Lighten up: Foods That Fight Depression
We live in stressful times, and all that stress can lead to serious bouts of depression.
Typically, when we’re depressed, we turn to quick fixes. A tub of ice cream, a candy bar or a box of chocolates. But these only give us a temporary, artificial high, and we feel even worse when the effects wear off.
Depression is thought to be a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Three chemicals in particular are affected, namely:
a) Serotonin (regulates emotions, sleep and appetite)
b) Noradrenaline (linked to arousal and alertness)
c) Dopamine (associated with pleasure and reward)
Some foods make you feel good because they trigger the release of serotonin, the “happy” neurotransmitter, in the brain. These foods contain an essential amino acid called tryptophan, a natural mood enhancer known to relieve depression. Tryptophan in turn stimulates the production of serotonin.
You’ll find rich sources of tryptophan in vitamin B6, vitamin C, folic acid and zinc, which are available from meat, fish, beans and lentils. Other good sources of tryptophan are lean turkey and chicken, and carbohydrates.
The Bs Knees
One way to correct the brain’s chemical imbalance is to make sure you’re getting lots of B vitamins. Vitamin B1 and B6 are excellent sources of thiamin and folate respectively. Deficiencies in either of these can lead to depression. Thiamin boosts energy and concentration, while low folate levels can actually deepen depression. Vitamin B6 should always be taken with zinc, which helps the body convert it.
Folate can be found in most fruit and vegetables, with high concentrations in asparagus, spinach and avocado. Other folate-rich foods include:
- Chicken and liver
- Sweet potato and navy beans
- Papayas and bananas (or any fruit or vegetable with orange and yellow pigments)
- Red bell peppers
- Sunflower seeds
- Basil and St. John’s wort
You’ll find natural combinations of B6 and zinc in watercress, Swiss chard, romaine, kale, beets and mustard greens. For easy ways to add folate to your diet, try some of these ideas:
1. Sprinkle a few strawberries on your favourite breakfast cereal
2. Drink a glass of 100% orange juice with your breakfast each morning
3. Substitute darker green lettuce or raw spinach in salads and sandwiches
Vitamin deficiency isn’t the only thing that can lead to depression: an absence of certain minerals from your diet can also have an alarming effect. A regular supply of iron and selenium will lift your spirits and keep you healthy. Deficiencies in either of these minerals can often show up in the form of a bad mood. Iron is readily available in meat; and the darker the better. Vegetarians can source it in green leafy vegetables, legumes and fortified cereals. The best sources for selenium include Brazil nuts, tuna, salmon, brown rice, barley and bulgur wheat.
Carbs and Fats
Carbohydrates are also capable of raising serotonin levels in the brain and therefore boosting your mood. But with all the bad press carbs have been getting recently, it’s best to make sure you eat the right kind.
About 50-55 percent of our calories should come from carbohydrates, according to US Government Diet Guidelines. That makes sense when you think about it, because it’s the carbohydrates that give us our energy.
There are two kinds of carbs you should be aware of:
a) Starches (complex carbohydrates) found in cereals, pulses and potatoes
b) Sugars found in fruit and vegetables
Bad carbohydrates are the sugars and starches found in processed foods. When it comes to carbs, brown is better, and natural is nutritious. Some of the best sources of carbohydrates include:
- Bread (brown or whole wheat)
- Oats and breakfast cereals (whole grain where possible)
- Pasta and noodles (whole wheat)
- Rice and potatoes (including sweet potatoes)
- Beans and lentils (fresh, unprocessed if possible)
To ensure your diet contains enough carbohydrates, try to cook up menu ideas so they include them:
1. Try to eat at least 2 cups of fruits and 2.5 cups of vegetables a day
2. Sprinkle ground flax seed on your cereal and salads, or substitute flax seed oil for other oils
3. Add a few beans to your salads, soups, or stews to mix things up a bit
To stay in a good mood, avoid fatty foods. Some fats are actually good for you, however. Omega-3 fatty acids boost brain functions and fight depression. But your body can’t make them by itself: the only way to get them is through your diet. The best source is seafood, especially cold water oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. You can also get reasonable quantities from flaxseed and eggs.
Sex and Chocolate
You might not believe it, but eating the wrong kinds of food can actually cause depression. Low-fat diets in particular can starve the body of essential nutrients, leading to mood and energy swings. To prevent this, you need to eat foods that are digested slowly, foods with a low GI (Glycaemic Index) such as whole grain rye bread, oats and basmati rice. And get to get in a really good mood, eat chocolate. Good quality chocolate releases endorphins into the body that make you feel relaxed and “naturally” happier. Chocolate is also thought to increase libido and act as a natural antidepressant.
Want to ward off depression simply by balancing your diet? Then here’s what you need to know:
- Broccoli and blueberries, to help stabilize blood sugar levels
- Oily fish, high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Eggs and oatmeal for carbs and tryptophan
- Avocado and spinach, folate-rich
- Whole grains, brown rice, whole wheat bread or pasta for B vitamins
- Fatty foods, especially red meat and corn oil
- Greasy foods, especially fried or anything high in saturated fat
- Artificial sugars, especially in processed foods
- Caffeine, which temporarily raises blood glucose levels, and then drops it again leaving you feeling depressed