In my clinical experience, many people want to know if there are “natural” or non-pharmaceutical approaches to treating depression. The answer is a resounding yes. This article is the first in a series on the many different tools available to help prevent or alleviate depression without a trip to the pharmacist. In this article, I start by discussing food as medicine and suggest 11 different ways I which you can combat depression by paying attention to your diet.
Nutrition and Depression
- Consume a diet that is high and complete in nutrients. Nutritional deficiencies can contribute to symptoms of depression, so be sure to consume a variety of foods in order to ensure that you are getting adequate vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates (yes, carbohydrates), protein, and a little in quality fats.
- Get plenty of anti-oxidants, and preferably from foods rather than supplements. Examples include beta-carotene (apricots, dark leafy green vegetables), lutein (kale, squash, paprika), lycopene (watermelon, cooked or raw tomato), selenium (nuts, seafood, whole grains), and vitamins A (sweet potato, carrots), C (peppers, broccoli, strawberries), and E (sunflower seeds, almonds). As a general rule, a diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds will be high in antioxidants. Google for a more comprehensive list of anti-oxidant rich foods.
Carbohydrates and Protein
- Don’t be a “carbophobe.” Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates are known for their serotonin-boosting action, which leads to a greater sense of well-being. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes are the “good” carbs, while the simple carbs found in foods such as candy, cookies, and ice cream are the ones to keep to a minimum.
- Get enough protein. Here is an example of why protein is so important: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. One amino acid, tryptophan, is used by the body to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is critical to preventing and alleviating depression. Studies show that people who are deprived of tryptophan become depressed within hours. How much protein is needed varies from source to source, but a common recommendation is two to three servings of protein-rich foods daily. This amounts to approximately 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. Great sources of protein include beans, peas, fish and seafood, lean meats, low-fat cheeses, and yogurt. Vegetable sources such as edamame, broccoli, asparagus, pumpkin seeds, kale, mushrooms, artichokes, and mung bean sprouts also provide notable contributions of protein.
Getting Enough Vitamins
- The “sunshine vitamin” enhances mood. Low blood levels of vitamin D3 are solidly linked to symptoms of depression. Exposure to sunlight is one of the most effective ways to increase vitamin D3 in the body, but this can be especially challenging to those of us who live in sun-deprived locales, such as the Pacific Northwest. Being outside is not enough, and overcast days do not help. In order to get a therapeutic effect, you need substantial skin exposure (arms, legs, back, face) for about 30 minutes twice a week. Interestingly, people with dark skin are disadvantaged when it comes to sunshine-derived vitamin D3. Other ways to boost D3 are through food (cheese, egg yolks, fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, mushrooms) and quality supplementation (approximately 5,000 IUs per day for healthy adults).
- Don’t forget folate. Folate is the natural, food-based form of B9, while folic acid is synthetic and less bioavailable. Deficiency of folate is linked to decreased function of serotonin in the brain, which increases susceptibility to depression. Dark leafy greens are the best sources of folate. Other high-folate foods include asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, beans, peas, lentils, avocado, okra, Brussel sprouts, nuts and seeds, cauliflower, beets, corn, celery, carrots, and squash.
Fat is Essential
- Fat helps. Not all fats are evil and omega-3 fatty acids are absolutely essential to your health. Some of their benefits include lowering the risk of heart disease and some cancers, regulating cholesterol triglyceride levels, and significantly contributing to brain health. In addition to these wonderful perks, omega-3 fatty acids support mental and behavioral well-being, such as minimizing the risk of depression. Animal-based sources, such as fish, fish oil, and krill, are the most advantageous, but plant-based sources such as flaxseed, chia, walnuts, hemp, dark leafy greens, and canola oil are also credible.
A Mineral Called Chromium
- Seek out chromium, a mineral that helps to maintain appropriate blood sugar levels. Poor blood sugar balance is strongly implicated in mood disorders. Chromium can be found in foods such as whole grains, green beans, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, oranges, bran cereals, and black pepper.
What about Gluten?
- Some folks need to avoid gluten. Intolerance to the protein gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye, has been associated with a depressed mood. If you struggle with depression, you might consider getting tested by your doctor for Celiac’s disease, or see if your symptoms subside when you avoid gluten-containing foods for a few weeks.
Watch the Alcohol
- A little bit of alcohol may liven your mood and improve sociability, but alcohol is a depressant. Excessive and frequent alcohol consumption can depress your mood and damage your brain. Furthermore, it can lead to bad decisions that increase your depression. Avoid drinking altogether or limit your intake to one or two drinks per day, and don’t drink for two hours before bed in order to avoid a fitful night’s sleep (tiredness promotes depression) and the negative effects of alcohol on your central nervous system. Try drinking calming chamomile or valerian tea as a nightcap instead.
Consider Your Weight
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obese and overweight people are more likely to become depressed, and depressed people often become overweight. When feeling blue, some people turn to food in order to feel better or to “numb out.” Those who are overweight often don’t feel very good about themselves or about life in general, which contributes to a poor mood. Being underweight is also connected to depression due to malnutrition.
Christian Counseling in the Struggle against Depression
Depression, from mild to severe, is a serious problem that many men, women, and children grapple with at some point in their lifetime. The medical field is increasingly focusing on surgery and drugs as the solution to health issues. As a Christian counselor, I am here to help you to identify and navigate through the plethora of ways of dealing effectively with depression. My goal is to help you to tailor a plan for your unique needs, preferences, and beliefs. Because I am a Christian counselor, faith in God is always at the core of our work together.
1) WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/
2) MedlinePlus: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/
3) Medscape: http://www.medscape.com/
4) Global Healing Center: http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/
5) Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1810582/
6) Food for the Brain: http://www.foodforthebrain.org/Photos
“Thinking,” courtesy of withbeautiful, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Nutrition,” courtesy of Olearys, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)