What to Eat to Treat Depression
Depression affects the nervous, glandular, and digestive/detoxification immune centers.
If you’re down in your cups, maybe you need a bowl of mood-elevating minestrone or a Bitter Greens Salad. And don’t hold back on those complex-carbohydrate vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), carbohydrates are the key to stimulating serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps boost mood and feelings of satiety. The brain makes serotonin only after it has been fed carbs with little or no protein.
(Interestingly, women naturally have less serotonin than men and twice the incidence of depression.)
The other four transmitters that must be firing for you to feel good are dopamine, melatonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine all supplied by foods such as whole grains, beans, and greens, which should be embedded in our meal plans.
We need all the great soups, salads, slaws, and stir-fries we can get. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2020 depression will surpass cancer as the second leading cause of death and disability in the United States. Currently, fifteen million of us are blue—and that’s bad. Long-term depression can alter DNA patterns and increase your risk of cancer and heart disease.
Of course, maybe it’s not a few neurotransmitters but the whole family tree that’s failing you. If your first-degree parent was depressed, there’s a 25 to 30 percent chance that you will be, too. Impaired blood flow to the brain can put you at risk for depression, and so can anemia and low thyroid function. (Women are 50 percent more likely than men to develop hypothyroidism, which often manifests as depression.)
Depression can be the upshot of a shortage of adrenal and DHEA hormones as well as the sex hormones testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. But before you pop a pill, have your health care provider run a hormone panel (blood test). Are you hypoglycemic? Chronic low blood sugar levels can trigger the blues. Go from three squares a day to six small, well-balanced minimeals to keep the brain nourished in a time-released fashion.
Allergies Are Triggers
Eliminating foods that you are allergic or sensitive to can improve mood. Wheat and dairy products are especially problematic. Eliminating sugar and artificial sweeteners can help (switch to healthier substitutes such as stevia and Xylitol). If you’re bending an elbow, do it with dumbbells, not cocktails. Alcohol depletes the brain of mood-stabilizing omega-3 fatty acids (as well as interferes with the absorption of nutrients in general). Remember, the brain has a higher metabolic rate than the muscles and a greater need for nutrients. One nutrient that is poorly absorbed and in short supply in the American diet is magnesium.
Upping your intake can take you from sulky to smiley. Snack on almonds, enjoy spinach pie, have oatmeal for breakfast, and eat potatoes for lunch; nonvegetarians can add halibut, a good source of magnesium. High levels of homocysteine in the blood can produce depressive symptoms, too. Bring the levels down with doses of vitamin B6, BI2, and folic acid. Oral contraceptives, which deplete vitamin B6 and the amino tyrosine needed for cerebral stability, also can produce depressive symptoms.
The SAD-Sad Connection
What if you’re sad because of SAD? There are plenty of natural ways to beat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Try the homeopathic remedies sepia, aurum metallicum, or phosphorus. Or consider Ayurvedic self-massage called Sarvabhyanga, which uses vigorous upward strokes from the feet to the head to rebalance energy and mood. Also, try getting up early and taking a walk in the early morning light for 30 minutes, or get yourself a light box to make up for the missing sunlight, essential for vitamin D production.
Don’t forget, the higher your body burden of chemicals, the likelier you’ll feel melancholy, sad, or depressed. The hormones in meat; the PCBs in fish; the arsenic, fluoride, and stray pharmaceuticals in water; air pollution; exposure to pesticides; and volatile chemicals in cosmetics, clothes, and furniture all impact the brain.
What to Eat: Blues Busters
So what’s in the blues-busting bowl, plate, or cup? Think of foods, hot or cold, thick or thin, with ingredients that will keep your digestive tract healthy, since that’s where 99 percent of your neurotransmitters are located (only 1 percent are in the brain). Foods that will safely boost serotonin include whole-grain breads and pastas, yams, potatoes, squashes, and root vegetables, including ginger, carrots, turnips, radishes, and celery root. Remember, vibrantly colored foods are rich in antioxidants, which protect the brain from oxidative damage. hTe two nonanimal foods that may do the most for brain health, according to researchers, are spinach and blueberries.
These good carbohydrate foods elevate the amino acid tryptophan, which in turn raises serotonin. The right soup, stew, or shake also helps elevate the amino acid dopamine, which when balanced, produces good moods, mental clarity, and high energy. Nonanimal amino-acid foods include tofu, dried beans, nuts, and nutritional yeast. Remember, for best results, the proteins you eat should be low in fat to reduce toxin intake and lower calories.
Better Foods, Better Moods. More bean burgers can mean a better mood because even a mild deficiency of iron (a star ingredient in dried beans) can affect mood, memory, and energy. Make or look for foods rich in iron and vitamin C, and the soups that contain them, including dried beans, lentils, citrus, and leafy dark greens. Greens the darker the better—in your soup and salad bowl can help block mental decline when it manifests as depression, say researchers at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. The antioxidants in greens block free radicals that can cause brain fog.
Lots of fresh and organic fruits and vegetables also keep brain cells nourished and functioning, along with the energizing vitaminB-complex foods, such as dairy (if you eat it, make it organic) and soy foods. High-quality amino acids from nuts, seeds, legumes, and soy foods, along with vitamin B complex (especially B6 and Bu), create a starting block for the production of neurotransmitters. Peas, beans, nuts and seeds, and avocado also supply brain-energizing vitamin Bl and inositol. Taking extra B vitamins and essential fatty acids (EFAs) can encourage the brain to regenerate itself. Herbs and spices to improve mood and brain function include ginger, fennel, dill, basil, and coriander.
Fat for the Brain. The brain is 50 percent fat, and you need to feed it a minimum of 2 grams of EFAs a day to feel up. Get EFAs through foods such as flax, hemp, walnuts, and sea greens, or take omega-3 supplements to prevent depression, mood swings, and memory slides. Peanuts, grapes, and berries supply resveratrol, a powerful protector of brain tissue. Add a supplement to get a therapeutic dose. Resveratrol is also found in red wine—choose organic to avoid processing toxins such as sulfites.
What Not to Eat: Foods to Subtract
Switch from regular coffee (caffeine stimulates the central nervous system) to green tea, which supplies brain-protective polyphenols called catechins. Add lemon juice to couple with vitamin C for more insurance.