Crippling Depression and Diet: Why the Food You Eat Matters

6
2271

A Man Suffering From Crippling DepressionDepression is a sad reality that affects many people in the modern world.

However, evidence suggests that our diet play a major role in the development and treatment of this mental health issue (1, 2).

This article will examine the links between depression and nutrition, and nutritional strategies that may help fight it.

What is Crippling Depression?

Unfortunately, some people experience “crippling depression,” which refers to a severe depression that controls someone’s entire life.

Sadly, this condition causes people to lose interest in work, study, family, and even makes sleep and basic tasks difficult.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the lifetime risk for this major depression is 17% (3).

Suffering from frequent and severe bouts of depression is extremely serious and can even be fatal.

For example, recent high-profile suicide cases such as Robin Williams and Chester Bennington both suffered from long-term depression.

Signs and Symptoms

Picture of a Woman Feeling Extreme DepressionDepression can manifest itself in many ways, and the signs and symptoms can differ from person to person.

However, some common signs and symptoms of depression include (4);

  • Anxiety
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
  • Lack of focus
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Persistent sadness
  • Poor concentration
  • Weight loss

Anyone who suspects they may be suffering from depression should make an appointment with their doctor.

Key Point: Depression is a serious condition which, at worst, can be life-threatening. Individuals battling depression may exhibit a diverse range of symptoms.

Causes

Our Diet Plays a Major Role in Fighting Depression

 

“What causes depression?” is a question with no singular answer.

In brief, depression is likely multifactorial in causation.

There has been a lot of research looking into how depression starts, but as yet there doesn’t appear to be any single proven factor.

In general, medical conditions, biochemical factors (hormones), long-term stress, and significant emotional trauma all seem to play a role (5, 6, 7, 8).

Interestingly, emerging science suggests that our diet and overall lifestyle play a significant role in depression too.

First, this can be through unhealthy lifestyle factors we follow (such as a poor diet and lack of sleep) (9, 10).

Also, there are the things which we don’t do.

For example, by not eating the right foods we can develop nutrient deficiencies which influence depression risk (11, 12).

Key Point: There are many possible causes of depression, ranging from biochemical factors to emotional trauma. It’s important to realize that nutrition and lifestyle also greatly affect the risk of depression.

Links Between Crippling Depression and Nutrition

Diet and Lifestyle Likely Play a Role in the Development of Depression

Before we take a look at the links between severe depression and nutrition, it’s worth noting that physicians often don’t consider nutritional factors.

In the mainstream view, depression is very much considered to have biochemical and emotional roots.

While these are both common causes, there is far too much evidence to ignore the role our diet plays.

The problem here is that, following a diagnosis of depression, antidepressant drugs may be given without the patient even realizing their diet may be playing a role in the condition.

By no means does this suggest that antidepressant drugs and conventional treatment don’t help people; they clearly do.

However, beating crippling depression is difficult enough already, particularly so if we ignore a potential root cause.

It’s therefore worth understanding the nutritional component of the condition and discussing any concerns with your doctor.

Key Point: Few people are aware of the connection between depression and nutrition, so medical professionals won’t always advise on diet.

Evidence Linking Our Diet to Depression

Picture of a Test Tube Used in a StudyThe highest level of scientific evidence—randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews—supports the link between diet and depression.

ADVERTISEMENT

There are dozens of studies and far too many to list, but here is just a small selection of them;

Randomized Controlled Trials

  • A 12-week study compared dietary intervention against a social support control group. The dietary intervention group showed significantly greater improvements as measured by the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale. Additionally, they showed greater improvements in mood and anxiety (13).
  • Randomized, placebo-controlled trials show that dietary intervention with omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics help improve the level of depression (14, 15).

Systematic Reviews

  • A systematic review investigating the association between mental health and diet quality analyzed studies between 2005 and 2013. The study found that healthy diets are inversely associated with depression. In contrast, poor quality diets displayed a positive association with depression and stress (16).
  • Dietary intervention was found to have a significant effect on depression in half of the studies published between 1971 and 2014. This systematic review found that the effective dietary interventions were “less likely to recommend reducing red meat intake, selecting leaner meat products or following a low-cholesterol diet” (17).
Key Point: High quality research shows that there is a real connection between depression and our dietary choices.

10 Common Nutrient Deficiencies That Can Cause Depression

Before writing this article, I discussed the issue of diet and depression with a psychiatrist I know.

Notably, she told me that the first thing she does is test her patients for potential nutrient deficiencies.

Given that several nutrient deficiencies are linked with the development of extreme depression, this makes a lot of sense.

However, it is far from the norm and—from what I understand—many psychiatrists fail to test for any nutritional deficiency at all.

The following ten nutrient deficiencies may all play a role in the development of depression.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 Plays a Protective Role Against DepressionThis nutrient is the big one, and a large body of research shows the importance of omega-3 for mental health.

The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are essential for the health and development of our brain at all ages (18).

Unfortunately, a deficiency in these fatty acids is commonplace.

There are two reasons for this, the first of which is that people are not consuming enough oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines.

Secondly, the consumption of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oil is much higher than at any point in history. The problem here is that omega-6 fats compete for uptake with omega-3.

Studies show that an excessive intake of omega-6 or insufficient omega-3 can both increase depression risk (19, 20)

The best way to solve any potential omega-3 deficiency is to remove omega-6 vegetable oils from the diet.

Next, eating a few portions of oily fish each week will substantially improve omega-3 levels.

Key Point: Too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 has an adverse effect upon depression risk.

2. Protein

A second major deficiency to be aware of is protein.

Alongside the B vitamin group and omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids are one of the most common deficiencies seen in individuals with mental health conditions (21)

In particular, deficiency of the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan may increase vulnerability to depression (22, 23).

We can improve our amino acid status by consuming adequate meat, eggs, fish and other foods rich in dietary protein.

Key Point: Consuming sufficient protein plays a role in maintaining a healthy mind.

3. Iron

Iron Helps Protect Against DepressionIron is the biggest mineral deficiency in the world.

This deficiency has a range of adverse effects, impacting upon conditions such as anemia, cognitive health, and depression (24, 25).

Randomized controlled trials also show that iron supplementation significantly improves postpartum depression (PPD) in new mothers (26).

Additionally, the higher the iron deficiency, the longer the mothers suffered from depression.

The single best way to improve iron stores is by eating red meat such as beef and lamb.

Key Point: Iron is the most prevalent deficiency globally and low iron levels increase length and severity of depression.

4. Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the most important minerals for our overall health.

A deficiency in the mineral may lead to an assortment of psychiatric symptoms, including depression (2728).

A range of randomized controlled trials demonstrates that magnesium supplementation improves depression status in depressed people (2930).

Luckily, there are many healthy (and delicious) dietary sources of magnesium.

Key Point: Low magnesium status appears to have close links with depression, and improving magnesium status helps relieve depression. 

5. Selenium

Brazil Nuts Are Huge Sources of SeleniumEstimates place up to 1 billion people globally as having an insufficient intake of selenium (31).

Selenium deficiency has wide-ranging effects on our body, and it’s particularly damaging for the immune system (32)

A randomized trial shows that selenium positively impacts postpartum depression (33).

Studies also show that selenium supplementation improves mood and symptoms of depression in the elderly (34, 35).

The best dietary sources of selenium include brazil nuts, fish, and meat.

Key Point: Selenium deficiency is growing in prevalence and increases our chances of suffering from depression. 

6. Iodine

Iodine is an important mineral which we can mostly find in sea vegetables, vegetables that grow in iodine-rich soil, and drinking water (36).

Too little—or too much—iodine can impact the function of our thyroid gland and subsequent production of thyroid hormones (37, 38).

It has long been known that impaired thyroid function affects the risk of depression (39, 40).

For a sufficient intake, it’s beneficial to include iodized salt and sea vegetables such as seaweed in the diet.

Key Point: Iodine deficiency is easy to avoid; just a small serving of seaweed each week provides a substantial dose of the mineral. 

7. Vitamin D

Picture Showing Healthy Dietary Sources of Vitamin DGetting enough vitamin D has an impressive list of benefits, ranging from a reduction in cancer risk to better immunity and lower inflammation (41).

Ensuring sufficient vitamin D also appears to lower the risk of suffering from crippling depression.

Two systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials show that vitamin D intake may reduce depression symptoms, but urge that more research is necessary (42, 43).

Furthermore, a randomized controlled trial from 2016 shows that vitamin D supplementation in expectant mothers leads to reduced perinatal and postnatal depression (44).

While the best source of vitamin D is natural sunshine, oily fish, mushrooms, and eggs are all good dietary sources.

Key Point: Ensuring a sufficient intake of vitamin D is important for mental health and our overall body. 

8. Zinc

Researchers estimate that the global prevalence of zinc deficiency stands at 17.3% (45).

Importantly, an insufficient intake of this mineral can negatively affect almost all biological systems, including our psychological health and immune system (46, 47).

In particular, low concentrations of zinc have a strong connection with signs of depression (48).

Randomized studies demonstrate that treatment with zinc helps relieve symptoms of depression, especially when combined with antidepressants (49, 50).

The best foods to increase our dietary intake of zinc include oysters, lamb, and meat and seafood in general.

Key Point: Increasing our dietary intake of zinc may hold benefits for fighting depression. 

9. Vitamin C

Picture of Lemon and Vitamin C TabletWith studies on vitamin C and depression only emerging in recent years, the potential benefits for mental health are little known.

However, studies suggest that insufficient vitamin C status correlates with increased risk of depression (51).

A randomized trial testing the impact of supplementary ascorbic acid (vitamin C) showed that it significantly reduces anxiety levels in depression patients (52).

Additionally, combining a higher vitamin C intake with antidepressants “significantly decreased the Hamilton depression rating scale” compared to antidepressants alone (53).

Leafy greens and citrus fruits are a great source of dietary vitamin C.

Key Point: Clinical trials suggest that a higher vitamin C intake reduces the level of depression.

10. B Vitamins

Vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk of mental health problems due to their lower intake of B vitamins (54, 55).

However, these dangers are not exclusive to vegans; anyone not consuming enough B vitamins is at risk.

A randomized controlled trial featuring 199 depression patients showed that vitamin B12 supplementation significantly improves symptoms of depression (56).

The best sources of B vitamins are animal foods; all types of meat are particularly good options.

Key Point: Sufficient intake of B vitamins is critical for our mental health. 

How We Can Fight Depression With Nutrition

Picture of a Healthy Diet Rich in Nutrients to Help Fight DepressionFirst of all, it’s important to note that no diet replaces the need for conventional depression treatments. Depression can be a severe condition which requires support from medical experts.

However, by focusing on a nutrient-dense dietary plan, we can give ourselves the best chance to help prevent/fight depression.

An anti-depression diet should feature whole food sources of meat, fish, and vegetables to ensure sufficient intake of critical nutrients like omega-3, B vitamins, and amino acids.

Additionally, we should focus on limiting the nutrients which increase the risk for depression. For instance, sugar and refined carbohydrates increase the risk of depression in numerous studies (57, 58, 59).

Interestingly, these foods are also known to cause inflammation in the body (60).

There may be a connection here because emerging studies suggest inflammation in the brain could be the cause of depression (61, 62, 63).

Key Point: Preliminary research suggests that depression may be an inflammatory disorder. For a brain-healthy diet, we should focus on whole foods and especially avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar.

Final Thoughts

Crippling depression is a condition which devastates lives, so it’s important to be aware of how we can fight it.

As part of this, nutritional strategies can play a significant role alongside conventional treatments.

Finally, it’s important to remember that our whole lifestyle is important and good health isn’t solely a healthy diet.

A good diet coupled with sufficient sleep, stress-free life, and frequent exercise is the best way to protect against depression.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I wish I had known about a dietary connection many years ago. Doctors always homed in on genetics/family history and childhood trauma, only. Those things are significant, as you say, but I was following the conventional “wisdom” of the AHA and Canada’s Food Guide with its emphasis on low fats and high carbs/whole grains. Glad I know the truth now.

    • I know what you mean. The official advice in the UK is very similar – start the day with cereal, eat regular meals and eat often, include starch at every meal and choose low-fat options. Despite this, a lot of the recent research shows that fat and cholesterol-rich foods are actually some of the best for our brain/mental health!

  2. Wow! Good to know that I’m on the right way, I’m supplementing all of that vitamins and omega 3, recommended by my nutritionist!

  3. What a brilliant insightful read. As has been said very few physicians will take an initial look at someone’s nutritional intake when discussing depression. Whilst I myself am on medication for “chemical imbalance” I am getting back on track with an LCHF way of eating and it really does improve my whole well-being in general.

    • Thanks Marty!

      I definitely agree with your point – many people fail to look at nutrition intervention as a treatment option. Although, on the other hand… drugs do have their place in certain situations.

      I’m glad that your medication/diet combination is working well and that you’re feeling good!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here