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19 Oct

Dear Mark: Depression Diet?

I occasionally get emails from readers who are interested in lifestyle changes that can either complement or replace their conventional treatments for depression. Since our post a few weeks ago on antidepressants, I’ve gotten a slew of emails asking me about the role of nutrition in mental health. In response I thought I’d devote a Dear Mark to the general question of diet and depression. Thanks to all who wrote in or commented on the boards or forum!

It comes as no surprise that nutrition directly impacts brain performance just as it does the functioning of every other organ. Although the roots of clinical depression involve a complex (and theoretically contentious) mix of physiological, genetic and socio-emotional factors, the physical picture hones in on neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that travel between nerves in the brain. Of all the neurotransmitters, the key players in mood disorders are dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. When we talk about a diet that supports mental health, we’re essentially looking at nutrition that sustains both optimal neurological functioning and hormone balance.

Although it’s not commonly discussed as such, depression is an inflammatory condition. Current research emphasizes the underlying role of inflammation as a cause for both depression itself and the neurodegenerative symptoms seen in those with depression. Researchers have found that people with clinical depression show elevated levels of inflammation biomarkers. Furthermore, risk factors for depression include conditions linked to inflammatory response such as low omega-3 levels, leaky gut, and late pregnancy/postpartum rise in cytokines. Conventional anti-depressant medications, not surprisingly, have anti-inflammatory effects.

Of course, I support an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle through the Primal Blueprint model for optimum physical and mental health. Not surprisingly, there’s a strong link between depression and insulin resistance. Although researchers are still probing the chicken versus the egg concept on this, they know that many depressed individuals are carb-addicted. Carbs, of course, raise the level of serotonin, one of the mood-related neurotransitters. The glucose spike offers a quick feel-good fix, but it also contributes to the overall problem when the effect wears off. The carb ascent and inevitable descent become a chronic crash and burn roller coaster ride – for mental energy and hormone levels. In addition, the constant carb intake further fuels inflammation, which only exacerbates the physiological problem.

A diet that supports mental health should do four key things:

  1. Limit inflammation inducers
  2. Include anti-inflammatory substances
  3. Prioritize antioxidants to counter oxidative stress
  4. Contain the essential building blocks for neurotransmitter synthesis

Cutting out grains and limiting carbohydrates to beneficial sources (fruit and veggies) will help maintain hormonal homeostasis and will keep further inflammation at bay. It’s also important to eat a clean diet, which will minimize environmental toxins that can stimulate the body’s inflammatory response. Of course, I would especially suggest a healthy dose of omega-3s each day to fight existing inflammation. Keep your diet as close to the 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 as possible, and include an omega-3 supplement as added insurance. (Experts have known for years now that fish oil is an effective therapy for depression.) Eat copious amounts and a wide variety of vegetables and low-glycemic fruits for maximum antioxidant and mineral power. Research publicized last week highlighted the Mediterranean diet as a means to decrease risk of depression. The researchers believed that the combined prevalence of omega-3 fatty acids and high antioxidant power of olive oil, fruits and vegetables served as integrative protective factors. Other studies have highlighted the positive impact of minerals (like selenium, chromium, and magnesium) on mental functioning and mood. Furthermore, make sure you include plenty of quality protein in your diet. Amino acids are vital precursors to neurotransmitters.

In addition to a solid, PB-style diet, I’d suggest a good overall supplement to fill in dietary gaps, counteract the effects of modern toxins and stress, and boost intake levels of several key nutrients especially tied to mental energy and neurotransmitter balance. Neurological functioning is supported by a whole web of nutrients, including the amino acids and minerals mentioned above as well as the B-vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin D just to name a few. A quality supplement will enhance your overall nutritional profile and make sure you’re covered consistently day to day.

There are other aspects to the Primal Blueprint lifestyle that will have “anti-depressive” effects. In the past we’ve discussed how Chronic Cardio increases systemic inflammation, and the importance of low level aerobic exercise (walking), play, quality sleep and regular exposure to sunlight for mental health. This is what makes the Primal Blueprint so unique in the health and fitness world: all behaviors work synergistically to promote the kind of gene expression we desire.

Finally, a good diet that supports mental health, let me say, offers powerful protective and therapeutic factors. Nonetheless, it’s not a panacea. People with depressive symptoms should discuss comprehensive treatment options with their doctors and other care providers.

Let me know what you think. In the meantime, thanks for the great questions, and keep ‘em coming!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I have seen read many, many articles linking diet, exercise and depression, that as diet and exercise improve, so does depression. However, I have rarely, if ever, read anything about bi-polar, another type of mood disorder. Sure, proper diet and exercise could help anyone feel better, but would it potentially heal someone of bi-polar?

    Sarah HI wrote on November 16th, 2010
  2. @Sarah HI
    would it potentially heal someone of bi-polar
    I have a bi-polar diagnosis.
    I find (though I accept some readers may detect signs of manic obsessive behaviour in my posting style at times) that reasonable control of bi-polar through diet/lifestyle changes is possible.

    It takes a lot longer than you may think though.
    I think if you start now by eliminating omega 6 seed oils orn, soybean, safflower, sunflower and cottonseed oil and all the commercially prepared foods that contain them, it could be 5yrs before the full effect of continuous omega 6 industrial seed oil avoidance is felt.
    Attaining and maintaining a 25(OH)D vitamin D level around 50~60ng/ml takes time and persistence and regular testing initially.
    The gluten syndrome: a neurological disease. I think wheat (and possibly gluten) avoidance may help many people with depression.
    I think we also have to consider the role of gut flora on mental illness. There is useful talk here for those who are new to this idea.
    The Gut-Brain Connection: An Inside Look at Depression
    I know it’s hard for anyone whose mind is constantly racing and on overdrive to appreciate that that can change but the brain does need down time to heal properly and I have found improving sleep quality, flux free monitor dimming software use of BRIGHT LIGHT early morning and spending at least an hour outdoors when it brightest and time release melatonin early evening helps me.

    I also supplement with magnesium daily and usually add magnesium chloride (dead sea salts) to bathwater, I find it helps going to sleep. (Epsom Salts magnesium sulphate also works)

    There is plenty of research supporting the use of exercise to help mood disorders for me Though this has never been an option for me

    So yes I think if you have a plan and take the time to understand how managing sleep, diet, rest and exercise can influence your mood swings, you may be able to control the condition reasonably though I’m not yet convinced a “cure” is possible. I still need to work on improving my ability to relax, reflect, meditate and improve the way I relate to others.

    Perhaps if I stayed off the red wine for longer I’d do better?

    But it seems to me if you want your brain/gut to function properly then you have to deal with chronic inflammation and that means correcting common deficiency status in basic anti inflammatory essentials like vitamin D, Omega 3 and magnesium (and some others).

    Ted Hutchinson wrote on November 17th, 2010
  3. I don’t do the antidepressants because I know how horrible they are, but I am filing for SSDI and the attorney said they are going to want to see that I have been on prescriptions meds trying to get well, and they won’t accept my lifestyle choice of using only natural medicine and foods and acupuncture and chiropractic. They want me to use pharmaceuticals and see a “medical doctor”. How can they do that?

    Tricia B wrote on September 13th, 2011
  4. Don’t forget Turmeric. I started taking it to get rid of a lipoma and the spice ended up improving my mood greatly after a week. I then did a google search and it turns out Turmeric is a fantastic anti-inflammatory spice and also increases BDNF (brain fertilizer). Oh and it also does seem to shrink the lipoma. I believe the lipoma is half the size after 3-4 weeks.

    Mark wrote on February 24th, 2012
    • HI, how much tumeric were you taking? Sounds like a good, easy idea to try.

      Berry wrote on March 25th, 2012
  5. Mark, Am I able to talk a bit more with you about this? Please? A quick email chat? If so, can you email me…I just would love to ask a few things as I’m battling the depression blues now. Thanks.

    Rachel wrote on September 4th, 2012
  6. If I may, see at Netflix “Food matters”, read about niacin, Dr. Hoffer, Bill W.

    Who is still on SAD (Standard American Diet), consider hidden malnutrition (see “Netflix “Hungry for a Change”) and try low carbs, juicing. Remove toxins from immediate environment, detox (clays), use all natural as possible.

    Helen wrote on May 17th, 2013
  7. I am a true believer of diet being able to change your health. I suffer from epillepsy and it always seems to affect me the most around my ovulation cycle and during my menstral cycle. I have had horrible side effect from my medication that does nit seem to be helping much. Just raisng my LdL, lowering my Vitamin D to 19 and messing up my omega 3 to 6 ratio. Also hair loss. Since staring the clean diet, only eating about 70 carbs a day. Good carbs, nothing refined or processed, no GMO, no msg. Staying away from processed sugar and eating all organic meats fruits and vegetables, my condition has really improved. I take omega (primrose oil, flax seed oil and borage oil)
    supplement in addition to that zinc, selenium, vitamin D and a methyl-folate supplement with b12 and iron. No caffeine or fake sugar only pure stevia. It is hard to eliminate things from your diet especially when everyone else gets to eat whatever they want and seems to be just fine. I had a hard time at first and felt very sad and and thought this just is not fair. But you need to respect your body and realize its makeup and you were made a certain way. Don’t work against it , work with it and respect it. I have since become very grateful for my body and how it works and what I need to eat to remain healthy. I truly believe that our bodys were not made to suffer from disease we have created diseases by how we treat our bodies. Our bodies our amazing and can truly heal themselves if you treat it right and give it the proper nutrition it needs to survive. Not to mention pure gratitiude for what you have will keep you going in a positive direction always.

    Alisa wrote on May 27th, 2013
  8. I felt more depressed and cranky on low-carb, and my gf noticed a huge difference. She forbade me to go that route. I’d like to try again (I haven’t done PB), but I’m afraid I’ll get more depressed than I am now. Ideas?

    John wrote on December 26th, 2013

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