If you are feeling sad or low, you are not alone. The Center for Disease Control states that in 2009, one in 10 Americans suffered from depression, while a more recent study by the World Health Organization estimated that almost 20% of Americans have experienced an extended period of depression, and that the US has the 2nd highest incidence of the disorder in the world. The WHO report included both clinical depression and less serious, but still troublesome onset of situational or environmentally induced episodes.
What makes depression so prevalent in one country versus another? The culprits can be genetics, environment, nutrition, or all of them at once. Susceptibility to depression is certainly heritable, and the disorder is more common in those with a family history, however, not everyone in a family becomes depressed. Environment and lifestyle also play a role. Some believe that the higher expectations for a rich and happy life lead to disappointment when dreams are not fulfilled, and this is more likely in a developed country where the more pressing requirements for food and shelter are easily met. There is also evidence that lifestyle factors such as limited sun exposure lead to reduced Vitamin D levels and Seasonal Affective Disorder.
One of the most overlooked yet critical pieces of the puzzle is nutrition. Protein is essential for creating mood balancing neurotransmitters, while vitamins, minerals and other food-based compounds keep the neurotransmitter machine running smoothly. How can we expect our brain to work when it is starved of the mood boosting building blocks that keep it running?
Tryptophan is an amino acid-a building block of protein. It is critical for mood management as it is the natural precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter which is directly responsible for feelings of happiness. It is also necessary for producing melatonin, the hormone responsible for inducing sleep. When sleep is impaired, mood suffers, so tryptophan is doubly important. It requires B vitamins, and magnesium to produce serotonin and melatonin, so these nutrients should not be overlooked. Tryptophan is found in protein foods, especially chicken, turkey, tuna, milk, nuts, and seeds, and it is best transported into the brain when a small amount of carbohydrates are eaten at the same time. Have some fiber rich crackers with nut butter, or a half of a turkey sandwich, or small bowl of whole grain cereal and milk to help you sleep and build that serotonin.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for a well-functioning brain, and are most abundant in fatty fish. To a lesser degree, we can get them from green leafy vegetables, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Low levels of one type of essential fatty acid in the brain have been linked to depression, irritability and even Alzheimer’s disease. Incorporate more high Omega 3 foods into the diet, or consider a high quality fish oil supplement.
Not only a vitamin, but a powerful antioxidant, Vitamin D it is necessary for maintaining levels of serotonin in the brain and can have a profound effect on mood. It is produced by the body in response to sunlight, and is often depleted in winter months. Vitamin D is not found in many foods, cod liver oil being one of the best sources. It is a fat soluble vitamin so some fatty fish and high fat dairy products provide a small amount. Those who feel low in the colder months should consider supplementing Vitamin D.
If you feel unhappy, irritable and have a short fuse, you may be lacking in B vitamins. This complex of nutrients is necessary for emotional well-being, but gets depleted by poor diet, many medications, caffeine and alcohol. They help get energy to brain cells, reduce inflammation in brain and body, and support normal detoxification. Many years ago high doses of B complex vitamins were used to treat schizophrenia, but over time medication has replaced these important nutrients in addressing mood disorders. One B vitamin of particular importance is Folate. Folate is critical for regulating mood, but must be in a specific form, called 5-MTHF, in order to be used by the body. A genetic mutation that is being discovered in a growing number of individuals interferes with the body’s ability to make this necessary compound, while supplementation with the usable form has reduced depressive symptoms in a significant number of people. The test for this mutation is easy and readily available.
While eating a healthy and balanced diet is key to good mental health, if you have a food sensitivity, a seemingly healthy food can be a problem for you. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, is most often implicated in mood disorders, and numerous studies have linked it to schizophrenia, depression, and other mental health issues. While a trial of a gluten free diet may seem daunting, nowadays there are tremendous resources for implementing this protocol. Most grocery stores have gluten free sections, and restaurants offer gluten free menu items. For anyone suffering from depression where gluten is a factor, the benefit of an improved outlook outweighs any inconvenience.
While it is unlikely that someone with depression is suffering from a medication deficiency, it is highly possible that they are nutritionally depleted. If you are feeling low, consider your pantry before your pharmacy, to replete your body of the key nutrients needed for mental health. If diet and lifestyle changes do not lift your mood, or depression is severe, see a health care professional for an evaluation, but remember to incorporate good nutrition into any mental health protocol.
Vicki Kobliner MS RD, CD-N is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Holcare Nutrition (www.holcarenutrition.com) and Westport Family Counseling Staff Registered Dietitian. Vicki works with infants, children and adults with digestive disorders, food allergies, ADHD, autism and other chronic illness, and provides fertility and prenatal nutrition counseling. Vicki has extensive experience in using dietary modification, appropriate supplementation and functional lab testing to achieve optimal wellness. She can be reached at 203.834.9949 or firstname.lastname@example.org