A Nutritional Approach to Depression

By June Rousso
June Rousso
June Rousso
I am a New York State licensed psychologist and a nutritional consultant with an M.S. degree in holistic nutrition. My interests have expanded over the years to the field of nutrition, which I often integrate in my work as a psychologist. I love to write and educate people about nutrition so that they can make more informed choices about their health. I believe that dietary and lifestyle changes are so important in our lives to support a healthy lifestyle.
September 18, 2014 Updated: April 9, 2015

Many people turn to anti-depressants to relieve their emotional suffering. While medication can be life-saving under certain circumstances, a nutritional approach to depression has few, if any, of the side effects of medications. In many instances, people can start to feel better emotionally and physically just by virtue of eating nourishing foods.

One of the first steps in managing depression nutritionally is balancing our blood sugar levels. Too much sugar leads to depletion once it is cleared out of the blood by insulin. We then can feel very tired, irritable, and at times angry. Memory and concentration can be affected as well.

Balancing sugar at its best is done through tapering off from refined sugar over the course of a two-week period. Many people who eliminate refined sugar report having more energy and alertness along with an overall sense of well-being. No more sugar blues.

When eating carbohydrates, make sure that they are slow-releasing so that the sugar contained in them does not flood the bloodstream. Fruits with skins contain fiber that slow down the release of sugar into the blood. Fruit juices flood our bloodstream with sugar because they lack fiber.

Eating complex carbohydrates also provides fiber to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Oatmeal, whole grain bread, and whole-grain cereals, and non-starchy vegetables, preferably organic, are good sources of fiber.

Blood sugar also is stabilized by having meals and snacks with a healthy balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil, coconut, and walnut oil are healthy choices over vegetable oils, such as canola, safflower, and corn oils. And, of course, avoid trans-fats in processed foods.

Proteins from high quality protein powders and eggs high in omega-3 fatty acids are healthy food choices. Studies report that the cholesterol in eggs does not increase cholesterol in the body to a significant degree. Rather diets high in refined sugar have been associated with elevated cholesterol. Avoid processed foods as much as possible as they are depleted of many vital nutrients.

The consumption of high quality omega-3 fatty acids also can be helpful in treating depression as they increase serotonin levels, giving us a greater sense of well-being. Consuming fish high in omega 3’s, such as wild salmon, cod, mackerel, and sardines, or cod liver oil can help to alleviate depression.

Along with balancing sugar and consuming omega-3 fatty acids, make sure to consume foods high in B vitamins. They play a role in reducing stress and increasing brain chemicals responsible for boosting mood.

Foods high in B vitamins include green leafy vegetables, bananas, whole grains, milk, poultry, organ meats, fish, nuts, and seeds. Along with these foods, consider a high quality Vitamin B supplement.

Our body also produces different amino acids that play a role in managing our emotions. Trudi Scott, in her informative book, “The Anti-Anxiety Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings”, details amino acids related to mood. GABA, e.g. is calming and when our levels are low, we often feel stressed and anxious, and crave carbohydrates. Sometimes panic attacks can occur with low GABA levels. GABA can be taken in supplement form, but can lower blood pressure. It should be avoided by people whose pressure is on the low side. Lower levels of GABA found in combination anti-stress formulas may be better tolerated.

Serotonin gives us a sense of well-being, making us feel peaceful and at ease. With low levels, we can feel depressed, anxious, tend to worry, crave sweets, think obsessively, and be perfectionistic. Serotonin is made from tryptophan, so consuming foods high in tryptophan can help to boost mood. Good choices are turkey, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, beans, tofu, and oats. The only way that tryptophan can reach the brain, however, is by eating carbohydrates along with the tryptophan-rich food. When insulin is produced after eating carbohydrates, one of its roles is to deliver tryptophan to the brain. Otherwise it has no way of getting there.

Beta-endorphin is another amino acid that also works to make us feel good. With too little in the body, our tolerance for pain decreases, we can feel emotionally reactive, depressed, and experience a sense of isolation. Our self-esteem can plummet and nutritionally, cravings for sugar increase. DPA (D-phenylalanine), an amino acid supplement, has been found to be effective in increasing beta-endorphin levels. Exercise mediation, and yoga also will increase beta-endorphin levels.

Low levels of the amino acid, tyrosine, can lead to feeling unmotivated, easily bored, lacking energy and focus, and having trouble sleeping. Foods high in tyrosine include dairy, legumes, avocados, tofu, almonds, bananas, pumpkin, and sesame seeds. Tyrosine also can be taken in supplemental form. Dr. Scott advises that tyrosine can worsen anxiety for some people. She suggests supplementing with GABA, 5-HTP, or tryptophan, which are calming, before starting taking tyrosine.

The bottom line in terms of a nutritional approach to treating depression is to wean yourself off of refined sugar and to eat nutritionally with a mind-set toward amino acids that regulate our moods. And of course, exercise, which always is a mood-booster as long as not in excess. Dr. Scott’s book is an excellent introduction to the role of nutrition and amino acids in boosting mood. It has an extensive list of symptoms associated with low amino acid levels, which is worth reading to learn more about your own body chemistry in terms of amino acid levels.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.” – Hippocrates

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