for the next few days/meals and remember: frozen fruit and vegetables can be much better value than buying fresh and retain their essential nutrients far better than fresh produce! To help ensure you meet your 5-a-day, try adding vegetables to soups, stews and sauces, or simply use them to bulk out meat dishes to reduce costs. Try cooking in bulk when you can (which can also reduce costs) and freeze portions for when you don’t feel like cooking. Alternatively, you can create healthy smoothies (savoury or sweet) for a simple and convenient nutrition ‘hit’ (you may need to bulk these out with protein powder and coconut oil for healthy protein and fat). Finally, choose a range of foods diverse in colour to ensure you get a comprehensive range of individual micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
What about supplements?
There are a number of alternatives to standard pharmaceuticals that have been shown in human trials to offer significant relief from the symptoms of depression (mood, sleep, appetite, energy). Tryptophan, 5-HTP and SAMe are all examples of neurotransmitter precursors that help to increase levels of serotonin and melatonin. These, along with St John’s Wort (a herbal antidepressant) cannot be taken alongside standard antidepressant drugs. In contrast, the omega-3 fatty acid EPA has not only been found to increase the efficacy of standard pharmaceutical antidepressants, but works well as a standalone therapy at a dose of 1g daily. By reducing inflammation and increasing both the level and function of serotonin, EPA is currently the most effective non-pharmaceutical intervention for managing a range of mood disorders including anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and clinical depression. For those afflicted by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), vitamin D3 has been shown to provide significant relief.
Remember – it doesn’t have to be expensive to eat well in order to look after not only your brain, but your whole body. Ditching the ‘bad’ foods will free up more money, allowing you to focus on healthy, affordable anti-inflammatory foods. Eating the right foods, and ‘topping-up’ with supplements where appropriate, can reduce whole-body inflammation, improve memory, mood and energy levels as well as sleep. Eating small amounts, but regularly, can help provide essential nutrients throughout the day and ensures a steady release of energy! Finally, remember to keep your brain and body well hydrated by drinking adequate water – roughly 1.5-2 litres daily.