Depression can trigger a host of feelings from agitation and insomnia to poor appetite, or just the opposite—excessive hunger. It’s the hunger feeling some may use as a crutch or coping mechanism to comfort the feelings of hopelessness or despair. This may work temporarily, but depending on food choices, it can also backfire and make you feel worse.
Here’s why—the ingredients in your food can affect your mood either positively or negatively. Too many sweets or highly refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta or sugary desserts will cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. Once a sugar spike has reached its peak, it has no other place to go except crashing down. This sluggish, sugar-crash feeling only adds to the depressive state. Plus, resorting to highly refined carbohydrates will likely lead to weight gain, making a person feel even worse.
Several studies have also suggested a link between eating fast food and depression. A 2012 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found eating commercially baked goods and fast food resulted in a 51 percent greater likelihood of developing depression compared to those who ate little to none of these foods. The study also found that a large consumption of fast food was linked to a rise in depression.
Another study found that men and women who consumed a healthy dietary pattern (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish)—compared to a traditionally Western diet (like white potatoes, cheese and meat)—had scores that were inversely associated with PHQ-9 depression scores.
To get a better idea of the exact role diet plays in depression, more research is necessary, but studies such as these do suggest that certain nutrients and dietary patterns may have a preventative role in this condition or, at the very least, to help reduce depressive symptoms.
The best advice for everyone, whether suffering from depression or not, is to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet providing all the essential nutrients our bodies need. Even though there is no specific diet for depression, there are certain foods and nutrients that may affect one’s mood.
Folate is a B vitamin that’s important for brain function. It helps the brain make certain essential compounds, and assists the neurotransmitters that carry messages from one area of the brain to another.
A 2012 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that patients with major depressive disorder had a better response to the antidepressants that were used in their treatment when they took a folate supplement as well. This is not to say folate by itself can be used to treat major depressive disorder, but it could be an important vitamin that someone with depression should consume regularly.
Some good food sources of folate are:
- Beans – pinto, garbanzo, kidney and black
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Tomato juice
Omega-3 fatty acids
This type of fat is also necessary for building neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which is important for regulating mood. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids will help a person’s body produce enough serotonin.
Studies have found that people suffering from depression had an improvement when omega-3 supplements were added to their diet.
Many individuals are not getting in enough of this important fat that the body does not make—get your daily dose by consuming adequate food sources that naturally contain it, or by taking a supplement.
Here are good food sources of omega-3 fatty acids to include each day:
- Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna
- Pumpkin seeds
The sunshine vitamin is aptly named—not only do you get it from the sun’s rays, but it helps bring more light into the lives of those with a history of depression. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas conducted a study of 12,600 people to show that there is a strong link between adults with a history of depression and low vitamin D levels. It is believed that vitamin D may affect neurotransmitters, inflammatory markers and other factors that could explain the relationship with depression.
Sunlight is the best source of obtaining vitamin D. The best time of day to maximize absorption of the sun’s rays is right around lunchtime. To get adequate sunlight, sit outdoors a couple of times a week during this time of day and have your face, arms and legs exposed for 10 to 30 minutes.
Adults should have their vitamin D status checked with a blood test to determine if they are deficient. Anyone diagnosed with depression should have their vitamin D levels checked as well.
Vitamin D can be found either naturally or in fortified foods such as:
- Egg yolks
- Beef liver
- Cod liver oil
- Fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, and salmon)
- Fortified breakfast foods such as milk, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals
Substances to use in moderation
Caffeine and alcohol are two substances that can worsen symptoms of depression.
Even though caffeine is a stimulant, too much can disrupt sleep patterns. Caffeine can also cause feelings of anxiety, which will not help with depression. Caffeinated drinks should only be consumed in moderation—no more than 400 milligrams a day.
Alcohol is often used to self-medicate. This may bring short-term relief, but alcohol is just a temporary fix that will usually make things worse. It can throw off a person’s sleep cycle and cause mood swings and anxiety. Alcohol can also cause negative side effects if mixed with prescription depression medications. Anyone who has depression should abstain from alcohol to avoid any negative interaction.
Putting it all together
Eating a healthy diet containing good food sources of folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D can be a start to reducing depression but should not be considered a cure-all. When it comes to food, choose wisely and use other lifestyle interventions to help deal with depression. Regular exercise is also important part of a positive mindset.
Anyone with depression should talk to their doctor about the best way to manage their condition.
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, SamadiMD.com, davidsamadiwiki, davidsamadibio and Facebook