The foods we eat can be either a completely destabilising cocktail for a healthy mood, accelerating and compounding depression; or an extremely powerful tool for preventing and treating it. So let’s take a look at the kinds of foods we can use in order to boost mood and enhance mental health. At the most basic level, it means eating a nutrient-rich, wholefoods (real foods) diet, and avoiding a handful of offending foods...
As a rule of thumb, try to opt for a SLOW foods diet:
Seasonal (in-season for you and your climate right now)
Local (sourced from close to where you live –Farmer’s Markets are great for this!)
Organic (wherever possible = higher nutrient value, with the added benefit of reducing intake of nasty chemical residues from pesticides)
Whole (foods in their natural state -such as fresh vegetables, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, fish and lean, organic, well-fed, raised and sustainably farmed meats)
Wherever possible, try to avoid the packaged, processed, “food-like products” that are high in sugar, additives and unhealthy fats. I saw a quote I loved recently, which said: “Real foods don’t HAVE ingredients, they ARE ingredients”… They also supply your body with an array of nourishing and balancing nutrients that every cell, organ, tissue and body system depends on for good health and functioning.
Eating by these principles, your mood and your body will absolutely notice the difference!
At a glance, you really want to be increasing these specific nutrients in your diet on a daily basis; so on a whole (pun might be intended!), the major foods to look at are:
Healthy (Omega 3) fats
Essential fatty acids play an important and therapeutic role in depression. The brain needs these fatty acids for both structure and function, as well as being required for serotonin and dopamine transmission, and to stabilise neuronal function.
Healthy fats are highly protective for the brain, neurological system and all body cells; and are necessary for brain chemistry production, amping up feel-good mood transmitters and enhancing their receptivity. They are necessary for hormonal regulation, and play a huge role in reducing inflammation, which is known to play a major role in the pathophysiology of depression, particularly as inflammatory processes degrade and inhibit health neurotransmitter production.
Find healthy, Omega 3 fats in:
Oily Fish such as Salmon, Mackerel, Tuna, Sardines; Coconut and Olive oil; Avocado; all Nuts & Seeds; Eggs; Tofu.
The amino acids in protein foods are the raw materials the body needs to make our neurotransmitters for healthy mood; for example, Serotonin (feel good), GABA (relaxing), noradrenalin (motivating). If we are not getting enough quality proteins through the diet, our bodies won’t have the building blocks to synthesise our brain chemistry.
Protein-rich foods include:
Fish; Meat; Eggs; Nuts and Seeds; Legumes; Tofu; Tempeh; Quorn; Wholegrains (e.g. oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, millet..).
B complex vitamins
B vitamins are necessary for optimal functioning of the brain and neurological system; for production of feel-good neurotransmitters and their transmission; as well as for stress support, digestion and absorption of nutrients, and energy.
Find B complex vitamins in:
Dark, leafy greens; Whole grains (e.g. oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, millet..); Nuts & Seeds: Almonds, Brazil, Cashews, Hazelnuts, Pecans, Pine nuts, Pistachios, Walnuts, Sesame seeds/Tahini, Sunflower seeds; Soya beans; Yeast (bakers / dried / spread);Eggs; Kangaroo, Chicken, Turkey; Oily and white fish; Mushrooms.
Magnesium is an essential nutrient required by our bodies for stress, mood and nervous system support; energy production; and numerous cellular functions that play a role in depression and the regulation of neurotransmitters.
Find Magnesium in:
Dark, leafy greens; Whole grains (e.g. oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, millet..); Legumes; Nuts & Seeds: Almonds, Brazil, Cashews, Hazelnuts, Pecans, Pine nuts, Pistachios, Walnuts, Sesame seeds/Tahini, Sunflower seeds; Yeast (bakers / dried / spread); Licorice (confectionery), Dark Chocolate ; Chilli powder, Curry powder, Mustard powder; Goats milk; Red meat, Chicken liver, Pork, Chicken, Turkey; Dried fruit: Apple, Apricot, Currants, Date, Figs, Sultana, Prunes; Passionfruit, Bananas, Blackberries, Raspberries.
Low levels of zinc in the body are correlated with depression, with studies showing the more deficient the zinc levels are, the worse the depression. Zinc is a co-factor (necessary ingredient) for neurotransmitter production (feel-good brain chemistry) and many other important functions in the body.
Find Zinc in:
Pumpkin seeds; Eggs; Oysters; Nuts: Brazil, Almonds, Cashews, Pine nuts, Walnuts; Tahini, Sesame seeds and Sunflower seeds; Garlic; Green peas; Broad beans, Butter beans; Spinach and dark leafy greens, including fresh parsley & basil; Mushrooms; Yeast spread; Tomatoes – sundried; Red meats, Chicken, Duck, Turkey; Cheese (especially hard, yellow & blue cheeses).
A deficiency of vitamin D is associated with depression and is responsible for modulating several neurotransmitters. Vitamin D exerts neuroprotective effects, and interestingly, studies show it having a neuroactive hormonal influence as well. So it is a vital nutrient for many functions.
Vitamin D is best sourced by soaking up some sunshine through exposure of the skin to UVB rays (this accounts for approximately 90% of bioavailable D3 in the body) short periods, at non-extreme UV times of day. But you also need to have the correct amounts of magnesium present in order to activate it in your body. Obtaining adequate amounts of vitamin D through diet alone is unlikely, as vitamin D is produced in the body, and relies upon exposure to UVB rays in order to do so.
Find vitamin D in:
Sunshine (direct contact to skin); Oily fish –Salmon, Tuna, Herring, Sardines; Eggs, Beef; Butter; Mushrooms.
And don’t forget these important nutrients:
· Quality sleep
· Daily exercise
· Rest, relaxation and fun
· Nature (especially fresh air and sunshine)
Taking care to avoid certain things is also really important.
You’ll be doing yourself and your mood a real service by limiting or eschewing the following:
Caffeine has a demonstrated correlation with depression. It’s actually a highly psychoactive substance; and whilst many of us casually use caffeine in our daily diets, it depletes essential nutrients such as B complex vitamins and magnesium - which are vital to our wellbeing, in helping buffer the impact stress has on our nervous system and adrenal glands. Caffeine also alters neurotransmitter function, for example via its effects on dopamine transmission, and has a negative impact on quality of sleep –which is a fundamental pillar for mental health and mood.
Sugar and artificial sweeteners
Studies have implicated sugar intake as a notable causative factor in depression. It can be linked to several actions, including dysregulation of blood sugars (a marked driver of depression); exacerbation of inflammatory processes that impact the brain and mood; and the leeching of important minerals needed for neurotransmitter production and function.
Sugars and high-carbohydrate foods (that rapidly flood the bloodstream with glucose upon ingestion) hit the reward centres of the brain, and act to temporarily boost mood and relieve depression. This can create a cycle of reliance upon the very substances (e.g. chocolate, biscuits, bread and alcohol) further perpetuating the situation.
Whilst it can appear to help temporarily, the fact remains that alcohol is indeed a depressant, especially on the neurological system; and so will have a worsening effect on depression. Alcohol also rapidly uses and depletes those nutrients the body needs to maintain a healthy mood, and causes huge blood sugar spikes and crashes; so it can be a real triple-whammy!
Wheat and dairy
What we know is both wheat and dairy are highly inflammatory and aggravating to A LOT of peoples’ systems. There is much more that could be said on the matter, particularly discussing the link between wheat in the diet and depression (along with other psychiatric conditions!). But if you really want to try a simple, no-nonsense approach with your (mental) health and wellbeing using a nutritional, food-as-medicine-based approach; try cutting these two “bad boys” down or out of the diet completely (along with reducing or eliminating caffeine, sugar and alcohol –if and where you can) for 3-4 weeks…
Be sure to keep a food and symptom log, either on notebook or on your phone to jot down what you are eating, and also to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling; are you noticing any changes or improvements? See if you can track the quality of your mood, your energy, clarity and focus, sleep, stress/anxiety, digestion etc. (whatever symptoms and markers are relevant to you). A useful way to do this is to rate your mood and symptoms each day from 1-10. Starting your log a few days to a week before you make any changes will help you to establish a baseline so you can really see your improvements on paper, as well as feel the benefits!
Proper nutrition and nutritional therapy can be a real game-changer…
If you experience depression or other stress and mood-related disturbances, I encourage you to seek the support of a qualified and experienced healthcare professional, such as a Naturopath, for a holistic assessment and specific treatment plan that will be therapeutic for you.