Text by Dr. Nina Radcliff/Photos by k. Cecchini
“The food you eat can be either the safest & most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” ~Ann Wigmore. The link between food and our physical health is well known. What we put into our mouths can either help protect us from, or increase our risk for, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke—the number one, two, and three killers in America. But did you know that what we eat and drink can affect our mental health? Studies have proven that a healthy diet can help decrease our risk for depression as well as become an important part of a holistic approach to treat it. In our desire to be healthy, both physically and mentally, let’s revisit the saying “we are what we eat.” And let’s opt for healthy!
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Food and Depression
Back to basics Studies have shown that people who enjoy diets rich in fruit, veggies, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and lean meats (aka the Mediterranean diet) have lower rates of depression. There are a number of reasons for this. The body requires nutrients, or building blocks, to manufacture many of the “happy” chemicals in our brain; and these foods are nutrient powerhouses. In fact, the term “junk food” implies that the food item has minimal nutritional value. Filling our tummies up with nutrient-poor foods, or empty calories, often prevents us from consuming nutrient-rich foods and can cause a nutrient-deficit.
Eating healthy can also decrease our risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. These illnesses have been linked to higher rates of depression.
Inflammation Our body’s immune system responds to foreign invaders to keep us safe. However, there are triggers that can cause our immune system to run amok and result in inflammation, an abnormal state. Studies have shown that inflammation not only can disrupt circuitry and the transmission of signals within our brain, it can also kill brain cells, leading to depression. The “3 P’s”–Processed, Packaged, and Prepared foods–are rich in harmful oils, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and additives (colors, flavor enhancers, preservatives) that can trigger inflammation. Consuming these items every now and then is unlikely to cause harm; but because they are cheap, fast, and convenient, consumer research shows it has become easier and easier to reach for them.
Antioxidants Our bodies produce a waste product called free radicals that can contribute to aging and a number of disease states including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s dementia, arthritis, and diabetes. Fortunately, antioxidants can seize and disarm these harmful molecules. Beta-carotene (broccoli, carrots, peaches), vitamin C (blueberries, oranges, tomatoes), and vitamin E (nuts, spinach) are some well-known antioxidants. Let’s incorporate them into snacks and meals.
Carbohydrates Consuming carbohydrates can boost an important “feel good” chemical called serotonin. Unfortunately, it can also expand our waistlines and pack on the pounds. A good balance is to choose complex carbs (whole grains) and healthy carbs (fruit, veggies, legumes) over simple carbs (cakes, cookies).
Can we eat our way out of depression? No; a new, healthy diet cannot replace other treatments. Additionally, a healthy diet does not provide a bullet proof vest when it comes to preventing depression or other illnesses. However, eating healthy should be incorporated into a holistic treatment plan against depression which includes exercise, improved sleep, counseling, decreasing and dealing with stressors, yearly physicals and, if appropriate, medications.
Reduce alcohol Similar to the age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, the same can be asked about depression and alcohol. People who drink heavily and regularly increase their risk for depression. This may be because alcohol is a depressant, increases inflammation, decreases “happy” chemicals in the brain, or can cause chronic illnesses. Conversely, those who suffer from depression are twice as likely to drink away their sorrows and develop a drinking problem.
Dietary changes cannot cure or completely prevent depression. But because we are what we eat, healthy food choices can help keep us in our best physical and mental health. Every time we put something in our mouth is an opportunity to nourish our body. Food is fuel. And just as we would not expect our cars to run smoothly or efficiently if we were to pump low quality fuel into it, we must apply the same reasoning to our bodies. I want to encourage you to think about what you are consuming and make good choices with what fuels you.
Notice: This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither Dr. Nina Radcliff or Kimberly Cecchini take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.
Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, including the use of natural or herbal remedies, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Use of these remedies in connection with over the counter or prescription medications can cause severe adverse reactions. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness.