Can you relate to any of the following? Low mood, chronic stress, brain fog, memory loss, an inability to concentrate, irritability, feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness, a racing mind, ruminating thoughts, lack of motivation, insomnia. You are not alone! A whopping 1.1 billion people worldwide experience symptoms just like these. And these symptoms fall on the continuum of mental health and wellbeing.
In Australia 1 in 5 of us experience a mental illness in any one year; while 1 in 6 women and 1 in 10 men will experience depression at some stage within their lifetime.
In the past, mental illness was thought to be the result of a chemical imbalance within the brain. Depression for example was believed to be the result of a deficiency in serotonin. However, new and exciting research suggests that depression is influenced by inflammation, blood sugar imbalance, immune dysfunction, hormone imbalance and the gut microbiome. You might be wondering why this is exciting? It’s exciting because all of these factors are directly influenced by our diet. Whilst neurotransmitter imbalance definitely plays a role, we now know why this might be happening, and we have the power to correct it simply by choosing what we put in our mouths.
In order to help you bring your mental health back into balance I’m sharing The Mood Repair Pantry. A list of foods that are delicious, attainable and easy to incorporate into your every day diet – and improve mental health and wellbeing.
Wild Caught Salmon
Wild caught salmon is one of the richest sources of alpha-linolenic acid, also known as Omega-3. Studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids play a beneficial role in managing depression, anxiety, bipolar and PMS related mood disturbance (1, 2).
Fatty acids provide nervous system support as they are major components of neuronal membranes within the brain, and influence noradrenalin and serotonin receptor function.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also a natural anti-inflammatory agent, so by eating salmon you are and dampening the inflammatory pathways that seem to be activated in those with depression.
It’s important to choose wild caught over farmed when buying salmon. Wild caught salmon contains greater levels of omega-3 fatty acids when compared to their farmed counterparts due to their natural diet. Unfortunately farmed salmon contains high levels of mercury, pesticides and antibiotics, are bred in over-crowded pens, and are fed highly processed pellets with a red-pink dye to colour their flesh. Wild caught salmon is darker in colour and somewhat richer in flavour. It can be found frozen (usually imported from Canada) or tinned from most health food shops and some independent grocers.
There are a number of recent studies demonstrating the effectiveness of curcumin (the active constituent within turmeric) in reducing symptoms of depression both as a stand-alone treatment and in conjunction with antidepressant medications (3, 4).
Curcumin dampens the inflammatory process involved in the development of depression. It also inhibits monoamine oxidase, an enzyme involved in the break down of neurotransmitters. So here, turmeric plays a role in encouraging those neurotransmitters that are essential for healthy mood function to stick around.
Turmeric is extremely versatile and can be used in sweet or savoury dishes. I love using it in curries and stir-fry’s, in scrambled eggs, to season roast vegetables or your favourite protein, in smoothies, in baking; and of course you can’t go past a good turmeric latte!
It’s important to note that the bioavailability of curcumin is quite low, but is improved significantly when eaten with black pepper and a fat source (5).
Chocolate has long been heralded for its mood boosting effects. Chocolate stimulates the release of endorphins, contains tyrosine (the precursor to dopamine) and may influence serotonin levels (6).
New and interesting research suggests that chocolate improves mood by influencing the gut microbiome. Chocolate contains polyphenols, which are nutritive compounds that exert antioxidant effects. Interestingly we only absorb 5-10% of these polyphenols. The remaining 90-95% feed our gut bacteria, therefore having a prebiotic effect. So the theory goes, that by influencing our gut microbiome we may be influencing our mood via the gut brain pathway. Polyphenols also have an anti-inflammatory effect so could reduce any inflammation involved in the pathogenesis and progression of depression. The effect of polyphenols from chocolate on mood is currently theoretical, but all the more reason to indulge every now and again I say!
Of course, quality is very important as chocolate filled with sugar and nasty ingredients would negate any positive effects. Go for at least 70-85% dark chocolate with as minimal ingredients as possible. I’m a 90% kinda gal, which I highly recommend if you’re feeling brave.
All nuts and seeds are an excellent mood boosting food as they are a rich source of protein, omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, magnesium and zinc: but cashews pack an extra punch when it comes to depression.
Cashews are one of the richest plant based sources of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin meaning that it helps our bodies create and use serotonin effectively. The amount of tryptophan in cashews is so great that it has been said that a couple of handfuls of cashews is the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant!
Cashews also contain a decent amount of magnesium; 250mg per 100gms which equates to a whopping 80% of our daily requirement. Magnesium plays a critical role in neurotransmitter function, and studies have shown that magnesium is effective in both the prevention and treatment of depression (7, 8). Of all the nuts, cashews are the richest in iron; and many don’t realise that it is iron-containing enzymes that help our bodies produce our mood stabilising neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Cashews are natures anti-depressant and multivitamin all in one. They can be eaten simply as is, or their rich creaminess makes them a great alternative to cheese, cream or yogurt when soaked and blended.
Coffee? Yes, coffee!
There are numerous studies demonstrating that moderate coffee consumption is associated with lower risk of developing depression (9, 10); and that low to moderate consumption may improve symptoms in those diagnosed with depression (11).
Coffee contains caffeine, chlorogenic acid, ferulic acid and caffeic acid. These constituents have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce the inflammation within the brain that is associated with the development of depression (12). And as an adenosine receptor antagonist, caffeine directly influences serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine levels.
Positive associations between coffee and depression are seen when consumption of caffeine is above 68mg per day but below 509mg per day 2 (one small coffee/single shot contains around 90mg of caffeine). My advice is to keep it at 1 (2 max) coffees daily.
Lentils are not typically thought of as a mood boosting food. The reason I have included them in the Mood Repair Pantry is because they are packed with fibre.
Fibre is an important fuel source for our gut bacteria. We now know that up to 95% of our neurotransmitters are produced in the gut – and if we’re not feeding our good bugs they can’t go about synthesising those important mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA.
New and very exciting research shows that a specific diet containing 3 to 4 servings of legumes per week improves symptoms associated with major depression (9).
Nourishing carbohydrates like root vegetables are essential for mental health.
Carbohydrates are required for the effective use of serotonin by our brain, as they help tryptophan cross the blood brain barrier. It has been suggested that carbohydrate cravings may be a sign of serotonin deficiency.
Sweet potatoes are an extremely rich source of vitamin B6, deficiencies of which have been linked to depression. Carrots contain an antioxidant called lutein, and one study shows that lutein intake from vegetables improved symptoms of depression (10).
Root vegetables are also a beautiful source of fibre, keeping those neurotransmitter producing gut bugs happy.
Leafy greens like spinach and kale are arguably some of the most nutritious foods on the planet. They are a rich source of B vitamins, and deficiencies of each and every B vitamin are implicated in the development of depression. Specifically, vitamins B1 and B3 have anti-inflammatory effects, vitamin B6 is required for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin; and folate is necessary for the synthesis of neurotransmitters and mood influencing hormones.
Research into food and mood shows that a diet containing 6 different vegetables daily significantly reduces symptoms of depression (9). Be sure to make spinach one of your 6 by popping a handful into your morning smoothie, your salad at lunch time or as a side to your dinner.
Never before has the old adage “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” rang truer! You have the power to reclaim mental health and happiness by shaking up your diet. And we’re only just getting started – the very first randomised controlled trials looking at the impact of therapeutic dietary intervention and depression are currently being undertaken in Australia. So stay tuned!
If you suffer from depression and would like to learn more please reach out!
(1) Grosso, G., Pajak, A., Marventano, S., Castellano, S., Galvano, F., Bucolo, C., Drago, F. & Caraci, F. (2014). Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. PloS One, 9(5), ePub.
(2) Sohrabi, N, Kashanian, M., Ghafoori, S. S. & Malakouti, S. K. (2013). Evaluation of the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: “a pilot trial“. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 21(3), 141-146.
(3) Al-Karawi, D., Al Mamoori, D. A. & Tayyar, Y. (2016). The role of curcumin administration in patients with Major Depressive Disorder: mini meta-analysis of clinical trials. Phytotherapy Research, 30(2), 175-183.
(4) Yu, J. J., Pei, L. B., Zhang, Y., Wen, Z. Y. & Yang, J. L. (2015). Chronic supplementation of curcumin ehances the efficacy of antidepressants in Major Depressive Disorder: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 35(4), 406-410.
(5) Prasad, S., Tyagi, A. K., & Aggarwal, B. B. (2014). Recent developments in delivery, bioavailability, absorption and metabolism of curcumin: the golden pigment from golden spice. Cancer research and treatment: official journal of Korean Cancer Association, 46(1), 2-18.
(6) Nehlig, A. (2103). The neuroprotecive effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Jounral of Clinical Pharmacology, 75(3), 716-727.
(7) Derom, M. L., Savón-Orea, C., Martinez-Ortega, J. M. & Martinez-González, M. A. (2013). Magnesium and depression: a systematic review. Nutritional Neuroscience, 16(5), 191-206.
(8) Martinez-González, M. A. & Sánchez-Villegas, A. (2016). Magnesium intake and depression: the SUN cohort. Magnesium Research, 29(3), 102-111.
(9) Lucas, M., Mirzaei, F., Pan, A., Okereke, O. I., Willett, W. C., O’Reilly, E. J., Koenen, K. & Ascherio, A. (2011). Coffee, caffeine, and risk of depression among women. Archives of Internal Medicine, 171(17), 1571-1578.
(10) Wang, L., Shen, X., Wu, Y. & Zhang, D. (2016). Coffee and caffeine consumption and depression: a meta-analysis of observational studies. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 50(3), 228-242.
(11) Rusconi, A. C., Valeriani, G., Carluccio, G. M., Majorana, M., Carlone, C., Raimondo, P., Ripá, S., Marino, P., Coccanari de Fornari, M. A. & Biondi, M. (2014). Coffee consumption in depressive disorders: it’s not one size fits all. Journal of Psychiatry, 49(4),
(12) Hall, S., Desbrow, B., Anoopkumar-Dukie, S., Davey, A. K., Arora, D., McDermott, C., Schubert, M. M., Perkins, A. V., Kiefel, M. J. & Grant, G. D. (2015). A review of the bioactivity of coffee, caffeine and key coffee constituents on inflammatory responses linked to depression. Food Research International, 76(3), 626-636.
(13) Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulous, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M. L., Brazionis, L., Dean, O. M., Hodge, A. M. & Berk. M. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Medicine, 15(1), 1-13.
(14) Prohan, M., Armani, R., Nematpour, S., Jomehzadeh. N. & Haghighizadeh, M. H. (2014). Total antioxidant capacity of diet and serum, dietary antioxidant vitamins intake, and serum hs-CRP levels in relation to depression scales in university male students. Redox Report: Communications in Free Radical Research, 19(3), 133-139.