The idea that what we eat affects our energy and mental state has been around for a while.
For example, we know that serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects our moods, is manufactured in the gut.
Now, we have more solid evidence that we can control depression by choosing our food more carefully…
A change in diet relieves depression
While the benefits of a Mediterranean diet may seem like information we’ve already heard, an Australian study was the first clinical trial to try and answer this question: if I improve my diet, will my mental health improve?
Professor Felice Jacka, director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, wanted to see how effective a dietary improvement program could be for treating major depression.
In her SMILES trial (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States), 67 adults with mild to moderate depression were given dietary counseling that helped them begin a modified Mediterranean (ModiMed) diet.
Participants continued this eating style for a 12-week period, eating more grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, low-fat and unsweetened dairy products, raw unsalted nuts, fish, lean meat, and eggs, while also cutting back on fried, processed, and sugary foods.
After 12 weeks, patients on the ModiMed diet showed significantly greater improvement on a standard depression rating scale than those who simply received social support as an intervention.
The nutrients you need to regulate your mood
While Professor Jacka does not advocate stopping medication or therapy in favor of diet alone, her findings highlight some ways that we can take control of our mood, and avoid sinking into depression.
Eating a wide variety of foods gives us a better chance at getting the vitamins and minerals we already know to be mood-boosters and brain builders. Here are some you should know about, and the best ways to get them into your diet.
Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 and other B vitamins help produce brain chemicals that affect your mood. Low levels of B12 may be linked to depression.
Foods rich in Vitamin B12 include eggs, milk and milk products, fish, shellfish and poultry. Many breads and cereals are fortified with B12. Sounds Mediterranean diet, doesn’t it?
Folate (Vitamin B9). Antidepressants have been found largely ineffective in persons who are deficient in folate. Also, since this vitamin is important in the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation, being deficient puts you at greater risk of developing depressive symptoms.
You can get your daily dose of folate by eating dark, leafy greens, beans and legumes, and citrus fruits.
Discover 5 reasons you need folate after 50, here.
Vitamin D. We’re not really sure how Vitamin D is connected with depression. However, receptors for Vitamin D are found in areas of the brain that are linked to the development of depression. And we all know how Vitamin D-rich sunlight can make us feel happier on a dreary, winter day.
Dairy products are the best food source of Vitamin D, but foods like egg yolks, fish (tuna, sardines, and salmon) and mushrooms are rich in D as well.
Selenium. Your immune system and thyroid both need sufficient levels of this trace mineral. A deficiency has been linked to cognitive decline and depression. The best food source of selenium is Brazil nuts. (Selenium is also a cancer-crushing nutrient.)
Magnesium. As many as half of Americans are magnesium deficient. Dr. Mark Hyman, medical director at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, calls magnesium “the most calming mineral there is.” Dark chocolate, avocado, nuts, flax seeds, bananas and leafy greens are rich in magnesium.
Related: A novel way to boost your magnesium
Iodine. Seafood and sea vegetables like kelp are iodine-rich. So are sardines, cranberries, and yogurt.
Without enough iodine, your thyroid doesn’t work. Among other jobs, your thyroid controls concentration and mood, both of which become impaired when you are depressed.
- A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial) — BMC Medicine
- Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12 — Journal of Psychopharmacology