Is there a connection between mental health and diet? A growing body of literature suggests so. I’ve dug into the research on how nutrition can play a key role in mental health, including major mental illnesses, and I’ve got practical tips on how you can use food to help treat depression.
Depression is the most common illness worldwide and the leading cause of disability, with more than 300 million people affected. If you’re struggling with symptoms of a mental health disorder, talk to a therapist or your physician, and remember that good nutrition can be a piece of the puzzle in your treatment plan.
Serotonin and Mood
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the body, also called the “happy chemical” that plays a key role in maintaining mood balance. It is known to help regulate mood and social behaviour, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire; and low serotonin levels have been linked to depression.
Serotonin levels can be boosted through the food you eat. Tryptophan, an amino acid present in most protein-based foods, is needed in the body to help increase serotonin. We cannot make tryptophan in our bodies, so must get it from food. Foods that contain tryptophan are also most effective if eaten alongside carbohydrates. Here are some tryptophan-rich foods you can add to your diet:
- Nuts and Seeds – In addition to their healthy fats and fibre, all nuts and seeds contain tryptophan.
- Poultry – Chicken, turkey, and goose are packed with tryptophan, and poultry is also a good source of selenium which is known to improve mood states.
- Soy products – Tofu, soybeans and soy milk make great protein- and tryptophan-rich options for vegetarians and vegans.
- Fish – If you have access to good quality fish, consider tuna, halibut, salmon and trout as your best options.
- Shellfish – Crab, prawns and lobster are other great tryptophan-packed options if you live on the coast.
- Cheese – Parmesan, Cheddar, Mozzarella, Romano, Gruyere and Swiss rank the highest in tryptophan-rich cheeses.
- Eggs – Don’t throw away the yolk as they’re extremely rich in tryptophan, healthy fats and other nutrients that provide major health benefits.
- Beans and Lentils – White, yellow, pinto and kidney beans are fibre- and protein-rich sources of tryptophan.
Boost Your Endorphins
Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress, and low endorphins in the body can increase the risk of depression. Physical activity and laughter are some of the more commonly known ways to increase those feel-good chemicals.
When it comes to food, dark chocolate is proven to boost endorphins. A recent review found that eating chocolate is able to improve mood and reduce pain due to the chocolate-mediated release of opioids, such as β-endorphins in the hypothalamus, producing an analgesic (pain-relieving) effect.
Mental Health And The Gut Microbiome
Some research proposes that the interactions between the brain and gut begin before you are born, and disturbances to the gut microbiome can happen at any point during a person’s life, due to stress, diet, and medications such as antibiotics.
So what foods can you eat to help improve your gut health? A 2017 study discovered a specific mechanism for how Lactobacillus – a probiotic bacteria found in yogurt – can reverse depression symptoms and anxiety in mice. Plant foods have high levels of fibre and can help feed the good bacteria in your gut. Cutting out processed foods is also beneficial as they compromise the delicate balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the gut.
A Look at Omega-3 and Vitamin D
Research has found that a lower intake of Omega-3 is associated with a higher risk of depression. Adding salmon to your diet boosts intake of Omega-3s and anti-inflammatory fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which are healthy fats that we must consume them from our diet because our body cannot create them on its own. These fatty acids help with preserving our brain cell membrane. Salmon also contains Vitamin D, which is important in the management of depression and supporting immune function.
If you cannot get enough Omega-3s and Vitamin D from food, supplements are a safe and effective way to get these nutrients. Talk to your doctor or Dietitian about dosage.
Oxidative stress in the body can lead to DNA damage, and appears to be a common thread in various neurological and emotional conditions. Antioxidants prevent this oxidative stress, improve immunity, and have a potential role in helping with depression. Here’s a list of foods high in antioxidants including dark chocolate, berries, beets and kale.
Overall, try to eat a balanced diet with fruits, leafy vegetables, whole grains, tofu, fish and lean protein. These foods also contain thiamin (Vitamin B1), folate and zinc, nutrients shown to improve the mood of people with depression.
Dietary changes won’t be sufficient for everyone and are not a substitute for other forms of treatment. For me, getting outside brightens my mood, and my pup offers unconditional love, which can be extraordinarily soothing when feeling isolated.
While there isn’t enough evidence yet to recommend a change in patient care for patients suffering from depression, research offers support for the idea of reducing the risk of depression with a healthy diet. What are your thoughts on the connection between good nutrition and mental health? Let me know in the comments below.