The Right Foods Fight Off the BlahsAdvertisements for antidepressants abound, yet a recent analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the benefits of treating mildly or moderately depressed individuals with these drugs “may be minimal or nonexistent” compared with a placebo. Most physicians agree that at least part of the prevention of and recovery from depression can be addressed through diet.
“Every molecule in the brain begins as food,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of The Happiness Diet and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. “Food choice is the biggest puzzle piece patients have under their control.”
Ramsey describes the modern American diet as being overwhelmed with highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, omega-6 fats and sugar. His food philosophy serves as an overall prescription for mental health: “Eat food that comes from farms and not factories; simple, recognizable human food.”
Registered Dietitian Kathie Swift, an integrative clinical nutritionist in Lennox, Massachusetts, and author of The Swift Diet, agrees that food is powerful medicine. She recommends a balanced, flexitarian diet founded on plants but including high-quality, animal-sourced foods. Just shifting our processed-foods to whole-foods ratio yields an improved mood, Swift says, which continues to motivate dietary change.
Prebiotic/Probiotic PotentialRecent science suggests a deeper meaning to the “gut feeling” adage. Bacteria in the gut and neurochemicals in the brain communicate intimately and bidirectionally via the vagus nerve, explains Swift. Altering the gut’s microbial population, whether from chronic stress, antibiotic overuse or nutritional deficiencies, can change brain chemistry and thereby influence mood, mental clarity and sleep, she says.
In 2013, Canadian researchers altered both the neurochemicals and behavior in mice by switching their intestinal microbiota; anxious mice given the microbes of intrepid mice became braver, and vice versa. Another small study in the British Journal of Nutrition showed a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms in volunteers taking probiotics for a month.
Essentially, says Swift, “We have a brain in the belly,” which must be nourished by both prebiotics (soluble fiber) and probiotics (fermented food). “Fiber is the quintessential substance to feed the lovely community of bugs in the gut,” says Swift, “while fermented foods interact with resident bacteria and give them a boost.” She recommends a variety of vegetables as a primary source of fiber, legumes especially, along with fruits, nuts, cheese and the occasional gluten-free whole grain. Probiotic foods include fermented vegetables, kefir, yogurt with live active cultures and apple cider vinegar.
B HappyMost psychiatric medications target feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, says Ramsey, but the body also manufactures these chemicals naturally during the methylation cycle, a B-vitamin-dependent neurological process. “B vitamins are superstars of the brain,” Ramsey says. “Think of them as lubrication for the brain’s gears.”
Folate, or vitamin B9, is particularly important to healthy nervous system functioning. A meta-analysis of 15,000 people reported in the Journal of Epidemiology associated low folate with a higher risk of depression. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and Swiss chard are high in B vitamins, as are beets, eggs, lentils, beans and whole grains; helpful fruits include papaya, avocado and berries.
Omega-3s Please“It’s a horrible notion that fat is bad,” says Ramsey.
Swift agrees, noting, “We need a major renovation and reeducation of this important neuro-nutrient.” The integrity of a neuron cell membrane, which Swift describes as “a beautiful and fluid layer of lipids,” is crucial for brain health because it dictates communication among neurotransmitters. “The fat we eat becomes the fat of our cell membranes,” she says. “So nourish your membranes with adequate amounts of the right types of fat.”
Long-chain omega-3s DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) build and protect neurons, help prevent cognitive decline with age and can boost overall mood and mental performance, says Ramsey. A study in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that treating depressed patients with omega-3 EPA was as equally effective as Prozac. “DHA and EPA are the two most important fats for brain health on the planet, period,” states Ramsey.
Foods rich in omega-3s include fatty seafood like salmon, mussels and oysters, plus sea vegetables, walnuts, flaxseed and grass-fed beef. For vegetarians and vegans, Ramsey recommends an algal DHA supplement.
Focusing on feeding the brain doesn’t preclude staving off heart disease, obesity or diabetes. “Follow the rules of eating for brain health,” Ramsey says, “and you’ll also be slim, energized, focused and resilient.” It’s all a recipe for happiness.
Lane Vail is a freelance writer and blogger at DiscoveringHomemaking.com.
Good Mood Meal Plans
Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon with Sautéed Swiss Chard, Pickled Beets, and Banana-Avocado PuddingSalmon is an excellent source of omega-3s, and Swiss chard offers fiber and folate. Beets are high in folate, as well as nitrites, which improve circulation throughout the body and the brain, says Nutritionist Kathie Swift. Double-down on beets’ power by eating them pickled in apple cider vinegar, promoting healthy gut flora. Bananas contain tryptophan, an amino acid involved in serotonin production, and avocados are high in folate and oleic acid, a model unsaturated omega-9 fat needed for healthy brains, advises Dr. Drew Ramsey.
Lentil Salad with Hummus, Grilled Asparagus, Broccoli, Red Onion, and Grilled WatermelonLentils, chickpeas and asparagus are high in fiber and B vitamins, while walnuts add omega-3s. Broccoli is an excellent source of chromium, a mineral found to lower blood sugar and reduce symptoms of depression in some people, according to a Cornell University study. Grilled onions (along with garlic, which can be blended into hummus) belong to a food family called alliums that promote healthy vascular function and blood flow to the brain and also contain a high concentration of chromium, says Ramsey. Watermelon’s red color is due to its high concentration of the antioxidant lycopene, which helps resolve free radical damage, inflammation and hormone imbalances associated with depression, notes Swift.
Grass-fed Beef with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Kale, and Greek Yogurt Swirled with RaspberriesA British Journal of Nutrition study showed that beef raised on chlorophyll-rich grass provides more omega-3s than grain-fed beef. Like other animal proteins, beef is a significant source of tryptophan. Kale and sweet potatoes contribute fiber, folate and vitamin A, which promotes the enzymes that create the pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine. Yogurt is also high in tryptophan, and raspberries provide folate and antioxidants.
Free-Range Egg Omelet with Spinach, Tomatoes, Cheese, and Fresh PapayaEggs are a power-packed food full ofB vitamins, tyrosine and tryptophan amino acids, plus selenium, zinc and iodide, micronutrients vital for proper functioning of the energy- and metabolism-regulating thyroid, says Ramsey. Tomatoes and natural cheese are high in lycopene and tryptophan, respectively, and spinach and papaya are packed with folate and fiber.