Now before we get carried away with ‘magic pill fallacies’, no food is going act as a substitute for the love, belonging, autonomy, passion, and purpose that contribute to a happy, fulfilling life. And if you’re truly suffering from depression I’d strongly recommend seeking qualified help and counseling. I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the internet.
Depression affects upward of 120 million people worldwide, that makes it the leading cause of disability, (According to the World Health Organization) – so it’s safe to say, you’re by no means alone! But, if you’re struggling with mood and you’ve not got the basics of good diet and a solid exercise routine down – I’d strongly suggest starting there. You’d be amazed what nailing a few lifestyle fundamentals can do for you, many of which start virtuous cycles, e.g. you get better sleep, you’re able to cope with stress better, and you’re less likely to over-eat!
Also, it should be noted that the foods and nutrients listed below will affect people differently, i.e. some work because the address a deficiency… but if you’re not deficient then it’s not going to have much of an effect. Gut health is also a critical factor, your gut is responsible for absorbing the nutrients your brain needs to operate properly, also worth considering that more serotonin is made in the gut than the brain!
So as with everything, personalization, and testing are key! So…
- Consider changing one thing at a time
- Notice and name how you feel, record or journal your experience
- Stay the course or change strategy. Use the ‘how’s that working for you’ question
With that out of the way, if you’re looking for a steer on some of the best foods to light up your brain, jack up your hormones, and feed your gut, read on……
Before we talk about specific foods – let’s have a look at some specific nutrients that have been linked to brain health.
Omega 3 fatty acids – Building blocks for brain development and functioning – some studies have suggested addressing deficiencies here can help with mood.
Found in: Fish, nuts, seeds, algae oil, etc
B vitamins – Deficiencies, (particularly B12) have been linked to depression, although the mechanism is unclear. A 2014 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, supplementing with B12, B6 and folic acid improved subjects’ response to antidepressant medication.
Found in: Meat, eggs, seafood, green leafy vegetables, legumes and whole grains
Vitamin D – Required for brain development and function. Critical for so many pathways in the body that ensuring optimal levels is always a good idea.
Found in: Sun exposure, (and some fortified foods)
Tryptophan – An amino acid, tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin.
Found in: Turkey, beef, eggs, some dairy products, dark leafy greens
Selenium – An essential mineral, (so we have to get it from food) who’s role in depression is unclear, but who’s role as an anti-oxidant is hypothesized to help manage mood.
Found in: Brazil nuts, walnuts, poultry, cod
Some Food Suggestions
Nutrients are all well and good, but we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. And here are some of my top pics for brain health.
Dark Leafy Greens – As one of the most healthful things you should be putting in your body, putting DLG’s at the top of the list is a no-brainer, spinach, kale, swiss chard, take your pick. They are supreme fighters of inflammation, (severe depression has been linked with brain inflammation). They contain vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as a range of minerals and phytochemicals.
Fatty Fish – Sardines and Mackrel in particular, (smaller fish have had less time to bioaccumulate heavy metals such as mercury) are a phenomenal source of omega-3’s
Walnuts – One of the richest plant based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, (who’s role is described above). It’s interesting how natures often gives us clues… walnuts looking like a little brain… funny that.
Avocado – Most of the calories of an avocado are from fat, mostly monosaturated fat, also filled with vitamin K, different kinds of vitamin B (B-9, B-6, and B-5), vitamin C, and vitamin E-12, nuff said.
Berries – Antioxidant powerhouses; blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries should be a part of any diet.
Beans – Great for blood sugar control as they are slow digested and filled with insoluble prebiotic fiber they are great for your gut bacteria as well!
Walsh, W. J. Nutrient Power: Heal your biochemistry and heal your brain. Skyhorse Publishing. 2012.
University of Otago. New study shows strong link between low selenium levels and depression. University of Otago: News at Otago (Online). http://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/otago082203.html
Tranter, R., et al. Prevalence and outcome of partial remission in depression. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2002 Jul;27(4):241-7.
University of Cambridge. Research summary: Mind and body: Scientists identify immune system link to mental illness. University of Cambridge Research News. 2014, August.
Picard, M., et al. Mitochondria impact brain function and cognition. PNAS 2013; 111: 7-8.
Setiawan, E., et al. Role of Translocator Protein Density, a Marker of Neuroinflammation, in the Brain During Major Depressive Episodes. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(3):268-275.
Insel, T. Antidepressants: A complicated picture. National Institute for Mental Health. Director’s blog. (Online) 2011.Jonsson, Bo H., Saul, A.W. The Vitamin Cure for Depression. Basic Health Publications Inc.
Kaplan, B.J., et al. The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health: Inflammation, the Microbiome, Oxidative Stress, and Mitochondrial Function. APS. 2015. 1-17.
Conn, V. S. Depressive Symptom Outcomes of Physical Activity Interventions: Meta-analysis Findings. Ann Behav Med. 2010, May; 39(2): 128–138.
Dantzer, R., et al. Review: From inflammation to sickness and depression: when the immune system subjugates the brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2008; 9, 46-56
2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (Committee). Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2015.
Role of Translocator Protein Density, a Marker of Neuroinflammation, in the Brain During Major Depressive Episodes – Elaine Setiawan, PhD1,2; Alan A. Wilson, PhD1,2,3; Romina Mizrahi, MD, PhD et al