Balanced diet might be your best anti-depressant | Gustafson
April 8, 2010 · 10:31 AM
A recently published study by the Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that over a period of just ten years (1996 to 2005) the number of Americans taking regularly antidepressant medication has doubled – from 13.3 million to 27 million. That means ten percent of all people living in America feel depressed enough to seek medical help.
There may be any number of reasons for this epidemic spreading of depression in the population. Since I’m not a psychologist, I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to voice an opinion in this matter. However, as a clinical dietitian, I have seen a great number of patients over the years for whom diet and lifestyle changes had also a significant impact on their mental and emotional well-being.
Unfortunately, there is no definite scientific evidence of a causal relationship between “food and mood.” But, while a specific diet to treat depression effectively does not exist, it is widely accepted in the medical profession that certain lifestyle and dietary guidelines can contribute to the successful treatment of clinical depression.
The uninterrupted presence of certain nutrients – such as vitamins, minerals, water, carbohydrates, protein and fat – is essential for the proper maintenance of all our body functions, including our brain functions. A healthy, well-balanced diet can provide all these nutrients in sufficient amounts. However, if important nutrients are missing over extended periods of time, negative effects will inevitably manifest themselves, including in the brain. Simply put: Neither the body nor the mind can work on a poor diet for long without getting sick.
When people are overly stressed, exhausted or suffer from depression, they often don’t have enough energy left to take care of their health needs. Some lose their appetite and let themselves go in other ways. Smoking, drug and alcohol abuse may contribute to a rapid downward spiral. Some seek relief by indulging in unhealthy “comfort” foods that are often loaded with empty calories, fat or sugar. The inevitably resulting weight gain only adds to the scenario.
On the upside, carbohydrates can have a mood-boosting effect. Bread, pastries and pasta all raise the level of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that has typically a calming effect. For the purpose of easing the symptoms of depression, eating carbs is not necessarily a bad idea. But not all carbs are the same. Whole grain breads, fruits, vegetables and legumes also contain carbohydrates and are much better choices than food items made of refined carbs.
Protein can also serve as an energy booster. Foods rich in protein contain tyrosine, an amino acid that helps to increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain which are responsible for alertness and concentration. Protein does not only come from meat and poultry, but also from beans, dairy products, soy and, of course, fish. We are only beginning to understand all the nutritional benefits from omega-3 fatty acids which are richly present in fish, especially salmon, but also in flaxseed and nuts. In fact, clinical studies have suggested that a significant deficit in omega-3 fatty acids may be associated with depression.
Antioxidants, which are found in whole grains and many fruits and vegetables, also play a very important role as a preventive “medicine.” The brain seems especially vulnerable to so-called “free radicals,” which are harmful toxins naturally produced in the metabolism during the digestive process, but they are also caused by many environmental pollutants we’re all exposed to every day. Free radicals can wreak havoc by damaging cells, thereby causing diseases, including cancer, and accelerating aging. Antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E as well as beta-carotene have been proven to combat these free radicals quite effectively by strengthening the inner defense mechanisms of the cells against such destruction, thereby preventing diseases and, perhaps, slowing down the natural aging process.
A lack of vitamin D is another potential cause for depression. Insufficient exposure to sunshine is common among office workers and the elderly. Thankfully, vitamin D deficiency can easily be treated with dietary adjustments and a daily multi-vitamin supplement. But it is important to get regularly tested for vitamin D deficiency.
Our understanding of depression is far from complete. But we have good reasons to believe that the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and balanced nutrition has much to contribute to any treatment we can think of, for now and in the future.
If you are interested in reading more about this subject, please visit my blog at www.timigustafson.com Keyword: “Diet for Depression”
Timi Gustafson is the author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Find more tips for a healthy lifestyle in her book which is available at local bookstores, at www.amazon.com and at her blog. Visit timigustafson.com to read many more articles as well as her Glad You Asked™ Q+A sessions and post your own questions, comments and suggestions.