There’s mounting evidence that your diet plays a crucial role in your mental health. The problem is that many people who are struggling with depression resort to unhealthy processed food choices to seek comfort. Not only do these foods lead you to obesity and chronic diseases, but they also can hamper your mental well-being and worsen depression.
Take aspartame, for example. This artificial sweetener, found in processed soft drinks and other junk food and even in some prescription and over-the-counter drugs, is actually a toxicant that’s linked to depression. When it enters your body, aspartame breaks down into smaller molecules that decrease your serotonin levels. Serotonin, dubbed the “happiness hormone,” is an important neurochemical that affects not only your appetite, but your mood as well.1
Eating Real Food Is Essential to Mental and Physical Health
Basically, the key to avoiding, treating and controlling depression is to eat real food. This means choosing healthy, whole, unadulterated products that are ideally organic and locally grown, to ensure maximum freshness. What’s more, you should strive to eat these foods raw or as minimally processed as possible. It’s also recommended to prepare your meals at home, from scratch, instead of dining at restaurants or fast food chains.
At the same time, eliminate all processed foods from your diet, as these are no longer “alive,” and are even loaded with ingredients that can promote inflammation and alter your gut flora — two factors that can predispose you to depression and other mental and physical disorders. These processed foods include:
• Genetically engineered products like soy, corn and sugar beets. These are loaded with pesticides and herbicides, which are known in animal studies to disrupt the production of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that’s also a precursor to serotonin.4 These harmful chemicals also promote the production of p-cresol, a compound that affects the metabolism of other environmental chemicals, which makes you more vulnerable to their toxic effects.
• Added sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame, as mentioned above, and sucralose).
• Other food additives. Many food additives have never been tested for safety.
• Food packaged in plastic and metal containers that may harbor harmful chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS), which can leach into your food.
Make Sure You Load Up on Omega-3s and Healthy Saturated Fats
It’s a fact that your brain needs healthy fat — without it, your cognitive function can be adversely affected, leading to mental and psychiatric disorders. That’s why it’s said that healthy fats play a crucial role in depression. One particular type of healthy fat that you should not miss out on is omega-3. In fact, animal-based omega-3 fat may be the single most important nutrient in battling depression, as well as serious mental problems like schizophrenia and psychosis.
One 2015 study published in the journal Nature Communications revealed that among 81 participants who were at risk of developing psychosis or schizophrenia, those who took omega-3 supplements for three months had a reduced risk of having a psychotic disorder in the future, compared to participants who were given a placebo. According to the study:5
“As key components of brain tissue, omega-3 PUFAs play critical roles in brain development and function, and a lack of these fatty acids has been implicated in a number of mental health conditions over the lifespan, including schizophrenia.”
Ideally, the best sources of omega-3s are fish like wild Alaskan salmon, anchovies and sardines. However, you need to make sure you obtain them from trustworthy sources as most fish today are factory farmed or contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals. If you cannot find a trustworthy source, taking a high-quality krill oil supplement is an ideal alternative. In addition, other foods that can provide you with healthy saturated fats include:
Raw dairy and butter made from grass fed organic milk
Grass fed meats
Unheated nut oils
Organic pastured egg yolks
Incorporate Probiotics in Your Diet
Keep in mind that your gut bacteria actually manufacture serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that are important for your brain health. In fact, compared to the serotonin in your brain, the serotonin concentration in your gut is much higher. This is why it’s not surprising that optimizing your gut flora is essential for maintaining good mental health and warding off depression. According to one article in Psychology Today:7
“[M]icroorganisms produce numerous neurochemicals. These neurochemicals made by gut bacteria play a role in mood and other neurologic functions. So, balancing gut bacteria through the consumption of probiotics such as Lactobaccilli and Bifidobacteria help to elevate mood.”
To ensure that you have an optimal ratio of good and bad bacteria in your gut, make sure to eat sufficient amounts of traditionally fermented foods. Some of your best bets include fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut, yogurt from raw grass fed animals’ milk, tempeh and natto. Load up on fiber-rich foods as well, like Mexican yam (jicama).
Other Foods to Help Ward Off Depression
In addition to the foods mentioned above, here are some other healthy choices that you should include in your meals to help lift your mood and keep you from becoming depressed:
• Dark leafy greens — Leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard are loaded with phytochemicals, as well as vitamins A, C, E and K, and minerals that can help fight inflammation. According to a study published in March 2015 in JAMA Psychiatry, brain inflammation may be linked to severe depression.8
• Turkey — Compared to other lean meats, turkey is an exceptional choice not only because of its high protein content, but also because it has relatively higher levels of a chemical called tryptophan, a chemical that can stimulate production of serotonin.9
• Berries — A study has found that antioxidants helped alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety among people with peripheral arterial disease,10 and berries like strawberries, cranberries, blueberries and blackberries are some of the highest antioxidant-containing foods available. Just make sure to consume them in moderation, as fruits contain fructose that may be harmful to your body in excessive amounts.