It is estimated that 1 in 6 of us experienced a common mental health issue in the last week.1 According to The Mental Health Foundation, “Major depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the burden of suicide and ischemic heart disease”. In 2016 prescriptions in the UK for anti-depressant medications reached 64 million3. Anti-depressants can offer a lifeline when we are feeling low and in despair, but ideally, they should only be used in the short term as long term dependence on them can become an issue.
We also tend to rely on “comfort” foods when we’re feeling low. We convince ourselves that we need or deserve to have sugary snacks, high carb foods or alcohol to cheer us up. But do they? Do we honestly feel any better for consuming these things or do we end up feeling bloated, irritable, tired, guilty and even more depressed? Not only do these foods not help on an emotional level but on a biological level, the sugar crash that follows consuming these foods is likely to lead to more feelings of anxiety and low mood.
Most anti-depressants work by altering the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. The usual targets are Serotonin (more commonly) or Dopamine (less commonly). Serotonin is known as the “feel good” chemical and is associated with mood and appetite control. It can also help us switch off and relax. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. Addictive behaviours can often result from an imbalance in dopamine. For example, the taste of sugar on the tongue activates the release of dopamine in the brain. Recent studies have suggested that dopamine pathways can be blunted by overexposure to sugary and fatty foods, so you need more of it to get the same response leading to addictive patterns of eating.
So are there other ways we can improve our mood without medicating ourselves with pills, sugar or alcohol? Absolutely!! The following foods and food groups and known to have a positive effect on mood.
For our bodies to produce serotonin we need to consume foods which contain an amino acid called tryptophan. This is a “precursor” to serotonin. Foods that contain tryptophan include eggs, chicken, turkey, seafood, seaweed, tofu, and miso.
Tyrosine increases dopamine levels in the brain, improving mood and deep thinking (important for creative types). Sources of tyrosine are most fruits but especially kiwis, apricots and cranberries, turkey, soya beans, eggs, chicken and cheese.
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fats are essential for the function of the brain and the central nervous system, and the balance between Omega 3 & Omega 6 is critical. Most people in the west eat too much Omega 6 from meat and vegetable oils, and not enough of the Omega 3’s and this imbalance has been linked to depression. Good sources of Omega 3’s are oily fish (salmon, sardines, pilchard, mackerel, trout), walnuts, flaxseed/linseeds.
The B Vitamins are very important for stress and energy levels and can be seriously depleted by alcohol and a diet high in sugar. In particular Folate, B12, & B6 are important for the creation and function of neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
Food sources of Folate included broccoli and leafy greens and beans and pulses. The main sources of Vitamin B12 are animal proteins such as fish, meat, eggs so getting sufficient B12 can be a challenge for vegetarians/vegans.
Other sources of B vits are whole grains such as oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and nuts and seeds.
It is estimated that up to 80% of the UK population may be low in Vitamin D during the winter months, and if you have dark skin you are more likely to have a significant deficiency. It is only fairly recently that we have come to realize what a critical nutrient Vit D is for many different functions, including mood, energy and general brain health. A lack of this nutrient is also linked with obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight which triggers Vit D synthesis in the skin, and ironically Vit D is one of the key nutrients to protect us against all cancers including skin cancer. So, careful exposure to sunlight (20 minutes per day) can help boost our levels. Food sources are oily fish especially trout and salmon, eggs, butter, tofu, and foods that have been fortified with Vit D, however, our diet can only provide, at best, 10% of our daily requirement.
Magnesium is great for stress and anxiety. It is also key for muscle function and relaxation. Some studies suggest that a deficiency in magnesium may be linked with depression. Eat magnesium-rich foods including nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin), spinach, beans, whole grains and dark chocolate.
Soaking in an Epsom Salts bath is another great way to get magnesium into your system and relieve aches and pains, and magnesium sprays can help with muscle cramps and spasms. Some people find a magnesium supplement can prevent tension headaches and migraines
Some studies have linked depression with inflammation in the brain. Antioxidants protect cells against the damage caused by inflammation. They may also help protect amino acids such as tryptophan (see above) and ensure that it is more available to the brain.
Antioxidants are found in all vegetables and fruits, especially brightly coloured produce such as red peppers, blueberries, green leafy veg. Turmeric is also a very powerful antioxidant with a myriad of health benefits including protecting the neurons of the brain and lifting the mood. Saffron is also very effective as a natural anti-depressant, although you’d need to eat a lot of saffron rice to experience a significant change in mood. It is available, however, as a supplement.
More and more studies are linking a healthy balance of gut bacteria with brain health. We have bacteria over and inside our entire body, most of it beneficial. In fact, the human body is 95% bacteria. Most of the trillions of bacterial cells are found in the large intestine where they help with the final breakdown of our food, fight against harmful bacteria, yeasts, and parasites, produce compounds that repair the intestinal walls, and importantly for mood, synthesise B Vitamins and Serotonin. Several studies have linked imbalanced gut flora with depression and mood issues and recent studies suggest there may even be a link between low diversity of gut bacteria and obesity4, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia5, and heart disease.
Boost your gut bacteria by eating plenty of fibre including vegetables, small amounts of fruit, whole grains such as oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds. Fermented foods are also helpful such as plain “live” yogurt (but not fruit or yogurt drinks sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners), kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha or take a multi-strain probiotic supplement every day.
Healthy body, healthy mind
So it is clear that a healthy, balanced diet is key not only for physical health but for mental and emotional health as well. Make sure you have as much variety in your diet as possible, eating real, fresh food and avoiding processed, convenience foods devoid of nutrients.
Book yourself in for a week at Homefield to really nourish and nurture yourself. Look after yourself. Make yourself and your health a priority and before long you will enjoying life to the full again.