by Michael Kerr
In the 5th century BC, the father of Western Medicine, Hippocrates, described depression as a condition “in which sadness, anxiety, moral dejection, tendency to suicide, aversion to food, despondency, sleeplessness, irritability and listlessness is accompanied by prolonged fear,” according to depression expert Andrew Solomon, author of the book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.
Since Hippocrates time, the suspected causes of depression and its treatments have varied wildly. Hippocrates himself believed depression was caused by too much black bile in the spleen. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly thought to be a sign of God’s disfavor. Popular “treatments” in medieval times included imprisonment or even execution for “sacrilegious” sufferers. It wasn’t until the enlightenment that depression began to gain recognition as the clinical condition it is. Despite that, the inner-workings of the human brain remained uncharted and murky territory for two more centuries – depression as a mental disorder didn’t even make it into American psychiatric manuals until the 1950s. The “new” condition came with a definition nearly identical to the one Hippocrates gave it two and a half millennia ago.
Treatments for depression have included everything from acupuncture to analysis, herbs to electroshock and, more recently, supplements and antidepressants. Even with all of those options for relief, depression remains on the upswing. Each year 17 million Americans are diagnosed with depression, while countless others suffer in silence. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, one in six people reported struggling with depression at one time or another during their lives. Some of the rise is no doubt due to better diagnoses and an easing of social stigmas but, even so, those reasons alone aren’t enough to account for the increase. There is strong evidence that the movement away from healthy, sustainable whole foods to processed ones is making us sick – not only in body, but in our minds as well.
You Are What Your Eat
According to a recent study conducted at the University of Melbourne in Australia, women who consumed a diet of of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and high-quality proteins were 30 percent less likely to suffer from major depression, dysthymia (chronic depression) and other anxiety disorders compared to those who ate a Western diet consisting of processed foods high in refined sugars and saturated fats. The study also found a 50 percent increased likelihood of depression in those consuming a Western diet.
Similar findings were reported in a study of 5,000 middle aged office workers in Great Britain. Those on a Mediterranean-style diet which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, nuts, cereals and legumes while limiting meat and dairy products reported less depression than their junk food-consuming coworkers. In addition, they had lower rates of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Fruits and Vegetables
Your mother was right to tell you to eat your fruits and veggies—although not necessarily for the reasons she had in mind.
Not only do vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, collard greens and carrots provide essential nutrients to help our bodies function at their full potential, they are loaded with beta-carotenes. These antioxidants help stop free radicals which have been shown to wreak havoc not only on our bodies, but on our brains as well.
Vitamin C laden fruits such as apricots, blueberries, oranges, peaches and strawberries help tie up free radicals too. Top those two off with some vitamin E found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, margarine and wheat germ, and you’ll have those brain-bashing free radicals begging for mercy.
The jury is still out, but there seems to be some evidence that carbohydrate craving is related to a decrease in mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin.
When it comes to carbs, stick with smart ones which include whole grains and legumes as well as fruits and vegetables. Steer clear of carbohydrates in processed foods, however—they’ll likely do more harm than good by raising insulin levels and putting you at risk for diabetes and other diseases.
High Quality Vegetable Protein
The amino acid tyrosine may boost levels of dopamine in the brain, helping you to concentrate and feel more alert. Good sources of tyrosine for vegetarians and vegans include soy products such as tofu and tempeh as well as peas and beans. Food for thought.
Vitamin B12 and Folate
There is little evidence that using folate or B12 supplements helps reduce the symptoms of the disease, but there is strong evidence that not getting enough in your diet can lead to depression.
A Spanish study found that as folate decreased in men, rates of depression increased. The same was true for women except, instead of folate, the culprit was Vitamin B12. Dark green, leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and many fruits are all excellent sources of folate but vegetarians and vegans may find getting enough B12 a bit trickier. The Vegan Society recommends foods fortified with B12 such as healthy breakfast cereals.
Research has shown a lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can also lead to depression.
Fish-shunning vegetarians and vegans need not worry, however—omega-3s are plentiful in nuts such as walnuts as well as in flaxseed, canola and soybean oil and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and collard greens.
Food and Mood: Eating for Your (Mental) Health
Research has shown trying to eat your way out of depression once you’ve been diagnosed can be a long slog over an empty plate so, when considering depression and diet, prevention is key.
If you’re not depressed, make the switch away from a Western diet now and, odds are, you won’t have to deal with the black bile of depression in the future. If you are depressed, discuss treatment options with your doctor or other health practitioner. While you’re waiting for an appointment, eschew processed foods in favor of healthy ones so that, when you are feeling better, you’ll be less likely to incur a relapse. You’ll likely be very happy you did.
Bio: Michael Kerr is an award-winning freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in numerous books, magazines and newspapers including Portland Business Journal, USA Today and Chron.com. He writes about nutrition and fitness for Help For Depression and other websites.
- Cassels, Caroline. “Whole Diet May Ward Off Depression and Anxiety.” Medscape Medical News. 4 Jan 2010. 4 Nov 2011.
- “Depression and Diet.” WebMD. Website. 2011 4 Nov 2011
- National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression.” Website. 2011 2 Nov 2011
- Pelham, Brett W. “About One in Six Americans Report History of Depression.” Gallup. 22 Oct 2009. 2 Nov 2009.
- Solomon, Andrew. “History of Treating Depression.” National Public Radio: Talk of the Nation. 25 March 2004. 2 Nov 2011.
- Zeratsky, Katherine R.D., L.D. “Junk food blues: Are depression and diet related?” Mayo Clinic Online. 11 Feb 2010. 5 Nov 2011.
Image Credit: Food and Mood photo via Shutterstock