Foods That Fight Depression

Depression affects more than 150 million people worldwide, making it a leading cause of losing healthy life years as a result of a disability. By 2020, it’s estimated that depression may be the second leading cause of healthy years lost, second only to heart disease.

For those struggling with depression, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not your fault, and it’s not a flaw in your character. There are a variety of causes for depression, and there are also some surprisingly great ways to treat it.

Even if you eat “pretty good,” the Standard American Diet (SAD!) may very well be contributing to depression because it lacks the nutrients that our brains desperately need to fire properly. And, as depression takes hold, there is naturally less motivation to shop for and prepare healthy foods, which can result in grabbing convenient, highly processed “sugary” and “fried” foods for comfort, escalating the nutrient deficiency that deepens depression…

What a Vicious Cycle!

In a story from healthline.com, this is exactly what happened to a woman named Jane. A debilitating panic attack at age 14 led to her being diagnosed with anxiety and depression and being put on antidepressants. By the age of 23, after many doctors’ visits and therapy, she was told there was nothing more that could be done. Then, after having a meltdown in front of a nutritionist friend, she was introduced to the idea of trying to change her diet to see if it would make her feel better. Jane ate a somewhat healthy diet, but dinner typically involved unhealthy take-out options, and there was also candy throughout the day and ice cream at night. So, she followed the advice of her friend, which included less sugar and processed foods, and tripling her intake of fruit and vegetables.

Jane said for the first three days she thought she “was going to die.” But after a few days, her energy level began to soar and, “Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t eat, I began focusing on how great I felt physically, which made me feel better mentally and emotionally.” Plus, Jane added, “I stopped getting the crazy highs and lows from sugar. I haven’t had an anxiety attack in months and am completely off my antidepressants, which I 100 percent attribute to my diet and lifestyle changes.”

What Causes Depression?

Monoamines are neurotransmitters in our brains that help control the regulation of sleep, energy, appetite and mood. It is believed that people who are depressed have high levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme that inactivates “happy” neurotransmitters. The result can be abnormal adaptive responses to stress that can lead to depression.

To help with this, pharmaceutical companies have created medications that are MAO inhibitors. Meaning, they interrupt or stop the “oxidation” of monoamines in order to preserve these important neurotransmitters, so you feel better.

But, medications are NOT the only solution. Believe it or not, REAL food, specifically vegetables and fruits, are equally powerful at preserving these important neurotransmitters!

How Can Greens Fight the Blues?

Consuming high amounts of fruits and vegetables has been shown to cut the odds of developing depression by as much as 62%! Studies show that these “farmacological” phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables act as highly effective, natural MAO enzyme inhibitors:

  • Vitamin C aids the production of dopamine, the “zest for life” neurotransmitter, and can be found in abundance in dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Other “greens” that are loaded with Vitamin C include broccoli, cabbage, bell peppers and kiwi!

  • Folate (folic acid) is known to help fight depression. Dark leafy are loaded with this important B vitamin. Other REAL foods high in folate are legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, plus eggs, beets, nuts, seeds, and fruits such as oranges, lemons and limes.

  • Antioxidants found in REAL foods reduce inflammation, which is associated with greater rates of depression. Pecans, blueberries, strawberries, kale, red cabbage (and even dark chocolate!) are great anti-inflammatory food choices.

Get Your Daily Dose for More Happiness!

A large study done in Great Britain found a dose–response relationship between daily servings of fruits and vegetables and life satisfaction and happiness, meaning more fruits and veggies meant more happiness.

Participants who got up to seven or eight servings a day reported the highest life satisfaction and happiness. And these associations remained significant even after controlling for factors such as income, illness, exercise, smoking, and body weight.

For many, an effective solution for fighting depression may be learning how to shop, buy and eat eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Here are some sure-fire ideas you can start today and you will be at eight servings a day in no time!

Do this: For this many F/V Servings:
Start a daily smoothie habit 3
Enjoy a big veggie-loaded salad with lunch or dinner 3
Include a heaping bunch of steamed or roasted veggies with dinner 2
Make “veggie noodles 1 – 3
Keep cut up veggies on hand for easy snacking (with hummus!) 1 – 3
Total Servings: 10 – 14

Soon you’ll be saying, “Eight or more servings of veggies and fruit a day? I GOT this!”

What Else Can You Do to Dodge Depression?

  • Douse the Flames of Inflammation! Studies have shown chronic inflammation may be part of the culprit when it comes to the relationship of diet and depression. It’s best to reduce your intake of soda, refined grains, processed meats, and highly processed foods. Instead, enjoy a wide variety of vegetables, including the cabbage family “cruciferous” veggies, along with avocados, fruits (especially berries), fish, nuts, whole grains, beans and herbs and spices.

  • Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids! Scientists have recently found that societies that don’t eat enough omega-3s may have higher rates of major depressive disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fats found in oils (and other foods like salmon, anchovies, tuna, flaxseeds, nuts, and dark leafy vegetables) that are “essential” to our well-being. As a double benefit, omega-3s are good for your heart and help reduce inflammation!

  • Get Your Vitamin D On! Vitamin D receptors are located throughout the body, including our brains. You can consume Vitamin D through foods such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and shrimp. It is estimated that 77-97% of American adults and adolescents have insufficient Vitamin D levels, and this insufficiency has been linked to depression, so it may be worth considering a Vitamin D3 supplement.

  • Pump Up the Magnesium! We need 400 mg per day, but most Americans average less than 300 mg per day. Magnesium is essential for our response to stress and for easing anxiety. It is also used in the production of neurotransmitters, maintaining our heart rhythm and for glucose metabolism. Whole-grains, nuts, avocados and salmon are great food sources. In some cases, a magnesium supplement might be worth considering.

  • Maintain a Healthy Gut! As much as 95% of our serotonin receptors are found in the lining of our gut. There are 100 trillion “good bacteria” found in our digestive tracts, and diet plays a huge role in how diverse and balanced our gut microbes are. The same foods that are good for us are good for our bacteria and microbiome. Great options include yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, miso, Kombucha, and some people elect to use probiotic supplements. Keep in mind, the most important way to feed your microbiome is with fresh REAL (unprocessed) fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. See our coaching tip for more ideas on how to maintain a healthy gut!

  • Ditch Processed Foods! Eliminate highly processed foods, particularly artificial sweeteners such as NutraSweet. Studies have shown that even at a dose of 25 mg/kg (half the acceptable daily intake set by the FDA), after just eight days, participants had “a more irritable mood, and exhibited more depression” and performed worse on certain brain function tests.

  • Get Moving! Exercise should be part of the prescribed treatment for depression (but rarely is). Studies confirm that exercise is just as effective at treating depression as antidepressant medication! Try to set a goal of walking or jogging 3 times per week — and getting outdoors may be even more beneficial to improving our mood!

So, can you fight depression with what you eat and how you move?
Yes!…when you take these ideas and RUN with them. 😉

P.S. Looking for a speaker to address “Maximizing Your Mental Wellness” at an upcoming conference or employee program? I’d love to customize a perfect presentation or webinar that meets the needs of your organization. Contact me here.

Wondering about diet and dementia? Read Keep Your Mind Sharp and Prevent Alzheimer’s.