Step 1: Understanding the relationship between depression and diet
You feel down and depressed. Does diet play any role in your depression?
Studies have shown that brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) play a mediating role in the development of depression. When the functioning of brain chemicals is disturbed, depression can occur (e.g. following the use of recreational drugs such as Ecstasy). Several different neurotransmitter systems may be involved but the two that have been more frequently implicated are serotonin (5-HT) and norepinephrine (NE). Certain foods boost neurotransmitter levels and can help to combat depression.
It is also important for people to maintain constant blood sugar levels and here diet plays a significant role.
Appetite is commonly affected in depressed individuals, resulting in weight gain or weight loss. This can have a further negative impact on mood. Once again, correct diet can help to combat weight problems.
Step 2: Adopting healthy habits
Self-help is not a treatment for a depressive illness on it’s own, but it can contribute towards accelerating recovery and it can help to maintain the benefits of treatment.
- Reading books/acquiring information. This helps to provide an understanding of the illness which can be important for both the sufferer and the family.
- Eating an adequate diet so as to maintain blood sugar levels. Foods, which promote serotonin production, can be increased e.g. bananas, pumpkin pips and Horlicks. Stimulants which increase anxiety should be avoided e.g. coffee, colas and chocolate. Vitamin supplements/tonics may be useful if you are very run down or if life is normally lived in the “fast lane”.
- Sleeping sufficiently - but not too much.
- Exercise - begin gradually and slowly increase the intensity and amount of time spent exercising. Exercise promotes the release of the body’s natural opiates (endorphins) which improve mood. Being out in the fresh air helps to put a different perspective on problems.
- Relaxation - to decrease tension and anxiety and to improve sleep. E.g. meditation, yoga, aromatherapy and massage.
- Hobbies/interests - which help to occupy the mind and decrease pre-occupation with negative thoughts.
- Regular breaks/holidays
- Life-style changes - expecting less of oneself; maybe lowering standards a little; delegating; asking for assistance.
- Avoid alcohol/recreation drugs and cigarettes - these often worsen depression and anxiety.
Step 3: Understanding the basic dietary principles
There are a number of dietary factors that can help with depression. Eating a high carbohydrate diet (wholewheat bread, unsifted maize meal, brown rice) boosts the production of serotonin in the brain which makes you feel more positive. Eating plenty of protein (meat, fish, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, milk) to increase amino acid intake has the same effect.
In addition, B vitamins, especially B12, B6 and folic acid, can help combat psychological disturbances, so take a complete vitamin and mineral supplement like Supradyn. Omega-3 may also help, and the best source is Salmon oil capsules. Eating a balanced diet and doing regular exercise (which increases the level of endorphins in the brain) can make a difference.
Depression can cause pronounced loss of weight or weight gain, so if you are underweight make an effort to eat more high-fibre foods, fruit and vegetables. Go to the Weight Loss centre to find an example of a low-fat, high-fibre diet for slimming.
Alcohol and some drugs (recreational and prescription) can cause or exacerbate depression. This is possibly because it alters the balance of brain chemicals or the physical structure of the brain (excessive alcohol and sleeping tablets cause shrinkage of the brain).
Too many fluctuations in your insulin levels can lead to mood swings and fatigue. To combat these fluctuations:
- Rather eat five to six smaller meals per day than two to three big ones.
- Rather eat carbohydrates with a low glycaemic index (GI) than with a high GI. Rather eat whole wheat pasta than white or wholewheat bread, rather Basmati rice or couscous than white or brown rice, rather fruit than sweets, rather oats porridge or bran cereals than other cereals.
Revision date: July 9, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD