Food and mood are intricately tied — and not always for the better: The American diet has changed dramatically over the past 150 years in a way that may be increasing rates of depression, according to The American Journal of Psychiatry. Once rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish, wild game and plants, American diets now include more saturated fats from domestic animals and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils like corn oil, safflower oil and soybean oil. These changes in dietary fatty acid intake are believed to play a role in the elevated rates of depression in the twentieth century.
Diet, Disease and Depression
It may come as no surprise that depression often occurs at the same time as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But research is showing it’s not just that these problems can be emotionally trying to cope with or that depression leads to unhealthy habits. It’s that all of them are tied to an underlying condition in the body: inflammation.
Inflammation, over time, affects multiple parts of the body: It damages the lining of your arteries, impairs your insulin response, allows for tumor growth and, yes, can cause depression. But how does inflammation breed depression? When inflammation occurs, proteins known as cytokines are released. These cytokines, in turn, trigger the body to send out an enzyme known as IDO. Researchers have recently confirmed the role of this enzyme in causing inflammation-related symptoms of depression, and further studies are looking at how to adapt treatments for certain diseases to prevent IDO from getting out and bringing you down.
The good news: What you eat can control inflammation. The Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fish and is advocated by many leading medical experts, has been shown to reduce inflammation. Along with improving your overall health, it can help with symptoms of depression — specific elements of the diet are tied to better mood regulation and have been found to improve responses to antidepressant medication as well.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
High on the list of nutrients the Mediterranean diet offers are omega-3 fatty acids. Found in seafood like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, as well as in flaxseed and walnuts, these healthy fats work wonders throughout your body, improving heart health, vision, cognitive ability and much else — including mood. If you’re depressed, in addition to getting omega-3s through food, the American Psychiatric Association recommends taking fish oil supplements daily.
Fish oil is “the elixir for the twenty-first century,” says George Tesar, MD, a psychiatrist and the chair of the Psychiatry and Psychology Department at the Cleveland Clinic. The connection between this elixir and depression: Omega-3s improve the cell-to-cell communication in your brain that serotonin (one of the brain chemicals that influences depression) relies on to work effectively. One form of omega-3 in particular — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — has even been shown to improve symptoms in those who did not respond to antidepressant medication.
Eating omega-3-rich fish like salmon can be an important step to help get the fatty acids you may be lacking. Speak with your health care practitioner about finding the right level of supplementation for you.
B Good to Yourself
The Mediterranean diet also emphasizes whole foods — which pack a whole lot of B-complex vitamins. These nutrients appear to play a crucial role in mood regulation. In fact, several studies have shown that people who are experiencing depression are deficient in vitamin B12 (as well as omega-3 fatty acids). In addition to helping naturally regulate your mood, boosting your Bs can help antidepressants work better: Low levels of folic acid, in particular, have been linked to a poor response to these drugs. B12 is primarily found in animal proteins (try shellfish like clams, oysters or mussels) — although you can also get it from fortified cereals. Leafy green vegetables, dried beans and peas, as well as fortified cereals, are particularly good sources of folic acid.
Balance Your Blood Sugar and Your Mood
If you’re depressed, you may find yourself frequently reaching for cookies, chips or other carb-heavy foods. It’s not just because those items taste good or remind you of some happier period of your life — those carbs stimulate the production of serotonin in your brain. When you try to answer your brain’s craving for serotonin boosters with highly refined, sugary foods, however, you’re setting yourself up for further mood problems: The spike in blood sugar, and resulting crash a short time later, can make you irritable and unhappy. Such spikes in blood sugar can have longer-term consequences as well: Diabetes (which can develop from insulin resistance) and depression frequently occur together.
A better answer: Treat yourself to whole grain, high-fiber carbs (another heavy hitter in the Mediterranean diet) when cravings hit. The fiber in whole grains slows down the rate at which the food is digested, making you feel fuller longer and keeping your blood sugar levels more even, which will help keep your mood more constant. Try a 100 percent whole-grain flatbread with a thin spread of avocado for a healthy alternative to chips and dip, or a quarter cup of dried fruit if you have the urge for something sweeter.