Depression affects millions of Americans each year, with 2 to 3 times as many women as men diagnosed between the ages of 25 to 44. Although depression is common, treatment options vary, and many people may need medication and/or therapy.
It is believed that either psychological or physiological factors can cause depression. The physiological factors of depression may be linked to the "monoamine hypothesis," which stems from the belief that imbalances of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, epinephrine, and nor-epinephrine, may be to blame.
Some vitamin and mineral deficiencies may not only worsen depression in certain people, but research shows they may be the sole cause in others. Although correcting dietary deficiencies may help you feel less blue, I wouldn't advise anyone to stop their medications or therapy, unless directed to do so by their doctor. But paying attention to what you eat is good for both your brain and your body.
These tips are based on the most current research. Try them out and discover how eating a little bit smarter can improve your mood.
1. Carbohydrates. Carbs are involved in serotonin production, a chemical that helps you feel calmer. So a low-carb diet can leave you feeling irritable and edgy, especially since the brain needs a constant supply of blood sugar to function well. Studies have shown low blood sugar to be very common in people with depression. I recommend choosing healthy carbohydrates, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (vs. cake, candy, or donuts), and eating 5-6 smaller meals, each with at least 15 grams of carbohydrate--the amount found in a medium apple or pear.
2. Omega 3 fatty acids. The human brain is 60 percent fat. Some experts believe that fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon, mackerel, and tuna) help fight depression because brain neurotransmitters move more easily through fat membranes that are composed of omega-3 fats. Fish may also increase serotonin levels, to help you feel more relaxed.
3. B vitamins. Many of the B vitamins have a role in the functioning of neurotransmitters. Research reveals that up to one third of people with depression may have a diet deficient in folic acid, leading to low serotonin levels in the brain. Additionally, a vitamin B6 deficiency may leave you feeling depressed and anxious. Depression may also be linked to a deficiency in thiamin (B1); an untreated thiamin deficiency can lead to irreversible nerve damage, as can a B12 deficiency. Supplemental B vitamins may be helpful, especially if your diet is lacking.
4. Tryptophan. This essential amino acid (a building block of protein that the body can't make) is a precursor to serotonin production. Contrary to popular belief, turkey is not the highest source of tryptophan--the sleepy feeling after Thanksgiving's meal may have more to do with alcohol or overeating than the turkey meat. Great sources of tryptophan include chocolate, oats, bananas, milk, cottage cheese, and mangoes. Not that you need it, but you have my full permission to indulge in some chocolate--preferably dark for the antioxidants--as long as there's no reason why you can't enjoy this serotonin-loaded treat!
5. Minerals. It's estimated that most Americans don't get enough magnesium in their diet, and low levels have been found in people with depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Another mineral, manganese, may contribute to depression if your levels are low due to subsequently decreased amounts of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine.
A healthy, balanced meal plan and supplementation, such as B vitamins and/or minerals (check with your doctor and dietitian regarding your particular needs), combined with regular physical activity and a stress reduction program might help keep you from singing the blues.