Updated: Oct 3, 2019
A healthy, natural diet can help you avoid depression and even help treatment once you experience it.
If you have ever been to a psychiatrist for depression or anxiety, the last thing you thought you would be asked about is your diet. Recently, though, the new field of Nutritional Psychiatry is changing all of that. Led by professionals such as Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of numerous books on the relationship between your mental and brain health, and food you eat, is pioneering a new approach to mental health treatment.
The new field of nutritional psychiatry attempts to apply the vast amount of information learned in the last few decades about the impact food has on the brain, and most importantly, on mental health.
Richard Schiffman, of the New York Times, wrote that "Dr. Ramsey argues that a poor diet is a major factor contributing to the epidemic of depression, which is the top driver of disability for Americans aged 15 to 44, according to a report by the World Health Organization."
Schiffman also references a survey published in 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated that most Americans don't meet minimal nutritional standards and are deficient in many nutrients.
Dr. Ramsey runs a clinic in New York City where he provides consultation and evaluation, nutritional psychiatry: the brain food clinic, psychotherapy and coaching, medication management, as well as video and phone sessions.
To back up the contentions of nutritional psychiatry, Lassale C, Batty GD, Baghdadli A, et al, recently published a meta study of over 40 observational studies demonstrating that "...adhering to a healthy diet, in particular a traditional Mediterranean diet, or avoiding a pro-inflammatory diet appears to confer some protection against depression..."
Although the field of nutritional psychiatry is young, there are a growing number of studies that link what we eat with how we feel. Schiffman references two recent studies to that effect. One is an Australian study of 12,000 people demonstrating that those who introduced greater levels of vegetables and fruits into their diets were "happier and more satisfied with their life than those whose diets remained the same."
A second is a randomized controlled trial of 422 young adults indicating that those who ate fresh vegetables and fruit "...showed higher levels of mental health..." The study authors concluded that the study results "provide initial proof-of-concept that giving young adults fresh fruit and vegetables to eat can have psychological benefits even over a brief period of time."
In 2017, a randomized trial led by Felice Jacka, a psychiatric epidemiologist in Australia, demonstrated that the dietary support group eating a Mediterranean diet in the study showed greater improvement in their depression than in the social support group.
Eva Selhub MD, contributing editor of the Harvard Health Blog says that:
"Today, fortunately, the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut."
Yes, you read that right. All those billions of bacteria that make up your microbiome can have a very direct and telling impact on how your brain functions and how you feel. The way you establish and maintain a healthy microbiome is through the foods you eat.
Recent research is indicating a direct relationship between the brain and gut through what has become known as the brain/gut axis. It is suggested that this relationship, when functioning well, alters serotonin concentrations and influences central nervous system neurotransmission. The brain/gut axis can be managed through a natural foods diet that creates a positive environment for the growth of gut bacteria. In other words, you feel less depressed, more positive and energetic.
According to Susan McQuillan of psycom, this may explain why 'people who eat fruits and vegetables have fewer symptoms of depression, stress, and overall negativity. "
Eating for Mental Health
The Mediterranean diet, among others, is highly touted as a rich source of all the elements needed to secure a well-functioning brain/gut axis that supports positive feelings of well-being, satisfaction, and meaning than among those who eat a highly processed, modern diet.
Nature provides us with a wide variety of foods to choose from that have demonstrated the ability to alter mood.
Foods that are generally thought to improve mood can be found here and here. My list of healthy, mood altering foods includes cruciferous vegetables, berries, chicken, bananas, avocadoes, apples, mushrooms, string beans, eggplant, eggs, greens, nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes, asparagus, beans, onions, lentils, liver, and turkey. Eating naturally will get you plenty of the nutrients your brain needs.
Eat a wide range of foods with lots of colors and fiber.
To bolster your microbiome eat fermented food. My favorite is sauerkraut. But there are many more such as unsweetened yogurt, kefir, tempeh, etc.
Stay away from processed foods, sodas, fried foods, fruit juices, candy, chips, trans fats, and artificial sweeteners.
Although there is no single diet that has been proven to cure depression, taking control of what you eat may improve symptoms and make life more livable. For some, diet will be a panacea, for others it will be a mild assist and one tool among many to be used in dealing with depression. For some, it may be of minimal assistance.
Dr. Ramsey recommends an integrative approach that uses food, medication, group interaction, and psychotherapy to meet the challenges of depression. Some very helpful blog posts by Dr. Ramsey can be found at Big Think.
Nutritional psychiatry is a new field. More research needs to be done to demonstrate its efficacy. But the preliminary findings are promising. Besides, eating healthfully and naturally can't hurt you and may help your digestion, heart health, arthritis, and diabetes.
If you do wish to explore how diet can assist you in managing your depression, do not stop taking your medications before speaking to your mental health provider.
So give it a shot and see if a natural, whole foods diet helps you.