Mental health issues are a growing problem around the world. In the UK, recent estimates suggest that 1 in 4 of us have been diagnosed with a mental illness. One of these conditions, depression, will affect 1 in 5 of us at some point in our lives.
But what does “depression” actually mean? And is there anything you can actually do about it?
There is no blood test to diagnose “depression”. It is simply a name we give to a collection of symptoms. Whilst there are many factors that can contribute to the development of “depression”, there is a very underutilised weapon in our armoury that we can use to help fight it… food. Can the food that we eat really impact the way we feel?
Well, here’s some ‘food for thought’.
We’re all familiar with the idea that food can make us feel good – in fact, many of us turn to food as a comforting tool or as a quick fix to temporarily make us feel better.
But, the foods that give us a temporary boost can often keep us stuck in a cycle of feeling high and low.
Certain foods like sugar, foods that contain sugar, or even foods that are converted quickly into sugar, such as breakfast cereal and processed bread, can literally shock and scare the body. Two to three hours after such a meal, your sugar levels can have a relative crash. People usually feel hungry at this point. However, this is not just about hunger – I am sure you have heard of the term “hangry”.
When your blood sugar crashes, your body can release its fight or flight hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. In this context, these hormones are alarm signs to your body – the foods that are “shocking” and “scaring” you. Often, many symptoms of depression can get significantly better by eating foods that keep your blood sugar stable such as high quality protein, like eggs, and healthy fats such as avocados.
Are you suffering from mood problems or are they actually symptoms secondary to a blood sugar imbalance?
A fantastic interventional study from Victoria, New Zealand in 2017 found that patients with moderate to severe depression had a statistically significant improvement in their symptoms on a modified Mediterranean diet. This diet included foods such as lean meats, seafood, nuts, seeds and plenty of fruit and vegetables.
The authors of this study conclude, “these results indicate that dietary improvement may provide an efficacious and accessible treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder, the benefits of which could extend to the management of common co-morbidities.”
This study came two years after a landmark editorial in the prestigious Lancet Journal which discussed the critical role that nutrition plays in mental health disorders. It states, “although the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
BUT when was the last time your doctor asked you about food when you were concerned about feeling depressed? It simply does not happen enough.
“WHAT ARE YOU EATING?” is the question I ask every patient who walks through my door. For mental health, the nutrients you put in your mouth have a profound impact on your brain.
It is amazing what can happen if you are currently consuming a lot of beige foods – empty carbs, pizzas, doughnuts, bread etc. It can be a pretty rapid change when you move to a whole food diet containing a lot of fresh produce, oily fish, quality red meat, nuts and seeds.
I have seen some cases where fixing diet and eliminating sugar can lead to a complete resolution of depression symptoms. In other cases, it has been a significant factor in getting better.
Changes to your diet can often create a domino effect where you then start to increase your physical activity levels, which has also shown to improve mood. Plus, many of my patients, when they’ve changed their diet, have started to feel better about themselves immediately, and this has led them to want to access other therapies like counselling or CBT. In effect, diet changes can be a gateway to improving your overall wellbeing.
I discuss depression in more detail on BBC Breakfast.
You have the power to improve the way you feel by controlling what you put on your plate. Use that power to enhance your mood and your lifestyle.
— Dr Chatterjee