Unless you’re a complete nihilist, you probably see some value in striving to improve your eating habits. Healthy diets make you feel better, look younger and live longer, right? According to some research, they can also work just as well as medicine to treat depression. Studies consistently show positive correlations between the consumption of nutritious food and mental health. So philosophical beliefs aside, we think we can all appreciate food’s power to make our daily realities more bearable. Let’s dive into the details.
Define a “healthy diet”
You may have noticed that nutrition experts often contradict themselves. Should you cook all your food so it’s easier to digest, or will that destroy the beneficial “living enzymes” in it? What will kill you first: red meat or veganism? The evasive nature of nutrition science and humans’ complex needs create an ideal environment for inconsistent diet opinions to thrive. But when it comes to combating depression, a common pattern has emerged across numerous scientific studies. Eat a Mediterranean diet to feel happier, they say. This includes fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, olive oil, spices and low-fat dairy. Studies also maintain that cutting out the bad stuff – processed foods, refined sugar, saturated fat – can combat depression.
Aren’t happier people just more likely to eat healthy?
Depression exists on a spectrum; nutrition is nebulous and humans are complex – a combination of factors that makes it difficult to pin down the causal relationship between diet and depression. However, this recent study got a step closer. The randomized controlled trial from October 2019 involved participants who, according to their self-reports, were already depressed. After just three weeks of eating a Mediterranean diet, these same subjects reported significantly lower rates of depression. In other words, the study demonstrated that depressed individuals can adhere to a new dietary regimen and reap tangible results from it.
How does it work?
Science still hasn’t clarified the causal relationship between diet and depression, but a few explanations can start to shed light. Understanding the mechanics of nutrition and mood improvement starts by thinking of food in terms of its chemical components. Certain nutrients can impact the neurotransmitters that influence your mood: serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and GABA. And yes, you guessed it – the Mediterranean diet is especially rich in these nutrients. Here’s a glance at how B vitamins, omega 3s, amino acids and minerals can play a vital role in your happiness.
- Deficiencies in B vitamins like B6, B12 and folate impede serotonin synthesis. So, if you’re feeling blue, it might be time to eat some broccoli, legumes, sunflower seeds, eggs or meat.
- Polyunsaturated fats like Omega 3s, a substance that helps constitute the gray matter in your brain, can help relieve depression by encouraging the central nervous system to function properly. The human body doesn’t synthesize fatty acids on its own, but you can get it from fish, flax seeds, chia seeds and more.
- Studies show that depressed patients often have significantly lower levels of essential amino acids, which occur naturally in fish, nuts, seeds and legumes.
- Minerals like zinc, copper, iron and magnesium fuel numerous bodily operations, from oxygenation to metabolism. And since the body is a delicate ecosystem, one could argue that any functional imbalance might result in depression.
On the flip side, the consumption of sugar may derail neurotransmitter production, and refined starches and trans fats can cause inflammation, a culprit of depression. Plus, most packaged foods lack the essential nutrients your body needs to feel energetic, focused and happy.
Make bite-size changes
We know that committing to dietary changes is easier said than done, especially if you’re dealing with depression. But as always, it’s our goal at Nano to empower you with as much useful information concerning your well-being as we can.
For plenty of folks, the food-as-medicine approach may work best in tandem with traditional pharmaceuticals. Sometimes going on medication can give depressed individuals the support they need to start making other beneficial lifestyle shifts. Studies also show that certain nutrients work synergistically with antidepressants. For example, folic acid supplementation can enhance the effectiveness of fluoxetine, a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI); and zinc can bolster antidepressant performance as well. Bottom line: There’s no one-size-fits-all way to treat the approximate 300 million people worldwide who suffer from depression. Finding what works best for you involves connecting the dots along your own unique health journey.