We all know how important diet is for our physical health but can you eat your way to a healthier mind – to prevent or even combat depression?
It’s true – improving your nutrition can help to prevent depression and balance mood.
Depression is a serious condition that affects your physical and mental health. In Australia, one in seven people will experience depression in their lifetime and it is the number one cause of non-fatal disability in Australia. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the number one health concern in both the developed and developing nations by 2030.
The treatment for depression is different for everyone, but generally includes some form of psychological treatment including different types of therapy and/or medication. Recently it has also become evident that the food you eat can also impact your mental health and improve symptoms of depression.
Food and Mood
Everyone has experienced how your mood affects your food – when we are feeling down, we use food for comfort and crave the bad foods.
But on the other hand, the food you eat can affect brain chemistry which can impact your mood, both in the short and long term.
A recent review provided recommendations for the prevention of depression. The first recommendation is to follow traditional dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean, Norwegian or Japanese diet.
The remaining recommendations all fall into line with the Mediterranean diet – and are based around eating good fats, eating less processed/unhealthy foods and more wholesome nutritious foods.
So What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet simply refers to dietary patterns of those countries in the Mediterranean region.
The Mediterranean diet has been shown to be effective against many conditions including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and more recently mental health. Studies have shown that the risk of depression decreases with greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet and it is expected that future research will identify the benefits of this kind of diet on people who already have depression or other mental illnesses.
Dietary patterns do vary amongst different areas in the Mediterranean, however they all share common features:
- Eat more plant-based foods
The main concept of the Mediterranean diet is focusing on fresh, plant-based foods over processed foods. Plant-based foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
A recent meta-analysis found that a diet higher in these foods is associated with a reduced risk of depression, and the PREDIMED trial in Europe found that those on the Mediterranean diet (supplemented with nuts) had a 41% reduction in the risk of developing depression compared with the control group.
This kind of diet pattern has also been associated with higher levels of plasma BDNF which is involved in neuronal plasticity and is reduced in people with depression.
The benefits of these kinds of foods are likely due to their antioxidant and polyphenol content. Antioxidants are protective against the oxidative stress that has been associated with depression and polyphenols have beneficial effects on inflammatory markers which are known to be elevated in depression.
In addition, low folate, which is found mainly in vegetables particularly green leafy vegetables, has been linked to the severity as well as the risk of depression.
Finally, new evidence is suggesting a relationship between your gut microbiota (bacteria) and your mood. By consuming more plant-based foods, you are providing your gut with important fibre to keep your microbiota healthy.
- Stock up on healthy fats
Our brain is made up of around 60% fat so it makes sense that providing it with good fats is going to be beneficial.
Healthy fats are the unsaturated fats, found mainly in oily fish like salmon, and in plant oils. Omega 3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties and can also upregulate BDNF as mentioned earlier, which is reduced in people with depression.
The Mediteranean diet also recommends olive oil as the main source of fat. Olive oil contains polyphenols and has anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains oleic acid that is used to synthesise oleamide which is involved in sleep and altering membranes to improve the binding of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with contentment. The EPIC study in Greece found that high dietary intake of olive oil (around 50g/day) was associated with better depression scores.
- Eat more fish, eat less red meat
The Mediterranean diet recommends eating fish and poultry at least twice a week and limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month. This is mainly due to the types of fat found in these kinds of foods, and as mentioned previously, you want to consume more unsaturated fats as opposed to the saturated fats found in red meat.
However, it is still important to have some red meat. Beef and lamb are some of the richest sources of zinc. Zinc deficiency is common in clinical depression and has been linked to increased depressive symptoms.
In addition, red meat is our main source of vitamin B12 – which is crucual to neurological function, and low levels have been associated with depressive disorders, while high levels may be associated with better treatment outcomes.
- Social eating
Enjoying meals with family and friends is a crucial part of Mediterranean living. Being able to wind down, share experiences and simply having someone to talk to, does wonders for your mental health. Being able to sit down at meal times provides you with the opportunity to reflect on your day and feel connected with others.
It is also important physically as by talking and listening, you slow down the eating process which is something that we don’t do when we mindlessly eat meals in front of the TV.
- Get moving
Getting plenty of exercise is so important for your mental health.
For some people, this might be as simple as reducing sedentary behaviour – so swapping sitting for standing, or just increasing incidental activity.
A recent meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials found that physical exercise is an effective treatment for unipolar depression and is comparable to psychotherapy and antidepressants for depression. It was concluded that exercise could be a viable adjunct to antidepressants for depression. So if you are feeling low, just getting up and going for a short walk might be just what you need.
A healthy diet, with good fats and whole foods, has the potential to help you manage depressive symptoms. If this is something you want to try but aren’t sure where to start, make an appointment with me and I would love to help you discover the natural food remedies for depression.
Author: Ashleigh Hamilton, BHlthSc (Nutr & Diet), MSc (Diet), APD.
Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Nutritionist, Ashleigh Hamilton, is passionate about a whole of body approach to health which encompasses both physical and mental aspects. She works with people to make lifestyle changes that will benefit their health for the future, using a range of counselling techniques including aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and person-centred therapy.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Dietitian and Nutritionist, Ashleigh Hamilton, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.
- R.S. Opie, C. Itsiopoulos, N. Parletta, A. Sanchez-Villegas, T.N. Akbaraly, A. Ruusunen & F.N. Jacka (2016): Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression, Nutritional Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1179/1476830515Y.0000000043
- Sánchez-Villegas, Almudena, et al. “The Association Between the Mediterranean Lifestyle and Depression.” Clinical Psychological Science (2016): 2167702616638651.
- Kvam, Siri, et al. “Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis.”Journal of affective disorders 202 (2016): 67-86.