Depression affects one in five of us, and clinical depression – the persistent kind that interferes with your ability to work, sleep, and enjoy life – requires professional assessment, and possibly therapy and medication. But there are simple steps you can take to help alleviate the symptoms of depression, such as making key dietary changes – and in cases of mild depression, they may make all the difference.
Eating the right foods can bring about chemical changes in your brain, providing the vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and essential fatty acids needed for the optimal production of the neurotransmitters responsible for your moods. Chief among these is serotonin, which also signals your brain that you are full after eating, so by achieving the right levels of this you can help curb binge-eating and control excess weight – a common cause of low mood, especially in women.
Rather than dieting, follow a healthy, balanced way of eating by incorporating these mood-boosting foods:
1. Complex carbs
There’s a reason why we reach for cake when we feel low – carbohydrates stimulate serotonin production, and a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Judith Wurtman, author of The Serotonin Power Diet (Rodale Books), suggests women are more dependent on carbs for this than men are. She also identifies certain people as ‘carbohydrate cravers,’ as they need more carbs than others and feel irritable or lethargic if they replace these with protein or fat.
Refined carbs cause a mood and energy spike followed by a dip that can leave you feeling lower than before. Rather opt for complex, low-glycaemic carbs that provide a slow, steady energy release to help keep your mood elevated.
Eat: Whole grains like brown rice, wholewheat bread and pasta, oats, and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots and legumes – beans (kidney, black, lima and pinto), peas, chickpeas and lentils.
2. Omega-3 fatty acids
According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, US, low levels of omega-3s are linked to depression, impulsivity and pessimism, probably because DHA and EPA have a vital role in cell membrane structure, and so in brain development and function, and ultimately effect mood.
Eat: Oily fish such as salmon and sardines three to four times weekly, as well as other seafood, flax seeds, chia seeds, meat, nuts (especially walnuts) and nut oils, and omega-3 fortified yoghurt, milk and eggs. DHA and EPA occur only in meat, fish and algae, spirulina and seaweed (think sushi). Consider supplements with omega-3 plus DHA and EPA.
3. Quality proteins
Fish, meat and certain other proteins are high in tryptophan, an amino acid used by the brain to produce serotonin, with help from B vitamins. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning your body doesn’t produce it, so it must be included in your diet.
Eat: Fish such as fresh tuna, mackerel, halibut, sardines, oysters, octopus, poultry such as chicken and turkey, beef, lamb and liver, eggs, dairy, and soya, seeds, nuts and peanut butter.
These are rich in folic acid that can help raise serotonin levels, and some also have tryptophan.
Eat: Mushrooms, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and leafy greens such as spinach, parsnips, citrus fruit, and soy products (beans, milk, tofu).
Fruits have many micronutrients needed for optimum serotonin levels, some more than others, some also have tryptophan.
Eat: Bananas, oranges, honeydew and cantaloupe melons, plums and pineapple, tomatoes and avocado.
6. Dairy products
These contain lactose, a simple sugar that helps raise serotonin levels.
Eat: Cheeses, yoghurt, maas, milk.
A balanced diet incorporating a variety of the foods above should provide all the vitamins and minerals you need. A deficiency can contribute to mood swings, anxiety and depression, so if you experience these in spite of improving your diet, ask your doctor or dietitian about taking a supplement like iron, folate, selenium and especially:
- Vitamin B Complex: B2 and B12 have been linked to mood improvement, and B1 to modulated cognitive performance and improved mood in women. B vitamins are found naturally in grains, cruciferous veges and beans, and include folic acid, which with B12 is vital in helping the liver produce a compound that regulates mood.
- Vitamin D: This is made by the body with exposure to the sun, or found in oily fish and eggs, and in fortified milk and cereal.
Be sure to drink enough water – about six to eight glasses a day. Water is essential to prevent dehydration and can help you feel better and less fatigued. Stimulant drinks containing caffeine are dehydrating and can affect mood as they lead to highs and troughs in energy levels.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 0800 21 22 23, SMS 31393, visit www.sadag.org.
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