Let Thy Food be Thy Antidepressant and Thy Antidepressant Thy Food
(3 min read)
We’re lucky to be living in a time where we’re learning more about the connection between our diets and mental health.
Of course, the connection between eating a Big Mac and our heart health (and waistlines!) has been known for many years, but we’re only arriving at the knowledge that what we put in our mouths also has a dramatic impact on the way our brains function.
The brain is an organ receiving the very same blood supply as our heart and lungs and our other vital organs, and the food we eat supplies our blood with the critical nutrients needed for these organs’ survival. If the “wrong” nutrients are supplied to our bodily organs, they break down and become disease-ridden. Likewise, if the “wrong” nutrients are supplied to the brain, then the brain isn’t able to produce enough of the right chemicals needed for good mental health.
While we’re still in the early stages of learning about the precise mechanisms involved, Dr. Laura Lachance of University of Toronto and Dr. Drew Ransey of Columbia University in New York provide an excellent summary of what we know to-date in their recent publication, Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician.
I highly recommend that you read the article yourself, but either way, here’s a breakdown of the 5 ways in which the authors explain your diet is impacting your mental health each and every day.
1| Your diet supplies your brain with the building blocks needed for critical neurotransmitters. It’s crucial that your brain is able to produce sufficient amounts of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in order to feel calm and happy. In order to produce these brain chemicals, you need sufficient amounts of amino acids, minerals, and mineral-dependent co-factors (including zinc and the B vitamins). If you aren’t getting enough of these nutrients in your diet, you’re much more likely to feel anxious and/or depressed.
2| Your diet supplies your brain with omega 3 fatty-acids, which are critical for neuronal health. It’s crucial for our brain neurons (cells) to have a strong membrane in order to carry out their proper function. If you aren’t getting enough omegas, your neurons will weaken, and (like a mailman asleep on the job), chemical messages won’t be sent to where they need to go. As a result, you’re more likely to feel sluggish, depressed, and unable to concentrate on the things you need to do.
3| Your diet serves to reduce (or induce!) inflammation in your body. It’s quite simple. If you’re body’s irritated and inflamed, your brain’s also going to be irritated and inflamed. With such disturbances (from sugars, processed food, refined grains, diet soft-drinks, and the like), you’re more likely to feel irritable and depressed. By avoiding inflammatory foods, you’re serving to soothe and calm your brain, which means that you’ll feel much calmer and happier again.
4| Your diet allows for the production of brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is critical for neuronal (cell) growth and survival. We need BDNF to help us produce, grow and connect brain cells. Without enough of this important protein, our brain cell survival is largely threatened, and we’re much more susceptible to mental illnesses like – you’ve guessed it – anxiety and depression.
5| Your diet determines your gut health, which largely impacts your emotions. This is one of the newest areas of research, but the evidence so far suggests that “bad” gut bacteria is linked to mental illness, whereas “good” gut bacteria is linked to mental health. Sugars, refined grains, processed food, and alcohol are foods that feed the bad bacteria, whereas prebiotic and probiotic foods stimulate the growth of and feed the good bacteria. Thus, by avoiding the foods that feed bad bacteria and by increasing your pre- and probiotic food consumption, you’ll start to feel your absolute best.
Okay, so interesting information, but which foods will help you get there?
According to Lachance & Ramsey, the Mediterranean Diet tops all others when it comes to fulfilling the above 5 dietary requirements for good mental functioning. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fish, olive oil, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and contains small but regular amounts of red wine, cheese, and yogurt. While meat is consumed, red meat is limited, and sweets are something to be enjoyed only once in a while.
While most psychologists and therapists simply aren’t educated in (or feel comfortable addressing) diet in relation to their clients’ mental health, I believe it’s an incredibly important aspect of psychological treatment. As Lachance and Ramsey remind us, the “modern western diet” increases our risk of depression, whereas “whole foods” diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are known to be neuro-protective.
With the authors also highlighting that depression is the leading cause of disability in developed nations today, it seems simply unethical not to consider dietary changes before resorting to potentially harmful adjunctive pharmacological treatments, which tend to be costly, not always very effective, and often laden with uncomfortable side-effects.
Of course, this isn’t to say that diet alone is the answer to all mental health problems, but, diet could make a difference for a number of people in a number of ways. Perhaps, by making even a few small changes, such as finding time for breakfast in the morning, or drinking water instead of soda at lunch, treatment progress could be greatly accelerated.
With the risks associated with dietary treatment being few and far between it seems crazy not to try, at the very least.
More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates said, “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine thy food.”
Today, however, I think we might live by the saying, “let thy food by thy antidepressant, and thy antidepressant thy food.”
Lachance, L. & Ramsey, D. (2015). Food, mood, and brain health: Implications for the modern clinician. Missouri Medicine, 112(2), 50-54.