We all know how important diet is to our physical health. If we want to build more muscle, we have to eat a certain way. If we want to lose weight, we have to eat a certain way. If we want to sleep better at night or have more energy during the day, we have to eat a certain way. This is not really all that surprising if you think about it. Food is made up of chemicals and we are putting those chemicals into our body. This can then cause drastic effects on our body depending on which chemicals and how much of those chemicals we decide to ingest. So, if diet plays such a large role on our physical health, why would our mental health be any different?
There has been growing evidence showing how our diets and our nutrition can have direct links to mental disorders, mood, and feelings of well-being. In this blog post, I am going to cover 4 nutrients/nutrient groups that have been shown to have connections with depression. They are carbohydrates and sugars, vitamins, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids. I am then going to go over how you can get all these nutrients in your diet. Scroll down to the very end for a quick summary if you don’t care about the science as much.
(Just a reminder that I am not a professional and this information is just what I found through my own personal research. Please speak with your doctor, psychologist, or other professional before deciding to change your diet or take supplements. And if you are struggling with depression or other mental health issues, please do not hesitate to reach out to a professional and ask for help. Deciding to address the problem and seeking out all the appropriate resources is the strongest thing you can do).
There are two main families of neurotransmitters that are important to us today as they have been shown to have links with depression: serotonin and dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. An imbalance in serotonin can lead to feeling miserable and other decreases in mood. Imbalances of dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline, on the other hand, can lead to feeling apathetic and cause decreases in motivation (Holford, 2003).
Eating a diet high in carbs, as you may know, causes a release of Insulin into the body. Insulin is great because it can be used as energy while simultaneously triggering the release of amino acids that result in the production of serotonin, that thing that can improve mood. Therefore, high carb diets are linked with feelings of well-being and decreases in depression. However, the type of carb does matter. Low glycemic index foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains provide moderate and lasting benefits on brain chemistry. While high glycemic index foods like candies, soda, and other sweets provide immediate yet temporary benefits (Rao et al., 2008). This is why these foods can become so addicting, since they can provide your brain with immediate happy feelings. But they’re not worth it in the long run.
Refined sugars, found in these high GI foods, also use up many of the bodies vitamins and minerals without providing anything in return (Holford, 2003). That sounds like a pretty toxic relationship if you ask me. And those vitamins and minerals are essential to mood as we will now see here…
Vitamins are strange and complicated because there’s all these letters and numbers and I get them all confused all the time.
One of these strange letters is B, and one of these strange numbers is 9. Vitamin B9 or folate is extremely important when it comes to mood. Patients with depression have been shown to have folate levels 25% lower than their healthy counterparts (Rao et al., 2008). Further, a UK study showed that when depressed patients took folate for 6-months in addition to their normal treatment, they had significant improvements in recovery, and the longer they took folate, the better they felt (Holford, 2003). A controlled study reported that 500 micrograms of this vitamin was able to enhance the effects of antidepressant medication, and 0.8 mg a day have been shown to decrease depression symptoms (Rao et al., 2008). Folate can be found in dark green leafy vegetables, fruits and fruit juices, nuts, beans, peas, seafood, eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and grains, as well as a daily vitamin (NIH).
Other vitamins that can help with depression and mental disorders include Magnesium (found in green leafy vegetables and whole grains), Zinc (found in red meat, poultry, beans and nuts), Iron (found in lean meat, white beans, nuts, lentils, and spinach), and Selenium (found in Brazil nuts, seafoods, and organ meats) (Rao et al., 2008).
Other B-Vitamins, B6 and B12 have been shown to help detoxify the body of a chemical that can cause depression and schizophrenia in people. Supplementation of B12 and B6 along with folate have also been shown to be 3x more effective at lowering this bad chemical than folate alone. These vitamins also convert that bad chemical into an amino acid that has been shown to be superior to some antidepressants at improving mood (Holford, 2003), and 0.4mg of B12 a day has been shown to decrease depression symptoms (Rao et al., 2008).
The amino acid discussed above that can be more effective than some antidepressants is known as SAMe. SAMe, being one of the most comprehensively studied natural antidepressants has been proven to work as effectively (if not more), faster, and with less side-effects than antidepressants in over 100 studies. The problem is 200-600mg of SAMe is needed to see these effects and supplementation is very costly and unstable. However, TMG, another amino acid, is cheaper and more stable and is converted by your body to SAMe. 600-2000mg of this amino acid are needed a day on an empty stomach or with fruit to see results (Holford, 2003).
Another amino acid, tryptophan (found in chicken, eggs, cheese, turkey, peanuts, and more) can improve sleep and tranquility. And tyrosine (found in sesame seeds, cheese, soybeans, meat, nuts, and fish) can improve alertness and arousal. A lack of these two amino acids have been associated with aggression and low mood in people as well (Rao et al., 2008).
In addition, 5-HTP, a derivative of tryptophan that is one-step closer to serotonin, has been shown to be extremely effective as an antidepressant in numerous studies with barely any side-effects. Taking a supplement of 100mg 5-HTP along with vitamins such as B12 and folate 2-3 times a day can significantly help with depression (Holford, 2003).
So many health influencers and “experts” preach about how evil fats are or how not eating fat is the key to weight loss. The truth is all of the macronutrients are important, including fats. In fact, it is estimated that 50% of the gray matter in our brains is fatty acids. Therefore, not eating diets high in these nutrients can cause serious problems with neural functioning. Surprise surprise, one of these problems with neural functioning is depression. There are numerous studies that clearly show omega-3 fatty acids can effectively treat depression, and researchers attribute growing percentages of people with depression to the simultaneous decline in consumption of fatty acids through diet sources like oily fish (Rao et al., 2008).
One 21-year-old student from the UK who was extremely depressed and suicidal and had unsuccessfully tried a variety of antidepressants was prescribed ethyle-EPA, a concentrated form of omega-3 fats. After 1-month, he no longer had suicidal thoughts and after 9-months he reported zero signs of depression. Similar results were seen in various other studies that were conducted with more people and against a placebo as well (Holford, 2003).
That was a ton of information that may be kind of confusing if you’re not already familiar with the science, so here’s a quick summary of what you can eat to try to naturally improve your overall mood and decrease depression symptoms.
1. Reduce your intake of sugar as well as sugary, highly processed foods such as candy and soda.
2. Eat more low glycemic index carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
3. Eat oily fish, high in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week (mackerel, tuna, salmon, herring).
4. Make sure you have sufficient variety in your diet and are eating a good source of dark green leafy vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, fruits, meats, poultry, cheese, eggs, and seafood every week! Variation is key!
5. If you are interested in supplementing your diet and taking vitamins every day, consider asking your doctor or psychologist about B-complex, folate, 5-HTP, TMG, and/or omega-3 fish oil pills.
Depression is no joke, and it effects so many people, especially us college students. Antidepressants can be effective but can cause many unpleasant side-effects as well. Therefore, if you can treat depression naturally through your diet, why wouldn’t you?
Remember to ask your doctor or other professionals before drastically changing your diet or taking supplements and certainly before deciding to change medication protocols. And lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional, a friend or a family member if you need help. As Dr. Goldstein reminds us in “The Psychology Behind Weight Loss and Healthy Eating,” you don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental disorder to seek help. You can always reach out and talk to someone no matter what you’re feeling. Realizing there is a problem and facing it by reaching out and opening up to others is one of the strongest things you can do.
Brennan, Dan. “6 Foods High in Tyrosine and Why You Need It.” WebMD, WebMD, 5 Nov. 2020, www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-in-tyrosine.
“Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/.
Gotter, Ana. “What Is Tryptophan?” Edited by Alana Biggers, Healthline, 2018, www.healthline.com/health/tryptophan.
Holford, Patrick.“Depression: the Nutrition Connection.” Primary Care Mental Health, 2003.
Sathyanarayana Rao, TS, et al. “Understanding Nutrition, Depression and Mental Illnesses.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 50, no. 2, 2008, p. 77., doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391.
A special thank you to all my friends and family who have not only supported me on my journey but have helped along the way. None of this would be possible without them. Remember to take time to appreciate those in your lives!
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