Depression is no longer considered a disease confined to the brain but rather one which impacts negatively on multiple systems throughout the whole body. It has emotional, physical and social repercussions and in many cases is either too quickly medicated or, conversely, goes undiagnosed. Depressive illness influences and is influenced by several systems.
Depression is characterised by despondency, a lack of motivation, poor self-esteem, sleep disturbance, as well as mental and physical slowness. Behaviours such as avoidance of people, general flatness of mood and a loss of interest in things, may also indicate a state of depression. There are many cases where depression requires further medical intervention. In any case, be it clinically diagnosed or mild depression, diet and lifestyle can be of great benefit.
Neurotransmitters such as serotonin attract the greatest attention when treating depression, with anti-depressant medication specifically targeting neurotransmitter production pathways. However many food constituents can also greatly influence these pathways, increasing production of serotonin for example, which may improve a person’s mood or state of mind.
Tryptophan is an amino acid, which acts as a precursor to serotonin when combined with the necessary cofactors B9, (folate) B6 and zinc. It is an essential amino acid, meaning the body cannot make it and therefore is essential to obtain from the diet. Tryptophan is found in foods such as salmon, turkey, chicken, nuts and seeds as well as cheese and consuming these foods regularly may influence serotonin production. The conversion of tryptophan into serotonin, however, is negatively affected by stress.
Excess levels of cortisol, which occurs during times of stress, activates an enzyme call tryptophan pyrrolase, which in turn takes tryptophan away from the pathway of making serotonin and instead uses it to make niacin. This sustained high level of cortisol therefore can impede serotonin production.
Stress also depletes the body of zinc, magnesium, vitamin C and many B vitamins. Depression may be one of the earliest signs of a mineral deficiency with an improvement in mood being shown simply by correcting deficiency in selenium, zinc or magnesium. Depression has also been associated with Iron deficiency anemia and tends to takes months to resolve even once the anemia has been corrected. Minerals are often overlooked when analysing nutrient intake, but play a vital role in a persons overall health. Minerals are easily depleted when the diet is high in sugar, processed foods and caffeine.
Some people find that vitamin C supplementation can improve their mood. Vitamin C is used in the production of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter which when depleted may cause a loss of memory and alertness as well as clinical Depression. Vitamin C is also easily depleted through stress, illness and general lack of intake from diet. Increasing foods such as berries, kiwifruit and capsicum will provide good levels of vitamin C, while having good stress management techniques in place will help ensure levels are not easily depleted.
Low thyroid function can also present with signs of depression. Ensuring good levels of iodine, as well as cofactors such as selenium, zinc and B vitamins will help to keep the thyroid healthy. Thyroid function does naturally decline with age, however any concerns regarding thyroid should always be further investigated by a health professional.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) play a large role in nourishing the cells of the nervous system. Often used to treat mental health disorders including depression, EFAs, particularly the omega 3 variety, can be found in oily fish, nuts and seeds.
Exercise has also been described as a natural antidepressant. Regular exercise will increase the production endorphins, the body’s own happy hormones. An instant supply of these hormones is provided immediately following exercise. Simply walking for 30 minutes a day, preferably in nature, should help to improve mood as well as energy. Slowly increasing this over time will give added benefits.
Nuts: Cashews, walnuts, brazil nuts . A handful of nuts packs a punch when it comes to happy nutrients. This particular mix is full of zinc, tryptophan, essential fatty acids and B vitamins making it the perfect snack to reach for throughout the day. A little discipline is required so you don’t keep on snacking – they taste so good.
Oily Fish: Sardines, anchovies . These very oily fish provide great levels of protein for energy and alertness, specifically with high amounts of tryptophan to improve serotonin production. The abundance of omega 3 fatty acids provides great nourishment to the cells of the nervous system, making these little fish a perfect choice for protein.
Bone broth. This simple, cheap and increasingly popular homemade broth is full of minerals. Incredibly nutritious in its own right, the broth’s minerals will also help to absorb nutrients from other foods. Make your own and add it to a variety of dishes to keep your mineral and mood levels high.
Leafy greens: particularly Asparagus is the highest natural source of folate (B9) while also providing good levels of magnesium to strengthen the nervous system. Magnesium is essential for a healthy nervous system, however is easily depleted so needs to be provided daily to keep levels high. Choose the darker leafy greens to get the most benefit.
Shellfish: oysters, mussels, clams. A diet rich in seafood provides some of the best sources of B12, a nutrient necessary to the functioning of the nervous system. Should B12 become too depleted it can cause irreparable damage to nerve cells. The high levels of zinc in these shellfish will help to ensure healthy production of neurotransmitters.
Lean poultry : Chicken and turkey. These lean protein options provide some of the highest amounts of tryptophan, greatly influencing the production of serotonin. Also providing B6 these two lean protein options, when combined with with leafy greens for extra folate (B9) make the perfect mood enhancing meal.