Mental Health, Nutrition, and Depression

As mental health treatment becomes more integrative in its approach, diet, along with such other lifestyle factors as exercise and sleep is now being studied. Recent studies, especially one randomized controlled study, are supporting what many have known, at least anecdotally, all along: food affects mood.

Any discussion of mood must begin with the brain since the brain is made of food. Eating the right foods supports our brain and provides the necessary building blocks for growth and resiliency. Good food supports good brain health and good brain health supports good mood. Good food also prevents inflammation and supports stable blood sugar, which in turn keeps our mood from fluctuating too wildly.

Our gut, often referred to as our second brain, is also involved in mood. Did you know that approximately 95% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are created in the gut? The building blocks of these are, of course, food.

We know all too well some of the deficits of the Standard American Diet (SAD): foods containing refined sugars; highly processed rice, flours and pasta; and foods containing chemicals, preservatives, and antibiotics. A diet such as this leads to inflammation which can contribute to mood imbalances, particularly depression. But there is good news on the horizon.

While there have been previous studies which showed a correlation between dietary patterns and the risk for depression, last year the first-ever randomized controlled clinical trial to test a dietary intervention as a treatment for clinical depression, the “SMILES” study, was published. After receiving seven 60-minute sessions of dietary counseling over the course of 12 weeks which encouraged a modified Mediterranean Diet, the treatment group realized a 32% remission rate of depression. While the study will need to be replicated, the robust results are encouraging.

What’s the takeaway from this study for us? That our self-care plan should include an emphasis on diet as well as exercise and other lifestyle factors. We should decrease the consumption of inflammatory foods such as sugar, trans fats, processed meats, and refined grains and increase such things as leafy greens, rainbow vegetables, a variety of seafood, and improve the quality and amount of meat consumed. This sounds a lot like the Mediterranean Diet used in the study previously mentioned! A helpful anti-inflammatory food pyramid designed by Andrew Weil, MD can be found here. 

Key nutrients that help with mood include:

• Zinc: pumpkin seeds, oysters, ground turkey, steaks, sesame seeds
• Magnesium: almonds spinach black beans, soybeans
• Fiber: navy beans, lentils, tempeh collard greens
• B12: clams, mussels, sardines
• Iron: pumpkin seeds, oysters, dark chocolate , spinach
• Omega 3’s: wild salmon, anchovies, sardines, tuna
• Phytonutrients: red peppers, sweet potato, broccoli, blueberries
• Fermented foods: kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi
(Drew Ramsey, MD)

For further reading:

Eat Complete, Drew Ramsey, MD (Harper Collins 2016)
The Happiness Diet, Drew Ramsey, MD (Rodale 2011)
The Healthy Mind Cookbook, Rebecca Katz (Ten Speed Press 2015)
The World’s Healthiest Foods, 2nd Edition George Mateljan (GMF Publishing 2015)

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Mary Senn

Mary Senn, LSCW has been practicing since 1976, working in private practice since 2009. She successfully completed a fellowship with the Chicago Center for Integration and Healing, where she received extensive training in trauma-informed… Read More