You have heard the old adage, “You are what you eat.” You are what you eat and assimilate, both physically and mentally. Are you consuming foods that reduce your risk of depression? What dietary items aid in recovery from depression?
Boost Tryptophan Naturally
Though depression is a multifactorial disease, nutritional support is essential. Organic, non-GMO tofu, almonds, black walnuts, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and black-eyed peas are all excellent sources of tryptophan, an amino acid essential to the production of the anti-depressant neurotransmitter serotonin. However, just increasing your intake of tryptophan by itself might not be very helpful.
Meals high in fiber-rich carbohydrates promote an increase in insulin production, allowing muscle cells to absorb competing amino acids. This makes it easier for tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier, increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Because this neurotransmitter is typically low in depressed individuals, the balance of tryptophan to five other amino acids, all competing for the same doorway into brain cells, is significant. Animal proteins are deficient compared to plant-based sources in this regard. Even cow’s milk compares poorly to tofu.1
Adapt a Predominately Whole Plant Food Diet
Meat and animal products contain arachidonic fatty acid. Excess amounts of this fatty acid increases inflammation inside the body, including the brain. In contrast, a well balanced, whole food diet reduces inflammation. Several studies have found that adopting a total vegetarian diet significantly improved emotional well-being, social functioning, depression, and anxiety over the “control diet”. A large meta-analysis involving more than 46,000 participants found that three dietary changes improved symptoms of depression. First, eating nutrient dense foods rich in fiber, vegetables, and less sugar, next, a low fat diet, and third, appropriate weight loss— each has similar effects and helps. to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety!2
A vegetarian diet composed of refined grains, sugar, and ultra-processed plant foods does not provide any health benefits. Ultra-processed foods have been linked to depression. In contrast, a study of 3,486 Individuals eating whole foods ( frequent consumption of vegetables, fruits, and fish) reported fewer symptoms of depression compared to those who ate mostly processed foods (sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products).3
Plant foods are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that generally help to repair damage and decrease inflammation in brain cells. Many people suffering from depression have elevated levels of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO). This enzyme breaks down the mood-improving neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. High MAO levels lead to low levels of these specific neurotransmitters, causing depression.
The phytochemical quercetin is a natural antidepressant found only in plant foods. Quercetin acts as an MAO inhibitor and works like a natural antidepressant. Quercetin can increase the amount of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain. It also benefits the brain by reducing inflammation and free radical production that is associated with most depression. Additionally quercetin improves the communication between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.4 Foods with high levels of quercetin include peppers, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, red onions, citrus, apples, berries, and grapes.
Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps to protect the brain and nerve cells. It acts as a fertilizer to the synapses and helps to balance the chemistry with the brain. The BDNF level declines in depression. Citrus fruit has a valuable phytochemical called hesperidin that boosts BDNF levels in the hippocampi (an organ involved in memory and mood regulation). Hesperidin also exerts anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant actions in addition to activating the brain’s serotonin system.5
Proanthocyanidins from apples and grapes boost the serotonin level too. Blueberries, almonds, peanuts, and red grapes contain pterostilbene, a phytochemical that inhibits MAO-B. Red grapes also inhibit MAO-A. Animal studies suggest that oleuropein found in whole black and green olives may help to reduce symptoms of anxiety.6
Early studies suggest that a few herbs may be helpful in the treatment of mild depression. Thyme and oregano contain an anti-depressant compound carvacrol. This useful phytochemical boosts both serotonin and the pleasure-giving neurotransmitter in the prefrontal lobes and hippocampi.7
Curcumin from turmeric bolsters BDNF and serotonin levels and helps to relieve anxiety and depressive symptoms resulting from major depression disorder.8 Brain inflammation plays a significant role in many cases of depression. Curcumin decreases three known pro-inflammatory agents in the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex. Human studies also show that curcumin can reduce inflammation in the brain.9 Curcumin can be destroyed by light. Moreover, it is fat-soluble and needs to be taken at a meal which has oil or nuts, to improve its absorption. The herb saffron can improve symptoms and may be useful for mild to moderate depression. 10 Discuss with your pharmacist and doctor about using any herbs medicinally if you take any medicine or have any medical condition!
Rhodiola rosea extract also exerts anti-depressant activity and inhibits MAO. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, phase III clinical trial using Rhodiola rosea extract (340–680 mg/day) demonstrated a remarkable recovery in the Rhodiola treated group compared to the placebo group for mild to moderate depression.11
Correct Nutrient Deficiencies
Folate is also crucial. Sirloin steak is a poor source. Vegetarians can do well on the folate front, as chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils, and leafy greens are all excellent options. Vitamin B-12 is necessary for optimal brain function. Fortified vegetarian foods and supplements are commonly used for those adopting a vegetarian diet in order to get the need amount of vitamin B-12. When these are not available, the use of sterilized skim milk is an alternative if one wants to go to a plant-based diet. Deficiencies in magnesium, other B vitamins, vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3 fats can also contribute to mental depression as well. If one has depression, having your menus analyzed for nutrient adequacy by a dietician is wise. I have seen individuals whose depression disappeared when they adopted a well-balanced, fiber-rich vegetarian diet.
Brain inflammation and severe clinical depression often accompany each other. Arachidonic acid from animal products produces a cascade of chemical reactions in our body. These reactions lead to an increase in inflammatory compounds circulating in the bloodstream that eventually reach the brain. Individuals who reduce consumption of arachidonic fatty acid from meat generally report a positive mood.
Also important is the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Good intake of fats is essential to optimal brain health. Chia seed, flaxseed, organic non-GMO whole soy products, and leafy greens provide the helpful omega-3, alpha-linoleic fatty acids. Fish is no longer a pure source, and it also contains arachidonic fat. Plastic nanoparticles in our water damage the brains of fish and can potentially affect our health. Pesticides adversely affect fish one mile deep in the oceans and accumulate in their fatty tissues.
Consumption of dietary trans-fatty acids is associated with irritability, impatience, and aggression. Consumption of a liberal amount of trans-fats increases the risk for depression by 48%.12 Read food labels. If you see “hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated,’ you know it has trans-fat. In children, saturated fat consumption is linked to impaired cognitive flexibility (or the set of skills needed to adapt and adjust to changing situations).
A high-fat and a high-sugar diet, compared to a normal diet, causes changes in gut bacteria that appear related to a significant loss of cognitive flexibility. Artificial sweeteners decrease beneficial gut bacteria. Gut bacteria release byproducts that influence both the brain and the mood. Beware of too much ice cream and yogurt! Get the plain yogurt or plant-based yogurt and just add fruit! Consuming saturated fats, even plant saturated fats, also dampens the sensitivity of the brain’s dopamine reward system.
Eating an healthful diet is essential in the recovery of depression. Emphasize whole grains, whole fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds. Use only cold-pressed oil sparingly, if at at all. Build up friendly gut bacteria by eating fiber-rich foods and substantially reducing, better yet, eliminating sugar, refined oil, and ultra-processed foods. Be sure you have good levels of vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats. As important as nutrition is, learning how to recognize cognitive distortions and replacing them with positive thoughts, exercising in a green space, getting enough sleep, cultivating regularity in your schedule, and engaging in positive social activities are also equally important.
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Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.
- Firth, J., et al. The effects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2019; 1 DOI: 1097/PSY.0000000000000673
- Akbaraly TN. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Br J Psychiatry. 2009 Nov;195(5):408-13. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.108.058925.
- Lee B. Oleuropein reduces anxiety-like responses by activating of serotonergic and neuropeptide Y (NPY)-ergic systems in a rat model of post-traumatic stress disorder. Animal cells and systems, 22(2), 109–117. https://doi.org/10.1080/19768354.2018.1426699
- Zotti M. Carvacrol: from ancient flavoring to neuromodulatory agent. Molecules. 2013;18(6):6161–6172. doi: 10.3390/molecules18066161
- http://Lee, G., & Bae, H. (2017). Therapeutic Effects of Phytochemicals and Medicinal Herbs on Depression. BioMed research international, 2017, 6596241. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/6596241
- Ramaholimihaso, Tahiana et al. “Curcumin in Depression: Potential Mechanisms of Action and Current Evidence-A Narrative Review.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 11 572533. 27 Nov. 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.57253
- Lopresti AL. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2014 Nov;29(6):517-27.
- Darbinyan V. Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. 2007;61(5):343–348.
- Sánchez-Villegas A. Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (1): e16268 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.001626