Diet to support Depression
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Foods to avoid with depression
– Specific foods to support depression
– Important nutrients for depression and where to find them
– More about a diet to support depression
– Triggers that can create or exacerbate depression
– Gut issues and depression
– Neurotransmitters and depression
– Minerals and heavy metals and depression
– Hormones and depression
– Viruses and post viral syndromes or chronic infections
– Pyrrole disorder and depression
While there is no diet alone that will cure depression, the right diet can help to reduce the severity of the condition and have a huge positive impact for many.
In some cases, diet has been the missing element apart from medical, psychological and natural health support. Recent scientific research has verified a positive correlation between a healthy diet and the reduction of depression symptoms.
A friend who worked in a private mental health hospital told me they provided highly nutritious meals to patients, without any other interventions, in the first three weeks of their programs. She said that about 90% of patients checked out of hospital feeling better from the diet alone. Others also needed the extra care of an on-going program with drugs and psychotherapy to support their emotional traumas and chemical imbalances.
For most patients, diet alone made a huge difference and saved them a considerable amount of time and money. Of course, they were in a less stressful environment, which would have helped considerably. The combination of diet and environment was enough to help them to get their lives back on track.
There are many factors that need to be considered when supporting someone with depression and professional health care is necessary.
If the depression seems to be unrelated to any obvious psychological background, then please consider other potential health conditions or imbalances. And even if there are known emotional triggers, it is still worth supporting the body in other ways as a health imbalance can be what takes a person over the threshold between mild depression and not coping at all. In other words, it may not all be in the mind.
Following we look at some of the potential issues that can trigger or exacerbate depression and the relationship of food to depression.
Foods to avoid with depression
There are various foods and substances that can have an adverse effect on depression and moods. These include:
- Juices, cereals, simple carbs: all high in sugar which can affect the good bacteria in gut needed for good serotonin levels.
- Gluten: inflammatory, destroys gut integrity and good bacteria
- Vegetable oil (especially when cooked): increases Omega 6 fats when good brain chemistry needs lots of Omega 3 fats
- Soy products: can affect some with depression
- Not eating enough food: creates low blood sugar and low mood
- Caffeine, sugar, additives, alcohol, recreational drugs: can all mess with your head
- Colours, preservatives, artificial anything: can all affect mood
- Dairy, gluten, soy, nuts, corn, nightshades, eggs: can affect or exacerbate allergies
Specific foods to support depression
Following are various foods that are supportive for depression and moods.
Protein rich foods
Most types of protein are good for depression, as they break down to the amino acids needed to make neurotransmitters to keep you ‘happy’. Turkey has the edge amongst the proteins due to its relatively high levels of an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan stimulates serotonin production which is a natural feel-good chemical. Protein rich foods often contain good levels of zinc which is also needed for depression support. Many integrative doctors use supplemental individual or mixed specific amino acids for depression therapy (speak to your integrative doctor about these options).
Most nuts are a good source of heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats as well as protein for your amino acids. Walnuts are great for taking the edge off depression because they are one of the richest plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3s in walnuts support overall brain health, as well as depression.
Nuts and seeds also contain some Omega 6 fatty acids which can be good for some people but not as good for others. If you are not vegan, please look at supporting your body with the seafood/fish variety of Omega 3’s as much as possible.
When it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, no animal food source is better than fatty fish like mackerel, bluefish, wild salmon and tuna. The fatty acids found in these fish not only have specific properties to fight depression, but also improve circulation and reduce inflammation. There is a link between inflammation and depression, so it’s well worth having plenty of Omega 3’s, whether from fish or walnuts or other nuts.
Complex carbohydrates are wonderful foods to improve mood quickly, as they help the body to release the mood supporting neurotransmitter serotonin. Whole grains such as brown, black or red rice along with sweet potatoes and whole grain seeds like quinoa and buckwheat are also good choices.
Studies have identified green tea as the single best food source of catechins, which are disease-fighting antioxidants considered more powerful than vitamins C and E. Apart from catechins, green tea has a host of other flavonoid compounds that help protect the cells from damage and reduce the formation of free radicals in the body.
Green tea does contain caffeine, but not as much as a coffee or caffeinated soft drinks, but it also contains the brain-boosting amino acid called L-theanine, that increases dopamine as well as alpha brain waves – the brain waves that are calm, yet alert.
Rooibos (Red Bush) tea
Rooibos, a native red bush tea, has a rich, earthy taste that lends itself to many flavour combinations such as decaffeinated chai tea or tea latte (tastes great with some coconut mylk). Rooibos also tastes great just black without the bitter aftertaste that some teas have.
Rooibos has many beneficial health properties. It is rich in quercetin, which is one of the most powerful antioxidants around. This antioxidant fights viruses, strengthens the heart and, as a bonus, is anti-inflammatory.
How does Rooibos help depression? Unlike caffeinated drinks that can make depression worse for some people, especially if they also have anxiety, Rooibos tea contains some rare antioxidants associated with calming effects that have been reported to relieve insomnia, headaches and mild depression. This tea alone may not be enough to treat major depression, but every little bit helps when it comes to the things we eat and drink to support our bodies.
Turmeric is a yellow spice commonly used in Indian and Thai dishes. It contains the active compounds turmerones and curcuminoids, which have been associated with a wide range of health benefits including supporting depression, mood and inflammation. Turmeric is fast becoming an all-round spice that is being used for more and more conditions as researchers delve into its amazing properties. Some consider it the panacea for all conditions.
The spice Saffron has been traditionally used for treating depression, asthma, whooping cough and to loosen phlegm. It is also used to support sleep problems, hardening of the arteries, intestinal gas, Alzheimer’s disease, heartburn and dry skin. Quite an amazing little spice really – a little bit goes a long way.
You can obtain both turmeric and saffron as a supplement in therapeutic doses, but adding these spices to your diet can also help.
Dairy free dark chocolate (minimum 75% cacao) helps to release serotonin and relaxes the blood vessels throughout your cardiovascular system and your head. It is often used as a stress relieving comfort food. Remember that dark chocolate is very high in calories/kilojoules, so only eat a small amount, preferably the raw cacao type, because heating cocoa to make chocolate destroys a lot of its health virtues.
Important Nutrients for Depression and where to find them
There are some very important nutrients needed to help alleviate depression. If you are deficient in any of these or have trouble digesting, breaking down or absorbing them, then it will be more difficult to eliminate depression.
Many of the important nutrients have been referred to in the foods (above) to support depression. The following list provides information about specific nutrients which you can discuss with your health practitioner, particularly regarding additional support from supplements, if needed.
There are many great nutrients but by far the most important ones are:
- Vitamin D: found in animal proteins and from the sun
- Omega 3 fats: some nuts & seeds, all seafood – especially oily fish
- All B group vitamins, especially B6, B9 (folate) and B12: mainly found in animal proteins, but also from grains, nutritional yeast and small amounts in most vegetables. B9 is rich in leafy greens.
- Zinc: abundant in red meats and seafood especially oysters and pepitas (the edible seeds from pumpkins and squash)
- Magnesium: the relaxing mineral found abundantly in leafy green vegetables
- Amino Acids: found in all proteins such as meats both red and white, nuts and seeds, legumes and pulses.
- Vitamin C rich foods from the many coloured fruits and vegetables
More about a diet to support depression
While a diet for depression is not considered a cure, it includes foods that support the body, and eliminates foods considered detrimental, to help your body to do its natural job of healing. For this reason, all recipes should be gluten, dairy and additives free, low in sugar, and rich in vital supportive nutrients and foods from the above lists.
If you have depression, look at the foods/nutrients I recommend, and foods and substances to avoid, and determine if there is more you can do to support your mood.
Because there are lots of great foods to enjoy, a healthy diet for depression doesn’t have to boring…no way!
If you have depression, cooking nutritious food for yourself is a self-loving act which can be a joyful, healing activity. And if you also prepare ‘vitalicious’ meals for others, then those benefits can be magnified!
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
The following information is to provide further insights about depression, particularly regarding the relationship between depression and the body’s functions.
Triggers that can create or exacerbate depression
- Gut issues: such as parasitic or bacterial imbalances, leaky gut
- Neurotransmitter imbalances: obviously this is present, but some can be supported by nutrients, herbs and diet
- Amino acids deficiencies: linked to neurotransmitters
- Mineral imbalances: including heavy metals
- Poor liver function
- Stress levels
- Lack of exercise: exercise increases serotonin – the ‘happy’ hormone
- Inadequate Sunlight: low vitamin D is linked to depression
- Lack of specific nutrients: such as vitamin D or Omega fats, B vitamins, zinc
- Hormonal imbalances: such as Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder
- Chemical/toxin exposure
- Viruses and post viral syndromes or chronic infections like Lymes Disease
- Organic acid imbalances
- Fatty acid imbalances
- Pyrrole disorder
- Giving your power away to something or someone
Let’s look at some of these common triggers:
Gut issues and depression
Over many years, I have seen hundreds of clients who have had depression triggered by conditions such as parasites, leaky gut and gut bacteria imbalances. After clearing these issues they have felt so much better.
This doesn’t mean that everyone with depression has parasites or other gut issues, but it is certainly worth investigating.
Neurotransmitters and depression
Neurotransmitters are brain chemical messengers that are responsible for balancing our moods, helping us to sleep, co-ordinate movements, pain regulation, control temperature and appetite and help us to learn and remember things. There are 60 different molecules regarded as neurotransmitters. The main ones are:
Acetylcholine triggers muscle contraction and stimulates the excretion of certain hormones and is involved in wakefulness, attentiveness, anger, aggression, thirst and sexuality.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in controlling our posture and movement as well as modulating mood, positive reinforcement and dependency.
GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid) contributes to motor control, vision and regulating anxiety.
Glutamate is a major excitatory neurotransmitter that is associated with learning and memory, but too much can cause overstimulation and nerve damage.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is important for attentiveness, emotions, sleeping, dreaming and learning. In the blood, norepinephrine causes the blood vessels to contract and our heart rate to increase. Norepinephrine plays a role in mood disorders such as manic depression.
Serotonin contributes to various functions, such as regulating body temperature, bowel movements, appetite, sleep, mood and pain. Depression, aggressiveness, impulsive behaviour and suicidal tendency all appear to involve imbalances in serotonin levels. If you feel like you are living your life under a dark cloud, then chances are you may be low in Serotonin.
Walking to elevate Serotonin (in the sun for Vitamin D)
Although it might be the last thing you feel like doing, research has shown that walking for 60 mins a day can lift Serotonin levels by 100% – just from walking! If you can walk in the sunshine, then you will also get a boost of Vitamin D – also researched to support depression. For more, see my article The Benefits of Sunlight
Above I’ve listed a few of the neurotransmitters – our brain chemical messengers. Naturally when someone has depression there are neurotransmitter imbalances at play, but what has caused that imbalance in the first place? There are many and varied answers to that question.
One answer lies in the gut, because without a healthy gut you cannot have all your neurotransmitters. For example, we have about 80% of our serotonin receptors in the gut.
Another issue can occur when there isn’t enough protein in the diet, or if the protein food doesn’t break down properly (poor digestion). Proteins break down into individual amino acids which are needed for the formation of neurotransmitters.
We also need certain nutrients as ‘co-factors’ in the formation of neurotransmitters. These are our vitamins and minerals.
See how important it is to have a healthy gut along with good nutrition and digestion.
Minerals and heavy metals and depression
We are basically made up of minerals and bacteria and when any of these are out of balance, almost anything can happen. Incidentally, our planet is also made up of the same minerals as we are.
The right minerals in balance are necessary to balance mood, while toxic and heavy metals are damaging to our body and state of well-being. Toxic minerals such as mercury, cadmium, aluminium, lead and arsenic can all impact our mood and behaviour. Even some of our valuable minerals such as copper and zinc, if not in the right balance or ratio, can cause havoc with our mood.
Toxic minerals can be tested via hair analysis, blood tests or post chelation in urine or blood. Speak to your doctor or health practitioner about testing if you feel toxic minerals may be a problem. Note that often minerals like mercury may not show up as the true levels that are stored in the body, but only show the levels from what is being excreted on the day of the test.
Hormones and depression
There are many hormones that can affect mood. And like neurotransmitters, minerals, vitamins and amino acids, it’s all about balance.
The most common hormone linked to depression is pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Whilst there can be many symptoms of PMDD, the worst appears to be severe depression, sometimes also accompanied with anxiety and a feeling of such despair that many women feel like committing suicide during this time, but once the period has passed they often feel quite normal again…until the next time.
While it can be difficult to treat this, or any type of depression with diet alone, the foods we eat can still improve some of the factors that helped to create the problem in the first place – such as mineral imbalances, vitamin deficiencies, inadequate proteins or good fats. In short, all the good things that help support the pathways needed to get back on track.
With a good practitioner, you can put the jigsaw puzzle back together, piece by piece, by eliminating the different components that created the imbalances which contributed to the depression.
Viruses and post viral syndromes or chronic infections
It might seem strange to think that infections could cause depression, but I have seen it many times.
There was one client, who didn’t feel he had ever been sick from anything, but had severe depression and was hospitalised many times. He said that he was having issues with his family, so therapists considered his depression was purely psychological and did not look any further.
When he came to see me, I tested him for pyrrole disorder, amino acids, neurotransmitters, heavy metals and mineral imbalances and everything looked fine. It appeared we had checked everything, and we checked for Lyme’s disease.
The client did not remember being bitten by a tick, but we checked and yes, he had Lyme’s like disease. I say ‘Lyme’s like’, because currently at the time of writing, Australian health authorities do not recognise Lyme’s disease and say it’s a different type of bug. Who cares what it’s called, if it presents the same, it still needs help.
We then worked on re-building good gut health, plus used specific herbs and nutrients alongside very specific antibiotics and finally his depression lifted.
Many people with chronic diseases, chronic fatigue, or conditions that don’t shift or change can become depressed. It is so important to get good help and a diet specifically for the condition/s. There may be more than one issue that needs support to change how you feel.
Everything may not be as it seems.
Pyrrole disorder and depression
Pyrrole disorder is a biochemical imbalance that can affect many different parts of the body, but typically can create or exacerbate mental health conditions, digestion, hormones and the immune system.
Thought to have a genetic component, pyrrole disorder is assisted by vitamins B6, B12, Zinc and magnesium, amongst other nutrients.
I have been specialising and treating people with pyrrole disorder for many years and found that while nutrient therapy can make a huge difference, the biggest impact comes from diet, as often those with pyroluria also have concurrent methylation defects that make it difficult to manage supplementation to any large degree.
I have pyrrole disorder which does not create any problems for me because of the way I manage it. I do so with a good clean healthy diet full of the nutrients needed to give good balance to this condition. For further information and articles, visit my page All about Pyrrole
Client name and identifying information changed
You might wonder what could possibly be the connection between depression and ‘giving your power away’.
To explain. Many years ago, a lady come to see me with depression and after doing all the usual scans and blood tests, we discovered that she had a parasitic infection.
It is not uncommon to see clients with depression that was caused by a parasitic infection. Because the gut is where 80% of our serotonin receptors are located, we need a healthy gut to have good levels of serotonin. But if parasites are eating your nutrients then you won’t get the vitamins, minerals and amino acids needed to make serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Low serotonin is a major factor in depression.
However, the client told me that she had suffered from recurrent bouts of parasitic infections for a few years and didn’t know why she kept getting re-infected. She didn’t travel to third world countries, drink tank water or have poor hygiene, so she was amazed that parasites continued to return.
We knew we had to treat the parasites, particularly as they can suck the life-force out of people. I felt there was something in her life that was sapping her energy and leaving her more vulnerable to these infections, so I asked her to tell me what she could be giving her power away to.
She sighed and rested back and knew exactly what I was talking about. She told me a story about her husband and a business partner and how the three of them were working together in a disharmonious environment.
She realised that she had constantly held back from expressing what she really felt about the work situation which was eating away at her (rather like the parasites). With that recognition and at my suggestion, she went home to discuss it with her husband and they then spoke with the business partner.
It turned out that the partner never actually wanted to work in the business and just really wanted to be a financial partner, but the husband got him involved in all aspects of the business. The partner was working in an energy of resentment and was always picky and cranky. Once this came out, he simply became a financial partner, took a back seat and all were happy.
My client never got another parasitical infection and best of all, her depression lifted.
So how did food come into all of this you may ask? Well part of this story was that she was so drained of energy by the end of the day that they would often eat take-away foods or just toast for dinner, so her nutrition had dropped. She wasn’t getting the nutrients to support her during this stressful time.
Had she also looked after her diet, she may have had the strength to speak up sooner. We may never know, but anyhow, she needed a good diet to restore her gut health and support her to contend with all the changes needed to be made in the business once it was running with just the two of them. They eventually hired another person who loved the job, so was not a drain on them or their relationship.
From depression to expression…it was a wonderful outcome.
Giving power away can contribute to depression. I’ve often seen this with clients, both men and women, who hold back (give their power away) regarding issues with their partner.
Often the problem goes back to when the couple were originally dating and during this ‘honeymoon’ period, certain negative behaviours were tolerated. Then because those behaviours were ‘allowed’ to continue, as time went on frustrations developed and problems escalated.
Yet rather than hold back, it would have been simpler to discuss the issue early in the relationship to let their partner know that a specific behaviour wasn’t acceptable. And if delivered with love, in most instances they will understand.