Using Food to Fight Depression

I joke around that nutrients can cure everything…a bad mood, headache, and more. I know it’s the overall lifestyle – nutrition, physical activity, sleep, stress, relationships – that makes the difference, but good nutrition is pretty powerful.

Your brain requires good nutrition to develop and function optimally. Without adequate nutrients, your brain cannot produce the neurotransmitters it needs to “feel good.”

The Facts on Depression

Depression affects over 120 million people worldwide, including children and adolescents. Over the next 20 years, it’s projected to become the number one cause of disability in America. Antidepressants are the most popular class of drugs in the US, and their use continues to grow.

Obviously, depression is due to a variety of causes, including genetic, psychological, biochemical, and physical factors. Being depressed is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Treatment for depression should include a complete plan – medication as necessary and therapy, but nutrition and exercise can play a big role in treating depression and preventing relapse.

Before looking at diet, it’s worth looking into “hidden factors” as causes of depression. This includes hormonal imbalances, such as hypothyroidism, and digestive problems, such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and food allergies or intolerances. Studies have found that up to 33% of people with celiac disease also suffer with depression. Your body is interconnected; an imbalance in one system will throw off the entire system.

Numerous studies have looked at a poor diet as a risk factor for depression. There is a strong relationship between physical and mental health. Poor diet, digestion, sleep, and stress can set the stage for depression. Low levels of B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc have been associated with a greater risk of depression.

Sugar is nutrient-depleting and is important to limit for general health and to help depression. Diabetes is linked to higher levels of depression. Sugar can cause major blood sugar swings and emotional instability. Sugar may make you happy for a moment, but the mood swings will soon come. Try some delicious fruit for natural sweetness.

Omega 3 Fats to Nourish your Brain

Essential fatty acids are especially linked to depression. The brain is made up of fat – 60% of its dry weight is fat. The standard American diet (SAD) is high in omega 6 fatty acids, which are typically found in cooking oils and fried, processed, and junk food, and low in omega 3 fatty acids. The omega 3 fats are made up of EPA and DHA. These two main fats are essential to maintain our nerve cell membranes, so our brain can transmit signals for communication.

Adding fish to your diet or supplementing with omega 3s (fish oil) can be extremely effective to treat depression. Omega 3 supplementation has been used as a treatment for depression and has proven effective. One study found that EPA supplementation was as effective as Prozac for major depressive disorder. Pretty incredible. Everyone should eat seafood at least twice a week or take a high-quality fish oil supplement. To get the most benefit, choose wild fish and grass-fed meats.


Nutrients & Depression

Zinc is an essential mineral and is used in over 200 processes in our body, including regulating neurotransmitters in the brain, helping wounds heal, and assisting the immune system to fight off infections. Zinc deficiency has been associated to depression and severity of depression, and it has antidepressant properties, especially when used in combination with antidepressants. Zinc deficiency is common in vegetarians, alcoholics, patients with eating disorders, and inflammatory bowel disease or disease that interfere with zinc absorption.

Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin and found in a few food sources, often with omega 3s (salmon, sardines, egg yolks). Vitamin D deficiency is linked with low mood and depression, as well as seasonal affective disorder. Vitamin D supplementation has shown improvement in depression and overall mood. It’s worth getting your Vitamin D levels checked and supplementing if necessary. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine! It’s hard not to be in a good mood when you’re in the sunshine.


Omega 3s and zinc are just two nutrients that may aid in treating depression. Focusing on an overall nutrient-dense diet is important to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

Stay Active

Finally, exercise is so important! As Elle Woods said in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t,” exercise can make you happy. Exercise is proven to be an effective treatment for depression and to prevent relapse, as well as anxiety disorders. In young adults with mild depression, yoga classes were found to decrease depressive symptoms.

Exercise works by releasing endorphins, changing levels of your “feel good” neurotransmitters, lowering cortisol (stress hormone), and gets your mind off stress and daily activities. You don’t need to train for a marathon to get an effect either – small bursts of exercise, such as a few short walks during the day, have proven effective for depression and heart disease. Taking short exercise breaks also helps energy levels high during the day.

Running and yoga are my favorite stress-relieving, endorphin-producing activities, but it’s important to find exercise that you enjoy and can stick with. Along with exercise, mindfulness based activities, such as yoga, deep breathing, meditation, and visualization have all proven effective for depression. They train your mind to stay present in the moment.

This information is just a tiny amount of information on nutrition for depression. There’s tons of research out there, and this series on depression is fantastic if you want to learn more.


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