Depression is debilitating. I know, I have experienced it first hand, both in myself and with other family and friends. My Mother was severely depressed most of her life and I had some major bouts of depression when I was younger. What I didn’t know then, what I learned along the way, is that there is so much that can be done. What I know now is that there is hope and there is help (I could write a book about all the things I tried). I also know now that what we eat and how much we move is a huge piece of leaving depression behind. For me, these are two of the most important pieces.
**Note: Before I go on, I do want to say that diet and exercise can help, but if you are feeling very depressed (especially if it is affecting your daily life) you should see a health professional such as a therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor.
When one is depressed, there are often feelings of sadness, hopelessness and anxiety that feel like it will never end. There is also a general lack of caring which often leads to us not taking care of ourselves. This can include what we eat and how much we move. We figure, why take care of ourselves if we already feel awful. Our natural inclination is to eat foods that will comfort us right way. Often, we end up eating sugary, fried and/or highly processed meals. Many of these foods will increase our serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter in our body that regulates our mood, high serotonin means good mood, low serotonin equals low mood. This is why we crave “junk” foods when we are feeling down. The problem is that these types of foods only increase serotonin temporarily and our mood very quickly crashes as does our blood sugar so we end up in a worse mood than before we ate the foods. We are not really nourishing our bodies when we are eating these types of foods.
Luckily, there are a lot of really delicious food that will increase your serotonin levels and may help relieve depression. Besides these foods, there are also other foods (plus exercise) that, in combination, can be as effective or even more effective than anti-depressant medications. For some people, depression can be completely alleviated with diet and exercise and for some it needs to be combined with other treatments (medication, therapy, natural remedies, etc.).
Below are some of the foods that have been shown to alleviate depression, some because of their ability to raise serotonin, some for other reasons:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil – A study done in Spain showed that people who ate a diet high in hydrogenated fats had a 48% increased risk in depression while those eating olive oil had a significantly lower risk of depression. It is important to get a good quality anti-inflammatory extra virgin olive oil (recommendations: California Olive Ranch, Costco’s Kirkland brand or Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin from Greece).
- Foods high in L-Tryptophan – Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to create serotonin. Everyone thinks of turkey when tryptophan is mentioned, but it appears that the best food for increasing serotonin levels are more likely vegetarian sources such as seeds and fruit. Tahini, which is sesame paste used in hummus is a wonderful source of tryptophan and hummus has many components that are helpful in improving mood. Here are some other foods that are high in tryptophan: Soybeans, sunflower seeds, oats, chickpeas, wheat flour and dark chocolate. Click here for our Lebanese Hummus Recipe.
- Fruits and Vegetables – A recent comprehensive review of all published studies done on fruit and vegetable intake and depression showed that those with the highest fruit intake decreased their risk of depression by 14% and those with the highest vegetable intake decreased their risk by 11%.
- Foods high in Omega 3 fats – Fatty fishes (Ocean salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna), walnuts, almonds, flax seeds are foods that are high in the essential fat: omega 3. Low levels of omega 3 fats in the body have been correlated with increased rates of depression. Try to get an omega 3 fat food in your diet every day.
- The Mediterranean Diet – A recent study in Australia looked at the role of diet and depression. They began with 67 people with depression symptoms who were all eating an unhealthy diet. Half the people were given nutrition counseling only. The other half were given nutrition counseling plus they were to eat a “modified” Mediterranean Diet. After 12 weeks, 1/3rd of those eating the Mediterranean Diet improved so much that they were no longer considered depressed. The encouraged foods were: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, low-fat/ unsweetened dairy, raw unsalted nuts, lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and olive oil. The discouraged foods? sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast food, processed meat.
- Exercise – Finally, let’s talk about moving. Although food is incredibly important for depression, exercise is also needed. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants for most types of depression. Even walking 30 minutes per day has been shown to significantly reduce depression in depressed middle-aged women.
Here are the basic recommendations for relieving depression with food and exercise:
- Eat a Mediterranean Diet high in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fatty fishes and small amounts of poultry and meat.
- Move every day – Even if it is a short walk, but preferably including some weight bearing and aerobic exercise.
Click here for a Traditional Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan.