The first list of antidepressant foods restructures the "standard" American diet

The first list of antidepressant food scores restructures the "standard" American diet.

  • Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and oysters top the list of depression-fighting foods.
  • Organ meats are also near the top of nutrient-dense food sources that should be included in your diet.
  • Researchers focus more on what to eat rather than what to remove from the standard diet.

Michael Pollan was onto something when he added two words to conventional wisdom, writing, "You are what what you eat eats." The nutrients your meal consumes becomes part of you as well, whether it's a cow munching on grass or the soil your vegetables grow in. We know eating has an emotional effect, but you cannot separate emotions from psychology as they are the basis of your mental states.

We can extrapolate philosophically, but we can also look at actual studies on the nutrient profile of foods and their relationship to mental states—specifically, in this case, depressive disorders. A recent study, published in World Journal of Psychiatry, investigated 34 nutrients, extracting data as it relates to foods high in at least one of 12 antidepressant nutrients:

  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA)
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Thiamine
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc

Conducted by Laura R LaChance, in the University of Toronto's psychiatry department, and Drew Ramsey, in Columbia's psychiatry department, this team believes this study to be the first to specifically focus on the application of nutrients to depression. They continue:

While many nutrient profiling scales currently exist, created by government agencies, researchers, and the food industry, none focus on mental disorders or brain health. Additionally, no scale is based on nutrients that are supported by scientific literature to be involved in the prevention of and recovery from psychiatric disorders.

There is evidence that the lack of key nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D, result in depressive symptoms. In fact, clinical treatment often involves supplementing one or more of these nutrients. The fact that we can get plenty of vitamin D with just a few minutes in the sun is one indicator that our lifestyle patterns are missing essential components for optimal health.

Given the global rise of depression, changes in diet provide at least one level of prevention and therapy—it is unlikely that diet alone could cause such a spike in rates, though it certainly can play an important contributing factor. Something as simple as altering your food intake could help battle the consequences of these symptoms: low self-esteem, loss of meaning, anxiety, spoiled relationships, and at the extreme, suicide, whose rates have also been increasing.

The foods, along with their Antidepressant Food Score (AFS), are listed below:

According to the mean score by category, vegetables top the list at 48 percent, followed by organ meats (25 percent), fruits (20 percent), and seafood (16 percent). The list concludes with legumes, meats, grains, nuts and seeds, and dairy, all coming in below 10 percent. Unlike traditional guidelines, this list does not focus on what not to eat:

A recent review suggests that nutrient profiling scales designed to improve consumer food choices should be based on nutrients known to be beneficial for health as opposed to nutrients to avoid.

They note that recent "common wisdom" suggesting that saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium is bad for health is now in question. Whereas it's rather obvious that carb- and sugar-heavy diets do not work in our favor, the aim of this study is to remind us what we should be putting into our mouths. Without actionable input, telling us to leave certain foods behind without offering replacements makes little sense.

The main problem is that the majority of Americans do not eat foods high in AFS. For example, most of the adult population consumes too few vegetables; one study reveals that only 27.2 percent eat three or more servings per day. Between 80-90 percent do not eat at least two servings of seafood per week. And forget about most Americans eating organ meats.

Which is a shame, given that organ meats are the most nutrient-dense part of an animal. Whereas there is evidence our ancestors ate the organs and left the meat for scavengers, we've reversed that trend—and are paying the cost.

There is no single food source that will end depression. Rather, the authors write, it seems to be a confluence of events that have led to our abandoning essential nutrients, including increased inflammation due to the "standard" American diet and a lack of dietary fiber. With an increased understanding of the microbiome in overall health, we're gaining clarity over just how influential nutrients are for every aspect of our health.

As nutritionist Chris Kresser wrote in 2011, purely vegetarian and vegan diets are problematic given the lack of essential nutrients, such as those cited in the above study. When asked by Joe Rogan what he thought the healthiest diet is, Kresser replied a vegan diet with shellfish; he's also championed organ meats. Of course, a vegan diet could by default not include animal products, but Kresser's suggestion squares well with this recent research.

There is no question that these food sources provide the most nutrient-dense meals possible. Cultural aversions to organ meats is more the result of economics, not nutrition; at some point, eating organs was believed to be "lower class." That, along with technological advancements such as frozen food that is usually championed as progressive, has set into motion the disastrous eating habits we have today, along with the depression that has followed. The link is clear. Forging new links requires another story.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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