It’s so widespread that doctors and researchers have dubbed depression “The common cold of mental illness.” In spite of its frequent manifestation, few good treatments have emerged. Now, researchers are finding that the right balance of nutrients, combined with lifestyle changes can effectively treat depression, often better than drugs.
“The brain is, essentially, a chemical factory that constantly produces neurotransmitters–brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinepherine and endorphins that pass messages between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain,” says William Walsh, Ph.D., a leading brain researcher and president of Walsh Research Institute. “The raw materials for these neurotransmitters are in the foods we eat. B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients have powerful effects on brain chemistry, and can often right imbalances that cause mood disorders such as depression. In fact, says Walsh, nutrient therapy may well be the best treatment for depression.
Nutrients, like antidepressant medications, work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain—chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinepherine, and endorphins that send messages between nerve cells, called neurons. In order for neurotransmitters to form, the brain needs nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. If the brain has a shortage of these nutrients, an abnormal number of neurotransmitters can result. For example, vitamin B6 plays a major role in the production of serotonin, which regulates anger, aggression, mood, and metabolism. If vitamin B6 is lacking in your diet, odds are you’ll also be deficient in serotonin.
A multivitamin may not do the trick. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, says food is often more effective than supplements when it comes to brain health. “In most cases, a balanced and varied diet is the best way to influence brain chemistry,” says Gomez-Pinilla. When good-for-the-brain nutrients are consumed in whole-food form, they work optimally because they’re accompanied by other nutrients and compounds that help the body absorb them better, enhancing their effects.
Even better? If you get these brain-healthy nutrients from food, you’re less likely to exceed safe limits, which is not always the case when taking supplements. For example, overly high doses of folate in supplement form may have secondary effects like causing cardiovascular problems and increasing the risk of colon and breast cancer, says Gomez-Pinilla.
If you suffer from occasional bouts with the blues, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and regular exercise, which further stimulate the brain to produce mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. It’s also important to eat a balanced and varied diet that includes foods packed with these mood-boosting nutrients:
Amino acids help the body produce neurotransmitters that affect your mood. For example, the body uses the amino acid L-tryptophan to make serotonin, and the amino acid L-tyrosine to make norepinephrine. Both are neurotransmitters that positively affect your mood. Find amino acids in: Turkey, cheese, chicken, fish, beans, almonds, avocados, bananas, and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin B6. The body needs B6 to convert the amino acids mentioned above into neurotransmitters. If it lacks this vitamin, this conversion process will falter, and mood- elevating serotonin levels are likely to drop. Find vitamin B6 in: Beef, tuna, chickpeas, bananas, turkey, and prunes.
Vitamin B12. Another essential vitamin, B12 also plays a role in converting amino acids to those all- important brain neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine. Vitamin B12 helps the body make SAM-e as well, a compound that’s involved in optimal neurotransmitter production and function. Some studies suggest that low levels of SAM-e can lead to symptoms of depression. Find vitamin B12 in: Clams, oysters, chicken, crab, salmon, turkey, tuna, milk, and eggs.
Folate. An important nutrient, especially for women of childbearing age because of its role in neural tube development in the fetus, folate may be a major factor in forming SAM-e and the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine as well. Research shows that people who suffer from depression almost always have low levels of folate, which causes symptoms of anxiety and in severe cases, schizophrenic behavior. Find folate in: Turkey, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, spinach, black beans, asparagus, collards, and turnip greens.
Magnesium. Crucial for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, magnesium is usually lacking in those with depression. In fact, one study reported “rapid recovery from major depression” after treatment with magnesium, and found that magnesium helped relieve the anxiety and insomnia often associated with depression.Find magnesium in: oat bran, halibut, spinach, barley, pumpkinseeds, beans, and artichokes.
Zinc. The brain requires zinc to produce GABA, a compound that eases anxiety and irritability —which often increase in conjunction with depression, says Walsh. A high level of anxiety can exacerbate depression, manifesting in a condition known as anxious depression. Find zinc in: oysters, crab, turkey, lentils, barley, yogurt, and pumpkinseeds.
Vitamin E. This powerful antioxidant keeps nerve cell membranes flexible, says Gomez-Pinella, which allows neurotransmitters to travel between cells seamlessly. If the membrane becomes rigid, signals “bounce off” the exterior of the cell, disrupting the transfer of information. Find vitamin E in: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, tomato sauce, turnip greens, hazelnuts, and sweet potatoes.
Omega-3 fats. Like vitamin E, these heart-healthy fats keep nerve cell membranes flexible, says Gomez- Pinilla. Omega-3s also boost oxygen levels in the blood. The extra oxygen increases the body’s ability to convert amino acids into neurotransmitters. Studies show that a deficiency in DHA, a form of omega-3 fat, impedes the transmission of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.Find omega-3 fats in: salmon, sardines, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Brain Drains: What to avoid when you’re battling the blues
Diet cola. Aspartame, the chemical sweetener used in diet sodas and other sugar-free foods and beverages, is an excitotoxin: a compound that decreases the efficiency of neurotransmitters in the brain, hampering their ability to transmit information.
Coffee. Overdoing it on the java—more than four or five cups a day—can increase symptoms of depression for some people by blocking serotonin. Try cutting back to no more than a cup in the morning, and see if symptoms improve in a couple of weeks.
Sweets. Just like caffeine, sugar has a powerful effect on neurotransmitter production and brain function. Simple sugars and carbs cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar levels, creating mood swings, fatigue, and grogginess. Blood sugar imbalances also deplete vitamin B, which can worsen a bad mood. Keep blood sugar steady by eating four or five smaller, protein-based meals throughout the day, and avoid refined sweeteners (including honey and “natural” sweeteners) and simple carbs like bread, pasta, and cereals.
Alcohol. More than two alcoholic beverages a day can worsen symptoms of depression. First, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and can slow neurotransmitters. Secondly, alcohol disrupts the REM stage of sleep, which is necessary for serotonin production.
Simply Sad—or Depressed?
We’ve all been blue from time to time, usually in response to stressful or traumatic life situations. A painful divorce, a scary medical diagnosis, or the loss of a job can trigger lack of appetite, insomnia, and a feeling of deep sadness—all symptoms of “minor depression,” a transient and time-limited condition. But if your blues last longer than a few weeks, or if they occur outside the context of a major life change, you may have what’s known as “major depressive disorder,” or MDD. Signs of MDD include sad, anxious, or empty feelings; feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness; insomnia; changes in appetite; loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities; and, at the extreme, thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts.
If your sadness seems like more than transient moodiness, or if it’s accompanied by severe changes in sleep, appetite, or behaviors that interfere with your life, contact a health care professional. And if you have any thoughts of suicide, seek immediate medical help. Call the National Suicide Hotlines at 800.784.2433 or 800.273.8255 if you’re in crisis; they can get you the help you need.