June 13, 2024

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How Food Can Help Control or Treat Depression

5 min read

A symphony of factors, including genetics, hormones, illness, and stress, can trigger depression. Your daily diet may also influence your risk for this mental health condition.

Foods that are potentially beneficial when it comes to depression include dark chocolate, leafy greens, and turkey. Read on to learn more about helpful foods for depression and those you’ll want to limit.

There’s a link between digestive and brain health that scientists have called the “gut-brain axis.” The theory goes that there will be negative mood impacts without a sufficient supply of healthy gut bacteria.

Trillions of microorganisms in your gut play a role in bodily functions such as digestion and immunity. Your diet, environment, and stress level are some factors that can affect the environment for those microorganisms known as the gut microbiota.

The gut microbiota produces important brain chemicals, including the mood-boosting hormone serotonin. When changes occur in that environment, the central nervous system (CNS) can vary in its mood and stress responses.

Researchers conducted a 2018 review of 34 essential nutrients, 12 of which were identified as relating to the prevention and treatment of depressive disorders:

To look at the bigger picture, the 2018 review authors also examined a subset of foods rich in those 12 nutrients, ranking them by nutrient density to give them each an “Antidepressant Food Score.”

While the following foods from the 2018 review won’t replace depression treatment—like therapy, medication, or both—they can be vital elements of a healthy, mood-boosting diet:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Healthy fats
  • Leafy greens
  • Mediterranean-diet foods
  • Oysters
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turkey

Dark Chocolate

Cocoa beans contain flavonoids, plant-based nutrients that are powerful antioxidants and may improve mood. In an extensive study of U.S. women without previous depression, higher flavonoid consumption was linked with a lower risk of depression, especially among older women.

Different ways to enjoy dark chocolate include:

  • Add dark chocolate chips or shavings to baked goods or other desserts
  • Eating it as a standalone snack
  • Pairing it with fresh berries

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats like those in nuts and fish are crucial for brain and heart health.

They are also considered one of the good foods for depression. A large review of studies found that people eating the most fish had a 17% lower risk of depression than those eating the least fish.

Another review found that omega-3 fish oil supplements boosted the effects of medication in people with depression, compared with taking a placebo.

To add healthy fats into your diet, you can:

  • Choose oils such as olive oil for sautéing foods and in salad dressings
  • Include nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flaxseeds, in muffins or salads
  • Incorporate fatty fish such as Atlantic or Pacific mackerel, herring, or salmon into lunch or dinner meals

Leafy Greens

In an Antidepressant Food ranking, leafy greens like watercress, spinach, mustard greens, lettuce, and Swiss chard got top billing. These foods earned the highest scores out of all animal- and plant-based foods, suggesting that they’re an important part of preventing or treating depressive disorders.

These veggies are rich in folate, a water-soluble B vitamin. Low folate levels have been linked to depressive symptoms and poor response to antidepressants.

Plus, the vitamin may affect mood-related chemicals in the brain. Some people with depression have reduced transmission of the important chemical messenger serotonin.

Leafy greens are versatile vegetables; you don’t have to limit yourself to enjoying them in salads. They can be added to many dishes, like casseroles, omelets, and soups. They also make for great sides, and some leafy greens can be baked and eaten as chips.

A Mediterranean-Style Diet

Improving your overall diet may help to boost your mood. That’s the key takeaway from a first-of-its-kind trial examining the effects of a modified Mediterranean diet on major depression.

For the study, one group upped their intake of fresh fruit and veggies, whole grains, legumes, fish, lean red meats, olive oil, and nuts. They cut back on sweets, refined cereals, fried food, processed meats, and sugary drinks. A control group received only social support for their depression.

After three months, a third of those in the Mediterranean diet group reported significant symptom relief, compared with just 8% of the control group.

The Mediterranean diet also comes with other benefits, such as blood sugar regulation and lower heart disease risk. Also, based on the study, there are many foods that fall under the Mediterranean diet, but foods to eliminate or limit include:

  • Butter
  • Eggs
  • Red meats
  • Sweets and other desserts

If you’re interested in trying this diet, talk with a dietitian. They can give you guidance about how to safely engage in this or any other eating patterns.

Oysters

Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, an essential mineral for proper immune system function. Zinc also supports other functions like wound healing and cell division.

When it comes to animal sources of feel-good nutrients, these bivalves got the top score in the Antidepressant Food rankings. Clams, mussels, and other seafood–as well as organ meat from poultry and mammals–also ranked highly.

Research is ongoing for a better understanding of zinc’s relationship to depression. What’s not clear is whether low zinc levels lead to depression or whether depression causes a zinc deficiency.

If you can eat oysters, try them fresh or added to a stew. You can also deep fry, steam, or broil them.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes get their orange hue from carotenoids, a type of antioxidant. Carotenoids are good for your skin, associated with a lower risk of some cancers, and support the immune system.

In a cross-sectional study, researchers found that an increased intake of carotenoids reduced the risk of having depressive symptoms in adults. The link was especially significant for adults aged 40 and older.

Sweet potatoes can fit into almost any meal. As a standalone side, you can cook it and mix it with a bit of brown sugar or butter or eat it plain. The potatoes also work as an ingredient in dishes like salads and casseroles.

Turkey

Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that may help treat mental health problems like depression. Your body uses tryptophan to make the mood-elevating hormone serotonin.

Taking tryptophan supplements may also benefit people with depression. However, if you’re on antidepressants, talk to a healthcare provider before taking supplements. The combination could cause serious side effects.

If you’re looking to add turkey to your diet, try one of these ideas:

  • Chop it up to go in regular salads or make a turkey salad
  • Grill or bake it and serve it alongside veggies
  • Use ground turkey as a substitute for burgers or other recipes that call for ground beef

Some foods have potential links to higher instances of depression. They include:

  • Fried or processed foods
  • High-fat dairy products
  • Red meat
  • Refined grains
  • Sweet or fatty foods

Unless you’ve been instructed by a healthcare provider to avoid these foods, it’s not necessary to eliminate them completely. These are foods you’ll want to eat in moderation.

Studies have suggested that certain food choices, like healthy fats or oysters, could be helpful for disorders like depression. They contain nutrients and antioxidants related to lower instances of depression. Also, some foods, such as fried or fatty foods, are best enjoyed in moderation since they can be associated with more depressive symptoms.

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