Depression and food: is there a real connection?
We’ve all experienced short-term diet-induced ups and downs. You’re on your way home from work and you forgot your mid-afternoon snack. The “hanger” is starting to set in, and all of a sudden, that everyday traffic jam is no longer a minor inconvenience. It’s a bonafide nightmare. Or conversely, you just finished a heaping stack of pancakes and now it feels like someone just shot you in the bum with a rhino-sized tranquilizer dart. What you may not be aware of, however; is the connection between the western diet and depression. For good or bad, food fuels our body and mood. When there are consistent imbalances in our diet, it can even contribute to long-term disruptions in our mood, like depressive episodes. There are a good many ways food affects our mood. For a large part, food influences our mood because what we eat effects our neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals we produce that help to regulate how we are feeling.
There are three of these critical brain chemicals that play key roles in regulating our mood: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
- Serotonin helps to regulate mood, anxiety, sexuality, and hunger cravings.
- Dopamine, can help us to feel motivated and focused, and is associated with feelings of reward, and memory. It is often called the “addiction” drug, as drugs that increase dopamine levels can be extremely addictive.
- Norepinephrine affects our cognitive endurance, our vigilance, our energy levels, and our feelings of motivation. 1 2 3
So how does food affect our neurotransmitters?
Food is fuel. Our body extracts the nutrients it needs from the food we eat to create a variety of compounds, including neurotransmitters. When we eat high quality “fuel”, our body and brain chemicals are balanced, resulting in a stable mood. Certain bad-mood foods, or even food sensitivities, can cause neurotransmitter imbalances. These imbalances can send our body into spike/crash cycles resulting in mood swings, feelings of negativity, dissatisfaction, and even depression.
What foods are getting me in a funk?
Some flavors are so delicious they are like fireworks to your senses. Unfortunately, those fireworks can come with harsh side effects.
Happiness-sapping artificial sweetener aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, NatraTaste Blue) is one example of an excitotoxin. Excitoxins are flavoring agents that can cause our neurons to fire spasmodically. Symptoms of consuming excitotoxins include headaches, itching, swollen tongue and throat, and disrupted serotonin/dopamine levels. This neurotransmitter imbalance can affect your appetite, your sleep patterns, and cause depression.
Ever wonder why you have an irresistable urge for Chick Filet? Excitotoxin MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is ever present in fast food, and has been found to be extremely addictive. Little wonder why, MSG has a whole taste category assigned to it, like sweet, or sour!
According to the official Umami Information Center, “umami is a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.”
So what’s not to love? Well unfortunately, MSG is a particularly potent excitotoxin, and can result in even more pronounced symptoms.
Fortunately for us, there are many natural sources of glutamate. So we can have our fireworks, and eat it too. Next time you’re craving that amazing savory taste, try adding tomatoes, or mushrooms to your dish for an extra helping of umami. Pork, beef, chicken, soy, carrots, and potatoes are also rich in that umami flavor. For a savory universal seasoning mix, our go to blend is a mix of garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and a pinch of turmeric and himalayan sea salt. Cayenne pepper and paprika help provide that kick of flavor your tastebuds are looking for from an excitotoxin. Aspartame will most likely be lurking in diet drinks like diet soda, etc. Fortunately, this sweetener seems to be on it’s way out. 5 6 7 8
High fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners high in fructose like agave nectar increase your risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome describes a cluster of issues that can lead to type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These issues include insulin resistance, obesity, and high blood pressure. Eating foods high in fructose can lead to neurotransmitter imbalances and depressed mood as these foods induce suger high/crash cycles.
Raw local honey and pure maple syrup, are better choices. Generous servings of either will still result in too much fructose, but a little honey goes a long way. Naturally low-glycemic sweeteners like organic stevia, and organic powdered monk fruit, pair well with both maple syrup and honey for an added sweet taste . 9 10 11 12 13 14
No one’s pointing a finger here towards coffee. We love coffee. Sadly, there is a line though, a line we can cross into caffeine dependence. Really it’s the line between “suffering” and “not suffering.” If you forget your morning cup of coffee and your head feels like it got into the wrong side of an argument with a hammer, you’re experiencing caffeine withdrawal. Caffeine withdrawal can be brutal–hulk-smash-headache brutal. In the longer term, there is evidence that daily caffeine consumption can deplete your magnesium and zinc stores. Continuous caffeine consumption (say that three times fast) can also make it harder to replenish those stores once they are gone. Studies have shown that when your magnesium levels are low, anxiety and stress levels go up, and your energy levels and mood, go down.
If you’re looking for the wonderful comfort of a warm beverage in the morning, try drinking energy-boosting green tea for a more moderate dose of caffeine. If you drink coffee, or caffeinated drinks daily, consider taking a magnesium and zinc supplement before bed to boost mood and help restore lost minerals. 15 16 17 18 19 20 21
Over the last 150 years, the western diet has evolved quickly, and our bodies have been hard-pressed to keep up. In other words, our diet today is not in our genetic constitution. Many studies have focused on the changes in our consumption of essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3. Traditionally, our diets were more balanced at a 1:1 ratio. Today, humans are supposedly consuming a 15:1-16.7:1 ratio, respectively. Big changes in diet, small changes in genetics. Which may not seem like a big deal, but when you consider that we’re exponentially upping our intake of fatty acids that cause inflammation, and those same fatty acids are blocking the absorption and utilization of neurologically protective fatty acids, these studies start to make more sense.
Omega-6 vs. Omega-3
Omega-6 fatty acids compete for absorption with mood boosting and neurologically protective omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have linked diets with a high ratio of omega-6 over omega 3 with depressive mood disorders. On the other side, diets that maintain a higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids, have the opposite effect. Foods high in omega-6 include:
- Corn chips, or what I like to call, the “-os” foods: Doritos, Nachos, Fritos, Tostitos (approximately 14500mg per cup
- Fried fast foods like KFC’s fried chicken breast, (approximately 12500mg per KFC fried chicken breast)
- Nut butters
- Potato chips
- Margarine type “easy-spread butter” products.
Avoiding unhealthy omega-6 ratios while cooking can be difficult. Grass fed ghee is a great cooking oil substitute with a stellar 6-3 ratio and a high flash point. Macademia oil, and olive oil are the next best options and also vegan. Depression fighting foods with the highest ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids include:
- Certain fish like salmon, mackeral, and cod
- Flax seeds, and chia seeds. Chia seed pudding is an awesome way to boost your mood on the daily! 22 23 24 25 26
Simple sugars & the carbohydrates that hide them.
High-glycemic index foods, with easy to access sugars, like oh say, a stack of pancakes, or a bowl of fruity pebbles, burn fast and hot, leaving your brain starved as your body adjusts.
Eating slower burning foods like complex carbohydrates, or healthy mood boosting fats like DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) will help to foster a stable and steady mood. (There are those omega-3’s again!) These are considered essential polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. For our fellow sweet tooths out there, we have good news. Thanks to the ketogenic diet fad, there are also a variety of sweet treats designed to be low in carbohydrates that are sweetened with natural sweeteners like organic stevia, powdered monk fruit, and erythritol. Pancakes are not left out either. What a time to be alive! 27 28 29
This subject is somewhat mysterious, and yet, when you think about it, makes so much sense. You are what you eat after all. Grain-fed meats are high in omega-6, and often contain hormones that can have detrimental effects on our bodies and mood.
We’ve all heard that grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised chicken is better for us, but why? Well besides having less fat, grass-fed beef also contains a healthier fat profile than grain-fed. Fats in grass-fed beef contain less artery clogging saturated fats, and also show an incredibly improved omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. We thought we’d mention too that vegetarian diets are shown to greatly improve mood as well. One more reason to try going green and lean. For those of us that can’t kick our omnivore lifestyle, reaching for grass-fed or pasture raised meats instead will give us healthier arteries, and a happier outlook on life. 30 31
It’s true, sigh. That feel-good buzz, does more than just kill our brain cells. Alcohol lowers our stores of the “feel good” neurotransmitter seratonin, negatively impacting mood. But we need that glass of wine to unwind right? It relieves our stress! Maybe in the short term, but in the long term, our body works to balance these short-term effects by producing more stress and anxiety inducing hormones like cortisol. Studies have shown that regular consumers of alcohol actually experience more stress and anxiety on a daily basis. The bad news continues: trying to kick that daily glass of wine becomes harder with time. Alcohol induced elevated stress hormones contribute to feelings of withdrawal. Cocktails also tend to hide a mind-blowing amount of that oh-so-addicting sugar.
If you’re looking to replace your daily glass of wine, try reaching for a probiotic-rich fermented beverage like kombucha! These fermented tea drinks are great for your gut, and really go a long way to curb cravings for that ice-cold brew-ski. Make sure you check out the label first, as some brands include more sugar than you may be comfortable with. I love to treat my kombucha like a champagne or wine mixer. Kombucha mixes beautifully with other juices. If you’re looking to indulge in a craft cocktail. There are some zero calorie stevia sweetened cocktail mixers out there like these awesome Be Mixed mixers. We tried these, and they are absolutely delicious and portable! 32 33 34 35 36 37
What!?! That does not sound good for my neurotransmitters… But I definitely don’t eat those do I?
You most-definitely have. Most common everyday pesticides used to protect our food supply from nature’s voracious pests kill by targeting the nervous system. These neurotoxins are non-selective, and are harmful to mammals as well, including humans. Studies have found these neurotoxic effects to be especially damaging to developing children; linking consumption of inorganic vegetables to ADHD, lower IQs, and autism spectrum disorder. Many of these pesticides have the potential to damage neurons crucial to the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter critical to mood and the nervous system. There are even indications that pesticide-induced damage to these critical dopaminergic neurons early in life have the potential to result in “silent” neurological damage. This “silent” damage would go unnoticed until later in life, where it could manifest into some pretty scary clinical outcomes, like Parkinson’s disease.
Sticking to organic fruits and vegetables can reduce your exposure to these harmful neurotoxins by as much a 80-90 percent! Such a simple (although sometimes costly) step can go a long way to protect our neurotransmitters, and our mood. Thankfully, organic produce is now common in a variety of grocery store chains, and more cost-effective, making it easier to keep our households pesticide free! 38 39 40
Are there depression fighting foods I can eat to help boost my mood?
- Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and fatty fish, are all excellent sources of omega-3, a depression fighting fatty acid.
- Look for natural sources of tryptophan like turkey. Tryptophan is a chemical naturally occurring in food that helps to boost our serotonin levels.
- Eat foods rich in magnesium and zinc like whole grains, dark chocolate, dark leafy greens, and oysters for a natural mood boost.
- Whole grains and complex carbohydrates are a great way to maintain a stable mood.
Yes, your diet can lead to a no-good, very bad mood! The link between depression and food is very real. Your blood sugar, and your critical mood-regulating brain chemicals are affected by the “fuel” we put in our bodies. Symptoms of a neurotransmitter imbalance include mood swings, headaches, depressed mood, appetite changes, sleep disruption, and increased stress and anxiety hormones. Avoiding foods fried in unhealthy oils and food high in simple-sugars and opting for “long-burning”, depression fighting foods can help to improve our mood. These foods include complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats like omega-3. And let’s not forget, we are living in a glorious, “have-your-cake-and eat-it-too,” age, where there’s always a healthier alternative! Another reason to smile!
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