Improve Your Mood with Food
Updated: Jan 19
We all know that what we put into our bodies can have a major impact on our physical health. But did you know that the food you eat can also affect your mood and mental health? Recent studies have shown that there is a strong connection between diet and depression and that changing your diet may help to treat depression. If you're looking for additional ways to improve your mental health, check out these tips to nourish your brain!
Depression is a significant problem that affects many people all over the world. It is estimated that 3% of the population or ~264 million people, are affected by it. The cause of depression is not fully known, but it is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This blog article summarizes a new meta-analysis study that examines the available research to determine whether nutrition therapy can be used to treat depression (1).
How Depression Affects the Brain & Body
Depression changes the way the brain forms new connections (aka neuroplasticity), how things are organized, and causes problems with mood-regulating chemicals
(neurotransmitters such as serotonin).
There is some evidence that suggests higher inflammation levels can influence different functions related to depression. Additionally, high levels of oxidative stress markers have been associated with increased levels of depression.
The gut microbiome has been linked to depression. It is thought that this may be due in part to a release of inflammatory cytokines and other metabolism products such as TNF-a and MCP (monocyte chemoattractant protein) by the microbiota (2). These molecules can travel throughout the body when intestinal permeability increases. When there are high levels of cytokines in the blood, it makes the blood-brain barrier more permeable, which allows rogue molecules from the gut to enter the brain and affect its function (anxiety, depressive symptoms, memory etc). It is not clear how TNF, cytokines, and the gut microbiome are related to the development of mental health disorders. This is an area that needs a lot more research! For gut health & nutrition tips, read my other blogs:
Depression is a condition that can lead to high levels of cortisol production.
Cortisol messes with the balance of other hormones in your body and makes it hard for you to deal with stress (that fight or flight system in your brain can get thrown off).
Another effect is a decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. BDNF is essential for the growth, development, and maintenance of neurons (remember the term neuroplasticity?).
When cortisol levels increase, it can lead to a decrease in the production of ATP, which is what our cells need to produce energy. A lack of ATP production has been linked with depression. This can lead to a decrease in the number of new neurons being produced and an inability of the brain to form new connections and pathways.
How Does Nutrition Improve Symptoms of Depression?
I just explained how depression could increase inflammation, cortisol levels, and inflammatory metabolites from your gut, but how does that relate to treating depression with nutrition? This could mean an anti-inflammatory diet may help lower oxidative stress levels in addition to reducing systemic inflammation, which leads us to lower levels of depressive symptoms! Studies have found that diets rich in vitamins, polyphenol compounds, and omega-3 fatty acids support these physiological pathways and functions.
The current review found some evidence that suggests whole diet and whole food interventions may help improve depression symptoms. When we eat foods with more polyphenols, they can help reduce symptoms of depression because these healthy compounds act as antioxidants. Polyphenols stop harmful chemicals from damaging cells and increasing our risk for cancer or other chronic illnesses. Polyphenols and other antioxidants can even decrease inflammation in the body which is thought to be the root cause of many health problems!
Polyphenols are a type of compound that exists naturally in some plant-based foods. Scientists have identified more than 8,000 types of polyphenols! Polyphenols can be divided into 4 main groups - flavonoids, phenolic acids, polyphenolic amides, and other polyphenols. The research article only specified polyphenols & flavonoids for their positive impact on depression symptoms.
Foods Higher in Polyphenols & Flavonoids
Note that the amount and type of polyphenols in we eat depends on the type of food, where it is grown, how it was farmed, its ripeness, how it was transported, and how it was processed.
Spices & herbs
The highest sources are cloves, star anise, Mexican oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, basil, curry, ginger, cumin, and turmeric.
The highest sources are artichokes, red onions, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and potatoes.
The highest sources are black currant, sweet cherry, plum, berries, prunes, black grapes, apples, peaches, apricots, citrus
Nuts & seeds
The highest sources are ground flaxseed, chestnut, hazelnut, pecan, almonds, walnut
Soy such as roasted soybeans, edamame beans, tofu, tempeh, miso, and natto.
Capers, olives & olive oil
Green tea & coffee
Beans & legumes
The highest sources are black beans and white beans.
The highest sources are whole wheat, maize flour, whole rye, oats
Cocoa powder & dark chocolate
What I love about these findings is that many traditional & cultural diets around the world include foods high in polyphenols such as:
East Asian dishes with star anise, ginger, soy products, tea, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli.
Latin American diets with Mexican oregano, cumin, cocoa powder, red onions, limes, black beans, coffee, and maize.
Indian dishes with high in star anise, ginger, turmeric, curry, cumin, beans & lentils, tea, and spinach.
Mediterranean diets with dishes that include olives, thyme, basil, red onions, spinach, beans & lentils, and whole grains.
Northern European diets traditionally use more thyme, basil, potatoes, onions, cloves, and sage.
You can get more polyphenols without sacrificing your favorite cultural foods or eating boring salads for the rest of your life!
6 Easy Tips To Fight Off Depressive Symptoms with Food
1. Use cocoa powder for more than just baking (2 TB has ~372 mg)