Healthy mind - healthy body

Foods that may help with depression.

I have recently begun teaching Alternatives to Anger, an anger management course through Michigan State University Extension, alongside colleagues who teach basic nutrition to the same group. We call the group, “Nurturing your Body and your Mind.” We got the idea from a colleague who has been doing this in her community with great success. We have found this approach can be very effective in reaching people who want or need both health and nutrition education and social and emotional support and education.

Most of the participants in the class are parents who are currently in the child welfare system and are trying to increase their knowledge of parenting, coping with stress and learning how to care for themselves and their young children. Many of them struggle with or have struggled in the past with mental health issues.

During a recent class, a couple of the participants shared that they thought they were feeling “depressed.” So, we started a dialogue about the symptoms of depression, which can include feeling hopeless or helpless, not sleeping or sleeping too much, uncontrollable negative thoughts, being irritable or short tempered, difficulty concentrating and overeating or loss of appetite. When the women recognized they had some of the symptoms, we agreed that they might indeed be depressed and that I would talk to them after class and give them some resources to call for help and information.

As the conversation progressed, one of the women made the connection that this was also a nutrition class and she started wondering out loud if there were any foods she could eat to help with her depression and I told her that I did not know for sure, but that I would look into it and get back to her the following week. I had a hunch that eating healthy foods that are good for your body would also be good for your mind, but I wanted to look into it and get back to her with as much reliable information as I could find.

I started looking into the issue and here is what I found out – there is no specific diet that can alleviate symptoms of depression and there has been no research on the issue that I could uncover. However, much has been written about foods that can boost one’s mood and well-being. According to Redmond (2010), some research suggests that improving your blood levels of Vitamin B12 and folate can help ease symptoms of depression. These nutrients can be found in lean meats, fish, poultry and dairy. Folate can be found in orange juice, greens and legumes.

I also found in the literature, that aside from increasing levels of B12 and folate, carbohydrates that come from eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains may also help increase one’s mood because carbohydrates may increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Foods that also have phytonutrients may also work to reduce symptoms of depression since phytonutrients have a natural sedative that may decrease stress. Foods with these nutrients include peaches, acacia berries and blueberries.

Finally, everything I read indicated that it is important for people struggling with depression to reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption since both can interfere with mood and sleep. Water is all the body really needs and some suggest that it may even carry toxic chemicals that lead to mood disorders out of the body over time.

I was happy to return to class the next week and share my information with the entire group. We also talked about the importance of staying a healthy weight for overall emotional and physical health since there is a long established link between obesity and depression. In short, people who are depressed are more likely to become obese and people who are obese are more likely to become depressed (Journal of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2008). I am happy to have this information as it might come up again as I continue to collaborate with colleagues who teach basic nutrition to my same target audience.

For more information on nutrition and depression, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website for pertinent, up to date articles.

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