The Lowdown on Diet and Depression

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | September 17, 2014

UnknownLet’s face it. Depression can be a bummer. Sure, it can lead to great works of literature, art, or comedy, but I’d bet my hat that if Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, or Robin Williams–who all took their own lives–could have exchanged their masterworks for the ability to get through their days in peace, they would have gladly taken what was behind curtain number two.

Given my somewhat derisive, slightly confrontational writing style, it probably doesn’t surprise you to know I’m not the most balanced Ginsu in the knife drawer, primarily due to my occasional bouts of depression. Luckily, it’s not as severe as it was for the luminaries mentioned above. On the downside , this means I’ll never be able to channel my affliction into something as grand as For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Starry Night, or Club Paradise. (Stop sneering. I love that movie!)  On the upside, it means I’m largely able to control it with exercise and meditation.

So when Beachbody Blog hardboiled managing editor Rebecca Swanner asked for an article about the intersection of depression and exercise, I jumped on the assignment. Here’s an excerpt:

Although anyone who’s ever gone for a walk to clear their head already knows this, the notion that exercise fights depression is fairly well established. A review of 25 studies in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine unveiled strong evidence of its preventative benefits, even if that exercise is just light cardio a few hours each week. Does that make it a great way to shake the occasional “blahs”? You bet! Will it cure you if you have a major issue? Probably not. “Exercise doesn’t necessarily solve the whole problem,” says Sport & Exercise Psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus, “but it alleviates a lot of the day-to-day symptoms.”

Keep in mind that’s an exercise article, which is to say, it’s not a nutrition article. Food is kind of my thang though, so I thought I should touch on it here.

First, there are macronutrients. Depression is often pinned on an imbalance of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that control mood). Most of you know by now how a carb blast can cause a surge of the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin– also known as a “sugar high”. This is because carbs trigger insulin in your blood, which triggers tryptophan (an amino acid precursor to serotonin) to be released into your noggin. On the other hand, it stands to reason that low-carb diets may do the opposite and inhibit serotonin. Feelings of depression and irritability aren’t uncommon among the low-carb set. The term for it is “Atkins Attitude.”

But you don’t want to go sugar spiking yourself through your day, so eat your carbs, but stick to a steady feed of fiber-rich, slow absorbing fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Protein is important too, given amino acids are the building blocks of all those neurotransmitters. As I said, serotonin derives from tryptophan. Another example is tyrosine, which you need to make dopamine. You could probably supplement specific aminos (lots of people do), But I think you’re better off just making sure you get enough protein in your diet in general. Most meat eaters don’t have a problem here, but if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you need to make sure you’re getting enough complete protein. Here’s some help with that.

Finally, there’s fat. Your brain is the most lipid dense organ in your body. In other words, the term “fathead” isn’t an insult as much as a statement of fact. Excluding water, between 50% and 60% of your brain is fat–33% being omega-3 fatty acids. And here’s the rub: Your body doesn’t produce omega-3s. If ya want them, ya need to eat them. When you lowball omega-3s, you’re messing with your gray matter in general–including your moods.  As I write this, science nerds the world over are hard at work studying the link between omega-3s and depression, so watch this space. In the meantime, here are some tips for including fat in your diet. 

Of course, there are other aspects of nutrition at play here. For example, low levels of the B-complex, especially folate, have been linked to depression sufferers. This review discusses the various micronutrients and their roles in depression. I could go into more detail here, but it might take away from my point. While I would never rule out using a targeted supplement to fight depression or any other illness, I think the best advice when it comes to battling depression with nutrition is that you need to eat right.

With a healthy diet, not only are you fueling properly, but as is also the case with exercise, you’re empowering yourself. In this era of low-priced, mass-produced junk food that’s been engineered to have crack-like addictive qualities, it’s hard to eat right. So when you do, you’re onto something special. You’re fighting the Good Fight–and that can’t help but positively impact your psyche.

I’d take that over having a pretty picture in The Museum of Modern Art any day.


One thought on “The Lowdown on Diet and Depression

  1. Pingback: November 10, 2014 | Depression: What about it?

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