"Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain," says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science. "Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function."
I really wish that ANY of the many healthcare professionals I encountered in my 15-year struggle with depression had pointed out the inextricable connection between the brain and body.
It is so obvious to me now, but the neglected truth is that the brain is a part of the body, and the body is literally built from and functions on food. So if you want to create a healthy brain, you must provide the proper MATERIALS.
I cannot stress enough the importance of nutrition to life, but especially to treating mental disorders. Proper nutrition is absolutely essential! But it’s mind-boggling how little we are taught about nutrition—in school, by parents, and especially by healthcare professionals!
But that's where I come in.
NUTRITION AND DEPRESSION
When I began to research nutrition in an attempt to repair my body from the damage of a decade-long cigarette habit, I learned that eating to fight cancer and eating to fight depression are almost identical.
Why? Because foods that are good for you improve every single aspect of your bodily health.
Depression is a disorder that occurs in the brain. Brain cells are built with organic compounds that are provided by the food you eat. What you eat LITERALLY becomes YOU. Feed your body crap and it will perform (everything) like crap.
Here's how to eat to fight and beat depression.
1. FILL UP ON ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FOODS
Evidence proves that an inflamed brain is a depressed brain, and though we know that depression is an inflammatory disease, many psychologists and psychiatrists still do not prescribe an anti-inflammatory diet, which can help reduce or reverse depression (not to mention heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer).
PACK YOUR DIET WITH THESE FOODS. THEY ARE MEDICINE.
- dark leafy greens (spinach, collards, kale, broccoli)
- almonds and walnuts
- chia seeds and ground flax seeds (the body can't digest flax seeds whole)
- fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel)
- blueberries and blackberries
- ginger root and turmeric
Here is a helpful infographic from Harvard Health. The inflammation list at the bottom is fairly complete, the anti-inflammatory food list does not include all of the foods that fight inflammation.
2. AVOID INFLAMMATORY FOODS
To further douse the fire of inflammation, add the above foods to your diet, and AVOID the foods that CAUSE inflammation.
A quick note for the depressives: If you are reluctant to avoid these foods because you love to eat them, they make you feel good, or they “make you happy,” you OWE IT TO YOURSELF to fix your mindset. Because it’s messed up.
Fried chicken and french fries are not happiness. Fried chicken and french fries are temporary pleasure. Eating cookies and ice cream is not enjoying life. Enjoying life is spending time with people you love. It’s finding success and contentment. It is not eating junk that is MAKING YOU SICK AND DEPRESSED.
FOODS THAT ARE MAKING YOU SICK AND DEPRESSED
- fried foods (french fries, fried chicken, fried seafood)
- sugar (sweets, soda, sugar-sweetened drinks, table sugar)
- any refined flours carbohydrates (white bread, regular pasta, pastries, most breakfast cereals)
- processed meats (hot dogs, beef snacks, bologna, salami)
- red meat (beef, burgers, steaks, venison)
- margarine, shortening, and lard
When I started to see food as medicine, it became easy and enjoyable to eat all the kale and broccoli i could. As I was chewing, I thought, "This is actually curing me of disease."
Once I understood that sugary, fatty, processed foods were actually destroying my health—not in some distant, hard-to-relate-to future, but in the present moment—it became easy to see them as garbage that I wanted nowhere near the inside of my body.
3. OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
THE BRAIN LOOOOVES FATS
The brain is made mostly of fat, so it's not surprising that it does not function well when it is deprived of this necessary nutrient. Do not be afraid of fats in your diet. I repeat: DO NOT BE AFRAID OF FATS in your diet.
Dietary fat will not make you fat. Excesses of any nutrient (even protein) are stored as fat. Healthy fats (from almonds, walnuts, avocados, cold-water fish, chia, and flax seeds) will make you healthy and glowy.
THE BRAIN LOVES OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Not only are omega-3 fatty acids anti-inflammatory, they act on the cells of the brain like powerful Omega-3s strengthen cell membranes to improve the function of the brain's synapses. This enhances electrical impulses in your brain, allowing improvement of every healthy function your brain performs.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to protect against depression and other mood disorders, and improve mood in those who already have depression. They also lead to better learning and memory. Deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids in humans are associated with increased risk of depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, and schizophrenia.
WATCH OUT FOR OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-3s and omega-6s are essential fatty acids, meaning that they cannot be made in the body and must be consumed in the diet. They must also be consumed in balance with each other. The typical American diet contains 14 to 24 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.
As you increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake, watch out for omega-6 fatty acids, which can negate your healthy changes. For example, seeds such as flax and chia seeds have high omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, which is amazing for your health. But nuts and seeds like cashews, peanuts, and sunflower seeds have very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, which is not great.
OMEGA-3s FROM FISH ARE ESSENTIAL FOR THE DEPRESSED BRAIN
Studies have shown that one type of omega-3 fatty acid—DHA—affects the brain more powerfully than others. This is the most important omega-3 for depression, and it is only found in cold-water, fatty fish and seafood (with highest amounts fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel). DHA can be supplemented with fish oil capsules, but the body responds best when nutrients come from a natural food source.
If you are a vegan (especially one with a mood disorder or family history of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or dementia), please do find objective, unbiased research about using DHA omega-3 supplementation in your diet. It is absolutely essential for your brain's health!
LEARN MORE ABOUT OMEGA 3's EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN
As I talked about here, one of the most surprising and little known facts about depression is that a healthy gut is linked to higher serotonin production. Scientists estimate that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut!
We think of the brain as being in charge, but there is a nervous system in our guts, the enteric system, that sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the intestines. The intestines even contain neurons (brain cells)!
Recent research has linked an abundant microbiota in the gut with higher serotonin production. One study has linked increased ability to handle stress in mice with a diet supplemented with specific gut microbiota. But I’m not a mouse, and neither are you (I'm assuming). Another study showed that taking a daily multi-strain probiotic decreased negative thoughts and increased the ability to handle stress in healthy adult humans.
An abundant bacterial environment in your gut will stimulate higher serotonin production and cause you to be happier and more able to handle stressful situations. We have many types of bacteria in our gut, and to best cultivate your gut flora, eat foods with multiple strains of probiotics. Yogurt and kefir are the best food sources of multi-strain probiotics.
Eat probiotics → enrich your gut microbiota→ increase your serotonin → be happier.
It’s usually best to get probiotics from food sources rather than supplements. To be beneficial, the bacteria from your probiotic foods have to survive the stomach and make it alive to the intestines. They survive best when eaten in dairy form, such as in yogurt and kefir, rather than kimchi or sauerkraut. (Oh, and frozen yogurt does not contain any live bacteria. Sorry!)
Be careful of the sugar content that comes along with many yogurts on the market. The absolute BEST way to get probiotics from yogurt is to buy no-sugar added Greek yogurt (Greek yogurt has more than two times the protein of regular yogurt) and add your own sweetener, such as stevia or agave.
Do not underestimate the importance of hydration to your mood. Nothing is as able to sabotage your mood, energy, and diet, like dehydration. And it's sneaky! Most people do not regularly drink enough water to stay properly hydrated, and most people don't realize they're dehydrated.
Water consumption is proven to be directly correlated with mood. Dehydration is so simple and easy to fix, so drinking more water should be an immediate and permanent adjustment to your day.
6. AVOID ALCOHOL
Alcohol is a depressant. It's that simple. It might make you momentarily forget your cares and worries, but alcohol consumption is an anchor weighing down on those of us with depression. If you are taking any kind of prescription anti-depressant, alcohol renders your medication useless.
It's hardly a sacrifice when avoiding alcohol will improve everything from your mood, energy, sleep, and skin.
7. AVOID CAFFEINE
First, caffeine interferes with nutrient absorption, so lots of caffeine will detract from your healthy diet.
Second, caffeine causes anxiety, so if you have a tendency toward anxiety, caffeine will amplify it. If you feel tired, take care of yourself by getting more sleep. Sleep works better than caffeine to make you feel energized and awake.
Third, caffeine is taxing on the liver. Your liver already does so much work to detoxify your body, so avoid caffeine to put the liver in the best position to do it's job effectively.
EAT TO BEAT DEPRESSION FOOD LIST
PACK YOUR DIET WITH THESE EVERY DAY
- dark leafy greens (spinach, collards, kale, broccoli, chard)
- nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, chia, ground flax seeds)
- fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines mackerel)
- blueberries and blackberries
- no-sugar added yogurt
- loads of fresh, cold water
AVOID THESE LIKE THE PLAGUE
- fried foods
- any refined flours (white bread, regular pasta, most breakfast cereals)
- processed meats (hot dogs, beef snacks, bologna, salami, deli meats including turkey and chicken)
- peanuts, cashews, peanut butter
- highly caffeinated products (energy drinks and coffee)
Focus on what you CAN eat.
It does you no favors to dwell on the foods you "can't" eat. Remind yourself that the foods on the avoid list are foods that you can eat but are choosing not because you want to feel better.
I can eat whatever I want. I want to eat foods that fuel my body and mind. I don't want to eat foods that fuel depression.