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Over a decade worth of scientific studies have pointed to an association between the consumption of fish and the occurrence of depression. Science is now showing that psychological health is often directly linked to nutritional deficiencies.
In short, food can directly impact the physiology of one’s body which will directly impact one’s psychology or mental health.
Numerous studies have shown omega-3 levels to be lower in people with depression than in people without. The rates of depression are much lower in populations that eat larger quantities of fish. Specifically omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel.
Two recent scientific reviews analyzed data from dozens of studies and they came to a similar conclusion: Omega-3s can help people with severe depression but are unlikely to help those with minor situational depression.
Omega-3s deemed safe
Fortunately, research has shown that eating healthy can help alleviate numerous symptoms that are associated with depression—even in the advanced stages. Emerging research has demonstrated certain foods to be nearly twice as effective as traditional antidepressant medications, without dangerous side effects.
Researchers are now beginning to study whether omega-3s can help treat depression in children as well. Two recent, small studies — one in Israel, one in Australia — showed a 40 to 50 percent improvement in depressive symptoms.
Depression is usually extremely difficult to manage and is easy to see why people go to such great lengths to attempt to treat it. With all the new research available, managing and coping with this common condition could become far more safe, healthy, efficient and economical.
Food for thought
Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are the three primary macronutrients humans consume for energy. Each one can affect mindset in its own way. Through careful planning, each macronutrient provides a mental boost that can help overcome symptoms of depression and other psychological illness.
Proteins. Proteins are composed of amino acids, which also enable the function of the brain’s neurotransmitters. There are two groups of amino acids: those that the body produces naturally (non-essential), and those that we must receive through our diet (essential). Deficiencies in essential amino acids like tryptophan, phenylalanine and methionine have been linked to the symptoms of depression.
Tryptophan helps the brain produce the relaxing hormone serotonin and has been used clinically to treat depression. Phenylalanine increases alertness and natural levels of dopamine, and methionine kick starts the production of the brain’s neurotransmitters. Healthy beef, eggs and whey protein all deliver a natural, healthy dosage of essential amino acids that promote proper brain function.
Carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates like white bread and conventional pasta offer little benefit. Sugar can actually cause depression. On the other hand, vegetables and low glycemic fruits trigger the release of a healthy amount of insulin, which escorts tryptophan to the brain to achieve a soothing effect, making it easier to fall asleep.
Fats. The human brain contains a large amount of lipids, or fats. About 50 percent of gray matter in the brain is composed of fatty acids—one-third of which are omegas. While many common foods (beef, oils, etc.) are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids, omega-3s are more difficult to come by. Cold-water fish and their oil are well-known sources, but both are lacking in the typical diet.
Unfortunately, an imbalance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is known to increase symptoms of depression. Omega-3 deficiencies disturb neural function, prevent the renewal of cellular membranes and may speed brain aging over time. Maintaining a proper proportion of omega fatty acids is vital to ensuring cognitive ability as we age.
Vitamins and minerals impact depression
Folate, a B vitamin that is found in leafy green vegetables, beans and eggs is essential for good mental health. Though its effects on depression haven't been studied as extensively as omega-3s, existing studies have shown consistently positive results, says an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Last year, the American Psychiatric Assn.'s Task Force on Complementary and Alternative Medicine reviewed the evidence that folate deficiency is linked to depression and concluded that folate appeared to be "a low-risk and reasonable part of a treatment plan" for major depression when added to prescription antidepressants.
Research has also shown that low zinc levels can contribute to depression. One study investigated and concluded that there is a direct link between the amount of deficiency and the severity of the depression symptoms.
The best sources of zinc include beef, lamb, pork, dairy products and salmon. Chicken and turkey are also good sources, particularly the dark meat. Nuts and seeds are another helpful source of this vital nutrient.
The mineral selenium is well known but seldom talked about. Several studies have reported an association between low selenium intake and a poor mood status.
Selenium rich foods include beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, dairy products and lean meats. A healthy, balanced diet will ensure that one receives the right amount of selenium.
Research is constantly finding new benefits of the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D has been shown to act more like a hormone than a vitamin. Vitamin D receptors have been found throughout the brain.
A 2010 national study found that depression is significantly higher in people with a deficiency than those who are sufficient in vitamin D. In another study, researchers from the University of Toronto noticed that people who were suffering from depression improved simply with increased levels of sunshine exposure.
More exercise, less depression
There is also remarkable evidence that exercise can ward off relapse rates of depression. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine stated that, “Individuals who had been physically active in the past who became inactive were 1.5 times more likely to become depressed than those who consistently maintained a high level of physical activity.”
Further evidence shows that the more intense the exercise, the higher the antidepressant effect. Other good news is that these positive effects last much longer than the exercise program itself. Although exercise should be a consistent part of anyone’s lifestyle, many studies show that even when exercise is stopped for a period of time, its positive effects can linger for months afterward.
Depression has also been directly and indirectly linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and early death. It is observed daily in missed workdays, decreased productivity, strained relationships and long-term suffering. Statistics like these are not only alarming; they cannot be ignored any longer.
Proper nutrition and exercise is not solely about maintaining a healthy weight, it’s about preventing disease. Antidepressants are not the best answer for depression. Choosing food for nutritional value, properly supplementing essential nutrients and getting physically active will give the body all the tools it needs to lessen and prevent symptoms of depression.
Dr. Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
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