4 Secrets for Reducing Depression Risk

You may have heard the phrase “brain food.” Well, there really are foods that provide appropriate nutrition for your brain. Keep in mind that your brain is about 60 percent fat. Actually, what we call fatty acids… not the kind of fat that surrounds a cut of beef. 
 
Your body can’t make essential fatty acids, so you need to get those nutrients from the food you eat or from supplements (food is a preferred source). Just as the cells of the rest of your body thrive with good nutrition, so do the cells in your brain!
 
One element of brain food that has been a growing area of study is the relationship between nutrition, depression and mental illness. Nutrition may have a connection to the onset, severity and duration of depression.
 

 

How Is Diet Related to Depression?

A few noticeable food patterns commonly occur before and during bouts of depression. The patterns include:

 

Diminishing appetite.
Skipping meals.
Craving sweets.
 
Often deficiencies in multiple nutrients, rather than a single nutrient, are responsible for changes in brain functioning. The human brain is metabolically very active and uses about 20 percent to 30 percent of a person’s energy intake. People with consistently low energy intake often feel sad, apathetic or hopeless.  
 
Studies of populations in America and Asia have found diets of people affected by depression tend to be low in essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. Deficiencies in these nutrients appear to have a correlation to incidents of mental disorders and their severity.
 
For some mental disorders, prescription drugs are available to help control symptoms. Unfortunately, some drugs, such as antidepressants, can come with side effects that may discourage patients from taking them. Skipping medications tends to result in poor treatment outcomes.
 
There is good news: Research has found that appropriately increasing certain nutrients in the diet may help control depression symptoms in patients. 

 

Nutritional Therapies

Nutritional therapies can be alternatives or complements to drug therapies. Learning about these therapies and making behavioral changes in diet can benefit patients suffering from depression.
 
Some interesting nutrition research results have been published by the National Institutes of Health. Let’s take a look at some specific food types and how they may help manage depression. 
 

 

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Many of us have diets that are short of omega-3 fatty acids. As we mentioned, our bodies can’t make essential fatty acids, so we need to eat a good amount of omega-3s every day. 
 
We can get omega-3 fatty acids from fish such as wild salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, herring and mackerel. Omega 3s are also found in walnuts, chia seeds, and chicken fed on flaxseed. 
 

 

2. Proteins

Dietary proteins are made of amino acids, which are often referred to the building blocks of life. 
 
Protein intake and intake of individual amino acis can affect brain functioning and mental health. Many of the neurotransmitters in the brain are made from amino acids. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow signals to pass along the neurons in your nervous system.  
 
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made from the amino acid tyrosine and serotonin, which is made from the amino acid tryptophan. If the needed amino acids are not available, then the level of that particular neurotransmitter in the brain will decrease — and that can affect one’s mood.  
 
A balanced diet with quality protein will typically deliver the amino acids you need. You can get protein from foods such as fish, eggs, chicken, turkey and dairy products. Dried beans, nuts and seeds also contain protein, although the protein in these plant-based foods may be low in one or more of the essential amino acids that your body cannot produce, so make sure to get a good variety.
 

 

3. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates significantly affect mood and behavior. Research has found that diets low in carbohydrates may contribute to the onset of depression. Carbohydrate-rich foods tend to trigger production of the brain chemicals tryptophan and serotonin. These substances help promote a mental feeling of well-being.
 
Carbohydrates you eat can be used by your body to make glucose, which is how your brain get’s energy. Complex carbohydrates (from fiber and starch in food) release their energy slowly, which is better than the quick release energy release of simple carbohydrates (such as sugars). 
 
Complex carbohydrates come from whole-wheat foods, oats, soy, beans and wild rice.
 

 

4. Leafy Greens and Vegetables 

Folate is a B-vitamin. A shortage of folate has been linked to depression and may also have a connection with fatigue and insomnia.
 
Good sources of folate include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, nuts, beans, peas, asparagus and fortified grains.
 
A note about broccoli, it also contains selenium. This mineral supports your immune system and reproduction. Some studies have found low levels of selenium may contribute to depression, along with anxiety and fatigue.
 

 

Nutrition and Wellness

Of course better brain health is just one of the many benefits of good nutrition. A balanced diet may increase both your longevity and quality of life. 
 
To learn more about how you can enhance your wellness through nutrition, visit with your health care provider or a registered dietitian. They can give you practical tips for eating more healthfully and getting all the benefits of good nutrition for your body and your brain!
 

Meet the Author

Theresa Glasgow, RD, is a Registered Dietitian and the Manager of Nutrition Services at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital in Milwaukee, WI

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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