Is Your Diet Fighting Depression – or Intensifying It?

We know there's a gut-brain connection, but just how deep does it go? Could we treat depression just by adopting a particular diet?


Scientists have recently become aware there's a connection between our gut and our brain. But just how deep does this connection go? Could we, say, treat depression just by adopting a Mediterranean diet? A new study suggests, yes.

Doctors have been prescribing diets to their patients as a preventative measure against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and now depression joins that list. “We now have real evidence to back up what’s good common sense: that eating well doesn’t just benefit your body, but it also benefits your brain,” says Columbia professor Drew Ramsey, who wrote, Eat Complete.

Ramsey represents a growing group of mental health experts who practice nutritional psychiatry. The idea of a gut-brain connection is one that has been gaining ground in scientific studies and some have started putting these ideas into practice. There's evidence to suggest certain foods influence the bacteria in our gut, which in turn influence mental health.

It’s also important to note about 95 percent of your body’s serotonin is made in your gastrointestinal tract. Scientists are just beginning to discover this secret life of microbes and how much they influence other aspects of our overall health and wellbeing. But we can influence our microbiome with what we eat

The brain is also directly affected by diet. “Tryptophan is the amino acid that we use to make serotonin and dopamine,” Ramsey told us when he came to Big Think. “These are very, very important mood-regulating and learning-regulating neurotransmitters, or chemicals in the brain. And so the idea is to give people a core set of foods. You know, again, with every bite you're getting all the nutrients that your brain needs.”

Researchers from Australia’s Deakin University led a controlled clinical trial which gives promising results towards suggesting “dietary improvement guided by a clinical dietician may provide an efficacious treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder.” The researchers recruited several hundred patients with moderate to severe depression, 67 of whom participated in a 12-week parallel group trial. All participants had poor dietary quality when they entered the trail, meaning they ate empty carbs and nutrient-sparse foods, like pizza, pasta and baked goods – what Ramsey terms the "beige diet" or the "12-year-old boy diet".

Ramsey explains the trial result that is exciting for the future of mental health treatment:

"The augmentation effect was quite robust for an adjunctive treatment. In the treatment group, about 32% of patients achieved remission, compared with 8% in the control group. In terms of risk-benefit profiles, a dietary intervention is emerging as a very safe and effective way for us to engage our patients."

The promising meal plan has been coined the Modi-Medi Diet – or modified mediterranean diet –and consists of legumes, leafy greens, colorful vegetables, a variety of quality seafood, quality lean red meat, fruits, olive oil, and nuts. Ramsey emphasizes that the quality of food, in particular of meat and seafood, is important – which is often an area of concern for people trying to make a positive diet change: organic food is expensive. During the trial, the Australian researchers actually found that eating the right foods for optimal brain health is cheaper. "The average Australian spends $138 a week on food. Those who were taking part in the study spent just $112," says Ramsey. What is it about these foods that boost brain function and mental health? They contain nutrients the brain needs, specifically omega-3 fats, zinc, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B12, which are "highly correlated with a lower risk for depression and dementia."

It’s important to note, the field of nutritional psychiatry is still new, so you should not use this diet as a substitute for consulting a therapist if you feel depressed.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

The dos and don’ts of helping a drug-addicted person recover

How you talk to people with drug addiction might save their life.

Videos
  • Addiction is a learning disorder; it's not a sign that someone is a bad person.
  • Tough love doesn't help drug-addicted people. Research shows that the best way to get people help is through compassion, empathy and support. Approach them as an equal human being deserving of respect.
  • As a first step to recovery, Maia Szalavitz recommends the family or friends of people with addiction get them a complete psychiatric evaluation by somebody who is not affiliated with any treatment organization. Unfortunately, warns Szalavitz, some people will try to make a profit off of an addicted person without informing them of their full options.
Keep reading Show less

10 science photos that made history and changed minds

These photos of scientific heroes and accomplishments inspire awe and curiosity.

Surprising Science
  • Science has given humanity an incalculable boost over the recent centuries, changing our lives in ways both awe-inspiring and humbling.
  • Fortunately, photography, a scientific feat in and of itself, has recorded some of the most important events, people and discoveries in science, allowing us unprecedented insight and expanding our view of the world.
  • Here are some of the most important scientific photos of history:
Keep reading Show less

In a first for humankind, China successfully sprouts a seed on the Moon

China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment marks a first for humankind.

Image source: CNSA
Surprising Science
  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.
  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.
  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.
Keep reading Show less