If you have depression, you know it’s more than dealing with feelings of sadness a few days a week. It’s a constant struggle to be happy or content no matter what you do. Although you’re not alone in your struggles (the disease affects around 350 million people and is the leading cause of disability), it doesn’t make you feel any better.
Many people turn to medications and psychotherapy to help, but did you know that the foods you eat can also help relieve depression? Here is how diet affects your mood and what foods to focus on to help you feel your best.
Depression Types and Symptoms
Depression is more than feeling a bit sad at times. It’s an empty and hopeless feeling that overtakes your life and causes you to lose interest in the things you enjoy, such as spending time with friends and family. Depression can also cause you to have trouble sleeping or functioning, and it may even affect your eating habits.
To be diagnosed with clinical depression, you must experience symptoms every day for at least two weeks. There are several different types of depression, but the two primary forms are major depression and persistent depressive disorder.
Major depression occurs when you have symptoms of depression almost the entire day for two weeks straight. It interferes with your ability to sleep, eat, study, work, and enjoy your life. Although most people with major depression have several episodes, it’s possible only to have one episode in your lifetime.
Persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia, occurs when you have symptoms of depression for at least two years. A person with persistent depressive disorder may have an intense episode of major depression followed by several periods of less severe symptoms. The other forms of depression are as follows:
- Perinatal depression or postpartum depression is a relatively mild state of depression and anxiety that occurs within two weeks after a mother gives birth to a baby. It’s more than having the baby blues. Women with this type of depression have full-blown major depressive symptoms while they are pregnant or right after delivery. It causes feelings of extreme anxiety, sadness or exhaustion that accompanies a mother’s duties to her child or family. She feels overwhelmed and unable to take care of herself or her baby.
- Psychotic depression is when a person has severe depression in addition to some form of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations in which they hear or see things that aren’t really there. These psychotic episodes usually have a theme, such as delusions of illness, guilt or money issues.
- Seasonal affective disorder usually occurs during the changing of the seasons. Most people get it when the warm weather turns cold, and they haven’t seen the sun in a long time. This type of depression usually lifts when the warm weather and sunshine return, but it can result in weight gain, social withdrawal, and sleeping more during the cold months.
- Bipolar disorder is not the same as depression, but it involves having depressive symptoms. A person with bipolar disorder usually has episodes of extremely low points or depression. They also have extreme highs, such as euphoria or irritable moods that include manias.
Symptoms of depression may differ for everyone, but here are some common traits to be aware of. Keep in mind that these symptoms must last daily for two weeks to be considered clinical depression.
- Persistent feelings of being empty, sad or anxious
- Feeling hopeless or having pessimism
- Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness or guilt
- Lack of energy and increased fatigue
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that used to bring you joy
- Talking or moving slower
- Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
- Oversleeping, waking in the early morning or having trouble falling asleep
- Having trouble sitting still or feeling restless
- Extreme or sudden changes in weight or appetite
- Experiencing thoughts of death or suicide
- Suicide attempts or increased talk of suicide
- Aches, pains, digestive problems, and cramps that seem to appear for no reason at all or do not let up with treatment
Not everyone will experience all of these symptoms, but most people will have at least a few. Some signs may even come and go while others stay around regularly. The duration and types of symptoms a person experiences may also be dependent on the stage of depression they are in. Seeking treatment at the first sign of depression is one of the best ways to treat it. Additionally, paying close attention to your diet can help you start to feel better soon.
How Does Diet Affect Mood?
There is a very close relationship between our mood and the foods we eat. Your diet can make you feel worse, or it can help improve your daily emotions. Some foods interfere with the signaling in your brain and influence negative thoughts while others give you an uplifting boost. Depression may occur when you eat more of the wrong foods and not enough of the right ones.
Several studies have confirmed a link between depression and a diet that is high in sugary, refined foods. If you think about it, your brain operates similarly to a car. It stores energy from food like your car stores gas when you fill it up. When you fill your body with fuel that is high in inflammatory and damaging foods, it’s stored in your body and utilized at all times- even when you’re sleeping.
Prepackaged foods, fast foods, and sweets may cause oxidative damage, which changes your DNA and interferes with the production of neurotransmitters in your brain that make you feel happy. Additionally, processed and refined foods may negatively impact your digestive tract, which has more influence on your mind than most people realize.
For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls your mood, sleep habits, and even pain tolerance. But approximately 95% of your serotonin levels are produced in your gut. Your digestive tract is lined with millions of nerve cells called neurons that don’t just determine how well your food is digested; they also influence your emotions. That’s because one of the primary functions of these neurons is to make serotonin. So if you eat foods that damage the neurons in your gut, then you are ultimately destroying neurotransmitters that make you feel happy.
Research shows that people who take probiotic supplements reduce their perception of stress, mental outlook, and anxiety levels compared to those who don’t. That’s because probiotics help build a healthy and diverse microbiome that strengthens the gut and brain alike. Other studies have linked the traditional Westernized diet that is high in processed foods to an increased risk of depression by as much as 35 percent. On the other hand, Japanese cultures that eat more fruits, vegetables, fish, seafood and unprocessed grains tend to have very low levels of depression.
10 Foods That Help Depression
Since depression is commonly linked to inflammation, the best way to fight the symptoms is to replace highly processed foods in your diet for anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants and omega three fatty acids are great for reducing inflammation. They work by scavenging free radical toxins that accumulate in your tissues and cause irritation. Here are the top ten foods that help depression.
1. Green, leafy vegetables
Green, leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. They are full of antioxidants that boost the immune system and naturally detox toxins from the body. When toxins accumulate in our tissues, it causes chronic inflammation, which makes depression more likely to occur. Add spinach to your morning smoothie, enjoy a salad with mixed greens for lunch, and steam some broccoli for dinner.
Walnuts are one of the best foods you can eat to fight depression. They are a total brain food- mostly because they are high in omega three fatty acids, which have been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression by increasing and maintaining brain structures, preserving their function, modulating signal transduction, and preventing inflammation. Enjoy a handful of walnuts in a salad with green leafy vegetables or eat them raw with berries for an afternoon snack.
Berries are the king of antioxidants. They contain a unique blend of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have been shown to have antidepressant activities in clinical studies. Blueberries have been labeled as brain-boosters by reducing oxidative stress, improving memory, and lowering the risk of dementia. Make one cup of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries or blackberries the main component of your fruit smoothie. Add a handful to salads or eat them with walnuts for a mood-boosting snack.
Did you know that your brain prefers fat as its primary source of fuel? But it can’t be just any fat. It has to be the good kind. Avocados are high in oleic acid, which is a type of monounsaturated fat that fights brain cancer and tumors, aids in memory, and boosts brain function. Avocados can be added as a thickening agent in smoothies in place of bananas if you are on a low-carb diet. They are also great in salads or eaten in the form of guacamole. Some people even bake desserts with them!
Most people don’t think of onions as brain-enhancing foods, but they are wonderful for your gut. And as we have learned, the two are strongly connected. Onions are high in flavonoids, which have antioxidants properties that fight inflammation. They are also a prebiotic, which is the “fuel” that probiotics need to flourish in the digestive system. Sautéed onions go great on top of a burger, stir fry’s, and in soups or stews. You can also add raw onions to salads.
Tomatoes are high in folic acid and alpha-lipoic acid, which are both helpful for fighting depression. According to one study, people with depression tend to be low in folate. In fact, one-third of patients with major depression had a folate deficiency. Folic acid works by preventing access homocysteine, which is a hormone that restricts the production of many vital neurotransmitters that make you feel good, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Alpha-lipoic helps you convert glucose into energy to help stabilize mood. Add raw tomatoes to your salad at lunch or dip baby tomatoes in hummus as a snack.
Beans are high in fiber, which has numerous benefits on the body. Mostly, they help support digestive health and keep you regular. They also have anti-diabetic properties and aid in weight loss, which are two conditions that are linked to depression. Because they take a long time to break down, beans can be used to send a steady supply of fuel to your brain without crashing. Be aware of canned beans as these tend to be high in salt and chemicals. Instead, buy some dry beans in a bag, soak them overnight, boil them on the stove and enjoy in a salad or in place of rice in meat-based dishes.
Seeds might be small, but they pack a potent omega three punch. They’re also a great comfort food. Chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds are exceptionally high in omega three fatty acids. You can use flaxseed flour in place of gluten when baking or add raw seeds to a salad. Some people like them in smoothies and they make a great on-the-go snack.
Apples are high in lots of protective nutrients, like flavonoids, antioxidants, and fiber. They fight free radical damage, lower inflammation, and keep your blood sugar levels steady. Plus, they taste great! Throw an apple in your gym back or a pre or post-workout snack. Keep one at your desk at work when you need an energy boost or enjoy them chopped up in a salad. You can also enjoy fresh squeezed apple juice, but keep in mind that you’ll lose the fiber content.
Mushrooms alleviate depression in two ways. First, they have blood-sugar lowering abilities, meaning that your brain receives a steady supply of glucose without dips. This is important because blood sugar spikes may cause irritability and low points. Next, mushrooms increase the survival rate of probiotics in the gut, meaning that they enhance the health of your microbiome which, in turn, helps you produce more serotonin. Add sautéed mushrooms to stir-fry’s for a mood-boosting effect.