by Lane Vail
Advertisements for antidepressants abound, yet a recent analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the benefits of treating mildly or moderately depressed individuals with these drugs “may be minimal or nonexistent” compared with a placebo. Most physicians agree that at least part of the prevention of and recovery from depression can be addressed through diet.
“Every molecule in the brain begins as food,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of The Happiness Diet and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “Food choice is the biggest puzzle piece patients have under their control.” Ramsey describes the modern American diet as being overwhelmed with highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, omega-6 fats and sugar. His food philosophy serves as an overall prescription for mental health: “Eat food that comes from farms and not factories; simple, recognizable human food.” Registered Dietitian Kathie Swift, an integrative clinical nutritionist in Lennox, Mass., and author of The Swift Diet, agrees that food is powerful medicine. She recommends a balanced, flexitarian diet founded on plants, but including high-quality, animal-sourced foods. Just shifting our processed-foods to whole-foods ratio yields an improved mood, Swift says, which continues to motivate dietary change.
Recent science suggests a deeper meaning to the “gut feeling” adage. Bacteria in the gut and neurochemicals in the brain communicate intimately and bidirectionally via the vagus nerve, explains Swift. Altering the gut’s microbial population, whether from chronic stress, antibiotic overuse or nutritional deficiencies, can change brain chemistry and thereby influence mood, mental clarity and sleep, she says.
In 2013, Canadian researchers altered both the neurochemicals and behavior in mice by switching their intestinal microbiota; anxious mice given the microbes of intrepid mice became braver, and vice versa. Another small study in the British Journal of Nutrition showed a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms in volunteers taking probiotics for a month. Essentially, says Swift, “We have a brain in the belly,” which must be nourished by both prebiotics (soluble fiber) and probiotics (fermented food). “Fiber is the quintessential substance to feed the lovely community of bugs in the gut,” says Swift, “while fermented foods interact with resident bacteria and give them a boost.” She recommends a variety of vegetables as a primary source of fiber, especially legumes, along with fruits, nuts, cheese and the occasional gluten-free whole grain. Probiotic foods include fermented vegetables, kefir, yogurt with live active cultures and apple cider vinegar.
Most psychiatric medications target feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, says Ramsey, but the body also manufactures these chemicals naturally during the methylation cycle, a B-vitamin-dependent neurological process. “B vitamins are superstars of the brain,” Ramsey says. “Think of them as lubrication for the brain’s gears.”
Folate, or vitamin B9 is particularly important to healthy nervous system functioning. A meta-analysis of 15,000 people reported in the Journal of Epidemiology associated low folate with a higher risk of depression. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and Swiss chard are high in B vitamins, as are beets, eggs, lentils, beans and whole grains; helpful fruits include papaya, avocado and berries.
Please “It’s a horrible notion that fat is bad,” says Ramsey. Swift agrees, noting, “We need a major renovation and reeducation of this important neuro-nutrient.” The integrity of a neuron cell membrane, which Swift describes as “a beautiful and fluid layer of lipids,” is crucial for brain health because it dictates communication among neurotransmitters. “The fat we eat becomes the fat of our cell membranes,” she says. “So nourish your membranes with adequate amounts of the right types of fat.”
Long-chain omega-3s (DHA) docosahexaenoic acid and (EPA) eicosapentaenoic acid build and protect neurons, help prevent cognitive decline with age and can boost overall mood and mental performance, says Ramsey. A study in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that treating depressed patients with omega-3 EPA was as equally effective as Prozac. “DHA and EPA are the two most important fats for brain health on the planet, period,” states Ramsey.
Foods rich in omega-3s include fatty seafood like salmon, mussels and oysters, plus sea vegetables, walnuts, flaxseed and grass-fed beef. For vegetarians and vegans, Ramsey recommends an algal DHA supplement. Focusing on feeding the brain doesn’t preclude staving off heart disease, obesity or diabetes. “Follow the rules of eating for brain health,” Ramsey says, “and you’ll also be slim, energized, focused and resilient.” It’s all a recipe for happiness.
Lane Vail is a freelance writer and blogger at DiscoveringHomemaking.com.