Diet and Depression | Is There a Link?
Depression and diet seem to go hand in hand… but to what extent, is hard to tell. More and more research points us in a definite direction: the more nutrient-rich your diet is, the lower your risk for experiencing depressive symptoms.
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. The control center of your body needs fuel to run smoothly. Now, imagine putting bad fuel into your luxury automobile. The result would cost you a pretty penny to clean out all of the toxins and “bad” fuel that likely caused the car to break down.
The same goes for your body. Fueling with high-quality and “clean” nutrition seems to be a no-brainer.
Your brain is always on the move. Every function that your body completes, both voluntary and involuntary, uses calories.
Even resting uses brain power!
When you lay your head down at night, close your eyes, and fall into a restful sleep, your body is still hard at work. Have you ever had a dream and you wake up feeling exhausted? This is because your brain is expending energy and using calories to process information while you sleep.
One primary symptom of depression is difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. Excessive worry causes ruminations, and the thoughts tumble around in your head like clothes in a washing machine.
In fact, something that has puzzled scientists for years is the connection between depressive symptoms and the intensity of REM sleep. Those who are depressed also tend to spend more of their sleep hours in REM sleep.
Eating fat-laden and overprocessed food often interferes with sleep patterns. It is difficult to sleep on a full stomach, as some experience indigestion. The restless sleep that occurs because of your overfull tummy could be attributed to a higher body temperature resulting from eating just before bedtime. This leads to more brain activity during REM sleep.
It seems like a vicious cycle.
Another common symptom of depression is a change in appetite. This symptomatic conundrum is circular—meaning when you feel bad, poor eating is likely to follow, and then you feel worse, which can lead to poor sleep.
And the cycle continues as you put more low-quality food into your body, which impacts your mood.
Something you may not know…
Scientists are finding many correlations between food and mental health in study after study. Another recent discovery is the gastrointestinal tract’s influence on depression, anxiety, and overall mental health.
Serotonin, a neurotransmitter—which was thought by many a short time ago to only be in the brain—has been found in the digestive system. About 95% of the serotonin in your body is actually produced in the gastrointestinal tract!
Your stomach and intestines are lined with millions of nerve cells—as a result, what you eat impacts what you think.
There are also “good” and “bad” bacteria that live within your digestive system. The good bacteria help build a defensive wall along the lining of your intestinal tract. What are they defending? The bacteria are defending your system from toxins and inflammation-causing food. They also help your body absorb nutrients.
So, when a poor diet is the norm, you have a double whammy—the low-quality consumed food inhibits the “good” bacteria and allows the “bad” bacteria to take over. This disrupts the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from reaching the organs, including the brain.
Diet and depression…
The CDC reports that by 2020, depression will rank second to heart disease as the leading cause of disability.
Dr. Drew Ramsey, a clinical professor at Columbia University, said this…
“Traditionally, we haven’t been trained to ask about food and nutrition, but diet is potentially the most powerful intervention we have. By helping people shape their diets, we can improve their mental health and decrease their risk of psychiatric disorders.”
Diets that are rich in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed food, lean meats, and high-quality dairy have shown to lower the risk of depression by 25-35% compared to the traditional Western diet.
An increasing amount of research is being done on various diets as depression continues to rise. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, found there is a correlation between fruit and vegetable consumption and depression…
“This meta-analysis indicated that fruit and vegetable consumption might be inversely associated with the risk of depression, respectively.”[i]
Rest and depression…
As we learned earlier, excessive worry and ruminating thoughts can lead to restless sleep, which is symptomatic of depression.
Like diet and depression research, more studies are being conducted on sleep and depression as well.
Researchers have found that those who have insomnia are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression and 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
So, if we know that a healthy diet helps our mental health, why is it so hard to follow?
For starters, it’s not always as simple as changing your mind. There is evidence that food with excessive sugar impacts behavioral and neurochemical functioning.
In one study, sugar addiction was shown to have similar effects on rats as drug addiction.
“The behavioral findings with sugar are similar to those observed with drugs of abuse… Behavioral depression has also been found during naloxone-precipitated withdrawal in intermittent sugar-fed rats… This decrease in escape efforts that were replaced by passive floating suggests the rats were experiencing behavioral depression during withdrawal.”[ii]
What could this mean for you? It means that it takes more than a simple mental shift when it comes to alleviating depressive symptoms.
It could help to start adding nutrient-dense food or supplements to your diet first. When you add vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants to your diet, it starts to fill nutritional gaps that are left from processed, high-sugar food.
After you start filling in the gaps, then you can begin to eliminate the not-so-healthy foods from your diet.
Healing your body both physically and mentally isn’t easy—and it takes time. Seek medical advice to find out the best approach for you. Ask for support from family and friends.
The saying is “you are what you eat,” but we want to challenge you with this thought… you are MORE than what you eat. You are made for a purpose. You have a unique gift to offer the world. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating, but your reason for being on this earth is far greater.