Often times issues such as depression are thought of mainly in terms of a biochemical imbalance or emotional issues - but did you know the foods you eat play a huge role in determining the state of your mental health ?
Eating patterns that occur when someone is depressed are much the same as they are PRE depression - these things include lack of appetite, meal skipping, cravings for sweet foods.
Many people suffering from depression may be deficient in an array of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. In this article I'm going to discuss a few of the most important nutrients, minerals etc - and give some examples of where you can source them in your diet. Please not this is not at all an extensive list ! There are oh so many factors that go into mental health as well so if you are struggling please do consult your current health care practitioner, counsellor etc. If you are looking for help with your nutrition in relation to your mental health - you can sign up for my appointment waitlist here, to be notified as soon as appointments do become available.
Essential Fatty Acids | Omega 3:
Different areas of our brains are made up largely by lipids (fats). They form the structure of the membrane, and the grey matter within the brain contains 50% of polyunsaturated fatty acids (around 30% of these are from the omega 3 group !). Studies have found that diets lacking in omega 3s can lead to disturbed neural function - DHA and AA (fatty acids within the omega 3 group) are unable to be synthesised in the body, and so must be sourced through the diet. It is also known that an imbalance of omega 3: omega 6 fatty acids can also contribute to depression, among other issues ( we need more 3's than 6's for optimal health ).
Food sources: DHA and EPA: Fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, sardines. ALA: Nuts and seeds such as chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds and their oils.
Proteins are made up of amino acids and are known as 'building blocks' within the body. We have 9 essential amino acids, meaning the body cannot manufacture them itself and must be sourced through the diet. Protein intake and amino acid acid levels can affect our brains function and the state of our mental health. Why ? Neurotransmitters are made up from the amino acids, so if they aren't coming in from your diet - your body may be struggling to make neurotransmitters, which are involved in mood (and many other things ) and hence affect your mental health. As an example; dopamine is made up from the amino acid tyrosine, so if you aren't getting that from your diet things like your motivation, emotional status, mood and even cognitive function will suffer.
Red meat, fish, soybeans and products, regular beans, nuts and seeds, lentils, eggs, grains such as quinoa, milk, cheese.
Again similar in function to protein, many of the B vitamins are precursors for the making of our neurotransmitters. Essentially if we are deficient in these vitamins, are levels may be low. Some examples include B6 for serotonin production, B6 and B3 for endogenous opiods, B6 for GABA, B1 and B5 for acetylcholine, B6 for dopamin, B3 and BH4 for noradrenaline, and B6 for histamine. These all have an array of specific functions within your body and nervous system, and can greatly affect our moods if levels are insufficient.
B1: beef, liver, nuts, oats, pork, eggs, seeds, legumes, peas, yeast, milk.
B3: fish, chicken, turkey, pork, mushrooms, brown rice, avocados, peanuts, green peas
B4: whole grains such as oats, wheat, barley, rye, propolis, spirulina, green leafy vegetables, honey, brewers yeast.
B5: mushrooms, fish, avocados, chicken, eggs, sunflower seeds, milk, sweet potatoes, lentils, beef, pork
B6: fish, beef liver, other organ meats, starchy vegetables non citrus fruits
There are more B vitamins than this list *
People with depression have been found to have lower levels of blood folate. Folate has a critical role in your brains metabolic pathways, and deficiency commonly results in depressed symptoms. Studies have also found that those low in folate often don't respond as well to antidepressant therapy also. Folate has a role in breaking down homocysteine, and if levels are low homocysteine can cause inflammation throughout the body. Higher homocysteine levels are also associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety.
Food sources: broccoli, brussels sprouts, leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, rocket, cabbage), peas, chickpeas and kidney beans, liver.
Carbs although often painted as the enemy, are a very essential part of a healthy diet. Carbs have been found to affect our moods and behaviour. When you eat a carbohydrate rich meal, insulin is released in order to process the sugar and allow your cells to actually use this for energy. Insulin triggers tryptophan to enter the brain which in turn affects neurotransmitter levels. Studies have found that diets low in carbohydrates can predispose depression due to low production of tryptophan and serotonin. These neurotransmitters promote feelings of 'wellbeing'. Lower glycaemic index carbohydrates are able to have a longer lasting effect on your brain chemistry, energy and mood when compared to higher GI foods such as sweets (which give off an immediate and short lasted good feeling)
Whole grains, fruits and vegetables
That is all for today - please remember this is not an extensive list of nutrients, vitamins or minerals. There are many more that play direct roles in mental health, and many more factors again that can affect how they are processed by the body.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please again seek professional help.
This article is not intended for the diagnosis, treatment or management of any mental health conditions.
Bourre JM. Effects of nutrients (in food) on the structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 1: micronutrients. J Nutr Health Aging. 2006;10(5):377-385.
Cornish, S., & Mehl-Madrona, L. (2008). The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Psychiatry. Integrative Medicine Insights, 3, 117863370800300. doi: 10.4137/117863370800300003
Office of Dietary Supplements - Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved 23 August 2020, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
Sathyanarayana Rao, T., Asha, M., Ramesh, B., & Jagannatha Rao, K. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal Of Psychiatry, 50(2), 77. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.42391