Depression is perhaps the most prevalent mood disorder experienced by human beings. Medications used to treat depression actually remain somewhat of an enigma, as their exact mechanism of action on the condition remains largely unknown by researchers. What is known, however, is that prescription medications come with the risk of adverse effects based upon the dosage and each individual’s metabolism. While medications do have their place, particularly in reducing the severity of symptoms, these side effects can often make matters worse.
The question that begs to be asked is, can non-pharmaceutical approaches be as effective? In the realm of natural foods, certain nutrients have in fact, been found to help reduce the debilitating effects of depression. A handful of foods have been proven to improve symptoms such as fatigue, lack of motivation and brain functioning.
Hot peppers, also known as chili peppers, have several important health-promoting benefits. The active ingredient in these peppers, capsaicin, is a powerful treatment for conditions associated with poor circulation. In addition, capsaicin can improve poor appetite often associated with moderate to severe depression.
Most importantly, because capsaicin naturally increases circulation, it also increases the body’s release of endorphins, which are commonly associated with the euphoric feeling experienced by runners. Endorphins are nature’s painkillers and also work to naturally improve your mood. These effects make chili peppers a safe, delicious way to help reduce feelings of depression.
Keep in mind however that your body requires relatively large amounts of capsaicin in order to achieve substantial endorphin availability. If you’re not accustomed to consuming large quantities of chili peppers, start with small amounts and increase them over time. Try out recipes that use chili pepper to simply enhance flavor such as: Red Chili Pepper Vinaigrette, Spicy Chili Hummus or Grilled Corn Pico de Gallo.
B Vitamin-Rich Foods
According to an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, deficiencies in several of the B vitamins, including folate and biotin, have been associated with an increased incidence of depression [I]. These B vitamins are found in foods like animal proteins, nuts, legumes, grains, and in smaller amounts in fruits and vegetables. Eggs are one of the best sources of biotin and lentils are one of the best sources of folate.
Often people suffering from depression don’t take the time to eat a balanced meal. Some help may be initially required to embark on a new way of eating, but just a few short weeks of consuming quality protein and vegetables can give those suffering from depression the nutrients they need to begin the journey back to a positive outlook on life.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body can’t make, so they must be obtained from food. They are crucial to the functioning of the central nervous system. These fats are naturally found in foods like salmon and mackerel and also in walnuts and flaxseeds. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, according to an article published in Lipid Health Disorders, has been found in several research studies to be associated with the presence of depression [III].
It’s important to keep in mind that a deficiency of omega-3 fats doesn’t always appear to be directly related to lack of consumption of omega-3 rich foods. The consumption of omega-6 fatty acids (found in refined vegetable oils and canola oil) in amounts disproportionate to omega-3 fats (found in fish and walnuts) can lead to a deficiency of the omega-3s. This suggests that avoiding refined vegetable oils and increasing consumption of fish, nuts and seeds can be a very Good Decision if you want to uplift your mood.
Caffeine, Sugar and Your Mood
Many individuals living with depression will turn to caffeine and foods that contain significant amounts of sugar in order to lift their spirits and get a quick burst of energy. Both caffeine and sugar do indeed, temporarily increase blood flow and the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Unfortunately, with the subsequent release of insulin by your body to the metabolize sugar and caffeine, your energy level and mood plummet within a short period of time.
Caffeine consumption, according to a 2011 study published in The Archives or Internal Medicine, is associated with an increased severity of depression in women [IV]. Sugar and caffeine have the capacity to cause depletion of important nutrients that can also effect your mood. These nutrients include the B vitamins as well as water; an often ignored source of vitality that can significantly improve your health and mental outlook.
The Importance of Water
Although water doesn’t officially provide any nutritional value, it is a vital substance that is found in every cell and in every process of the body. Without adequate amounts of water, you risk mild dehydration that can effect your mood and cause fatigue, headaches and constipation.
According to a 2011 study published in Human Brain Mapping, inadequate amounts of water are associated with a reduction in cognitive activity and visuo-spatial processing [II]. Depressed mood is also associated with declines in these functions, suggesting that dehydration may be an underlying cause in some cases. Not enough water can also lead to lethargy which can cause a decline in your motivation to perform activities which many improve your mood.
Chocolate, Pasta and Bagels for Depression?
Definitely not. Turning to high carbohydrate foods when you feel depressed, which most of us are guilty of, is due in part to the short-lived increase in serotonin that these foods cause. “Comfort foods” like pasta and chocolate are also naturally high in the trace mineral selenium which aids in brain functioning. However, consuming these products may cause more harm than good. They are often hidden sources of sugar, additives, preservatives and other artificial substances that are not conducive to eliminating depression and will often promote and prolong it.
So instead of reaching for that plate of spaghetti or a toasted bagel, reach for a hearty brazil nut. One brazil nut provides 137% your daily requirement for selenium. This mineral has also been shown to decrease the risk of post-partum depression and aid in the treatment of adolescents who suffer from both depression and alcoholism [IV, V].
As you can see, the quality of your diet reflects the quality of your psychological wellness. The foods you eat and the foods you crave when you feel depressed can have an effect on your symptoms and the duration of your melancholy mood.
If you haven’t been caring for yourself nutritionally, your path to healing will take time, but it will surely prove to be worth it. Eliminating sugar, refined oils and processed foods, while increasing fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will work wonders on your state of being.
May you be willful, healthy and happy in the months and years to come!
[I] Bedson E, Roberts S, Tranter R. “Half-baked? B vitamins and depression”. Am J Clin Nutr. August 2010. vol. 92 no. 2 269-270. Web. July. 2016. <http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/92/2/269.full>.
[II] Kempton MJ, et al. “Dehydration affects brain structure and function in healthy adolescents.” Hum Brain Mapp. 2011 Jan;32(1):71-9. Web. July. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20336685>.
[II] Logan A. “Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional”. Lipids Health Dis. 2004; 3: 25. Web. July. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC533861/>.
[III] Lucas M, et al. “Coffee, Caffeine, and Risk of Depression Among Women”. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(17):1571-1578. Web. July. 2016. <http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1105943>.
[IV] Mokhber M, et al. “Effect of supplementation with selenium on postpartum depression: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial.” J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2011 Jan;24(1):104-8. Web. July. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20528216>.
[V] Sher L. “Depression and suicidal behavior in alcohol abusing adolescents: possible role of selenium deficiency.” Minerva Pediatr. 2008 Apr;60(2):201-9. Web. July. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18449137>.