By Dr. Mercola
Previous research shows that having a strong social network of good friends is a significant factor in longevity. If you're socially isolated, you may experience poor health and a shorter lifespan.
Friendships can also be a significant factor in successful recuperation from depression. According to recent research,1 good mood and a positive outlook can actually spread like a contagion through social groups.
Perhaps more importantly, this study refutes earlier claims that depression is "contagious," finding instead that only positive moods tend to spread among people in close association.
Certainly, being depressed can have a dampening effect on the mood of those around you, but according to the authors, there's little risk of a depressed person actually pulling others into a state of clinical depression.
Friends Can Help Protect You from Depression
Data from more than 2,000 high school students was reviewed in this study. Over a period of six to 12 months, the students answered questions about symptoms of depression and who their friends were.
As reported by The Atlantic:2
"Kids who initially scored as clinically depressed did not 'infect' their friends, but if they had enough friends who had what the study called a 'healthy mood'... that doubled their chances of recovering from their depression.
And for people who weren't depressed in the first place, having enough mentally healthy friends halved their chances of developing depression.
That's a pretty large effect, and supports previous research3 saying that high-quality social relationships lower people's risk of depression."
According to the authors, when you find clusters of friends who are depressed, which other studies have found, this probably isn't due to one depressed individual pulling the others into the dumps with them.
Instead, it may be due to a third factor. Perhaps they're all heavy drinkers for example, or engaging in other activities that promote a negative mindset.
Co-author Thomas House claims their study method "wasn't susceptible to that because we looked at direct changes of state. We were pretty much directly observing this process of your friend influencing you.
"And the nice conclusion that we got was that your friends can protect you from depression and help you recover from it."
The Inflammatory Roots of Depression
As important as friendships can be, they will probably not solve depression rooted in poor diet and lifestyle habits.
It's important to realize that, contrary to popular belief, depression is not likely caused by unbalanced brain chemicals; however there are a number of other biological factors that appear to be highly significant.
Chronic inflammation is one such factor.4
For example, researchers have found that melancholic depression, bipolar disorder, and postpartum depression are associated with elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines in combination with decreased cortisol sensitivity (cortisol is both a stress hormone and a buffer against inflammation).5
Scientists have also found that your mental health can be adversely impacted by factors such as vitamin D deficiency and/or unbalanced gut flora — both of which, incidentally, play a role in keeping inflammation in check, which is really what the remedy to depression is all about.
Sugar, found in ample supply in most processed foods, is among the most pro-inflammatory ingredients there are, so the first step would be to replace processed foods with real, whole foods (ideally organic to avoid harmful pesticides and other detrimental ingredients).
Besides promoting chronic inflammation, refined sugar can exert a toxic effect by contributing to insulin and leptin resistance and impaired signaling, which play a significant role in your mental health.
Sugar also suppresses activity of a key growth hormone called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which promotes healthy brain neurons. BDNF levels are critically low in both depression and schizophrenia, which animal models suggest might actually be causative.
Sugar also facilitates the growth of pathogenic microbes in your gut and causes an imbalance of your microbiome that will also contribute to depression through a wide variety of mechanisms.
What to Do if Someone You Know Is Depressed
Perhaps one of the most helpful things you can do if you have a friend or family member that struggles with depression is to help guide them toward healthier eating and lifestyle habits, as making changes can be particularly difficult when you're feeling blue — or worse, suicidal.
If you are feeling desperate or have any thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free number: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911, or simply go to your nearest Hospital Emergency Department. You can't make long-term plans for lifestyle changes when you are in a crisis.
One Boy's Sadness Turns Into a Smile Campaign
On the topic of friendship, this CBS report features a young boy with remarkable emotional resilience and capacity to reach out in friendship to others despite his own pain. By the time he was 6 years old, Jaden Hayes had lost both parents. While heartbroken, he was still determined to live with joy, and one day he told his aunt and guardian he was "sick and tired of seeing everyone so sad all the time."
He wanted to turn people's frowns into smiles. And so began this young boy's "smile campaign." Since that day, he and his aunt have handed out about 500 toys — small rubber duckies, dinosaurs, etc. — just to make people smile, who weren't. His goal, he says, is to make 33,000 people smile; a goal he may well have reached already through this news report.
Jaden is proof positive that going through a rough time in life does not automatically doom you to depression and despair. You have a choice in how you deal with your situation. And while some seem to have a "hardier" emotional constitution than others, happiness is often a choice that we make.
That said, your lifestyle can wield great influence over your emotional and mental state, so it would be unreasonable to say a depressed person should simply "snap out of it" and "turn their frown upside-down." I believe most cases of depression are rooted in an unhealthy diet and subsequent gut dysfunction and/or nutritional deficiencies, with vitamin D and omega-3 being two very significant ones, in terms of their effect on mental health.
The Importance of Omega-3
Healthy fats play a particularly important role in depression. Without healthy fats, your brain function may be adversely affected, and one potential side effect is depression, as well as more serious psychiatric disorders. Healthy fats include saturated fats like avocados, butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk, raw dairy, organic pastured egg yolks, coconuts and coconut oil, unheated organic nut oils, raw nuts, and grass-fed meats.
You'll want to make sure you're getting plenty of these types of fat in your diet. Beyond that, animal-based omega-3 fat, found in fish and krill oil, may be the single most important nutrient to battle depression. It's particularly important when combating more serious problems such as psychosis and schizophrenia.
In one recent study,6,7,8,9 taking an omega-3 supplement for three months substantially reduced the risk of developing a psychotic disorder in the future. Eighty-one individuals considered at risk for developing schizophrenia or psychosis took part in the randomized, double blind trial.
Half of them got a daily course of fish oil for 12 weeks while the other half received a placebo. After the intervention period, all participants were monitored for one full year.
Seventy-six of the 81 participants completed the study, and only two of the 41 people who took fish oil went on to develop a psychotic disorder during the follow-up period. In the placebo group, 11 of the 40 participants developed psychosis. Interestingly, seven years later, only four from the original treatment group had developed a psychotic disorder compared to a total of 16 in the placebo group, suggesting even short-term omega-3 supplementation can have long lasting effects.
Eating Real Food May Be Key for Successful Treatment of Depression
The evidence clearly indicates that your diet plays a key role in your mental health, for better or worse. So if you're struggling with depression, mood swings, or feel yourself sliding into "the blues," I strongly advise you to look at what you're eating. The key is to eat real food, ideally organic (to avoid chemical exposures) and locally grown (for maximum freshness).
Also make sure to eat plenty of traditionally cultured and fermented foods, which will help nourish beneficial bacteria in your gut. Good examples include fermented vegetables of all kinds, including sauerkraut and kimchi, kombucha (a fermented drink), as well as fiber-rich prebiotic foods like jicama (Mexican yam).
Optimizing your gut flora appears to be absolutely crucial for good mental health, which is understandable when you consider that gut bacteria actually manufacture neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, along with vitamins that are important for brain health. In fact, you have a greater concentration of serotonin in your gut than in your brain.
I recommend eating REAL food and avoiding all types of processed foods, including certified organic ones, as processed foods are no longer "alive." What you're looking for is whole, unadulterated foods, with which to cook from scratch (or eat raw). Processed foods are simply loaded with ingredients known to alter your gut flora and promote inflammation, thereby inviting depression. This includes:
- Added sugar and high fructose corn syrup
- Genetically engineered (GE) ingredients (primarily corn, soy, and sugar beets) which, besides their own unknown health risks, also tend to be heavily contaminated with glyphosate — a Class 2A carcinogen that can also damage your gut microbiome and has been linked to antibiotic-resistance. Most conventional (non-GE) wheat is also treated with toxic glyphosate prior to harvesting.
- By altering the balance of your gut flora, pesticides and herbicides also disrupt the production of essential amino acids like tryptophan, a serotonin precursor, and promote production of p-cresol, a compound that interferes with metabolism of other environmental chemicals, thereby increasing your vulnerability to their toxic effects.
- Artificial sweeteners, along with thousands of food additives, most of which have never been tested for safety
- Chemicals in the food packaging, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), and phthalates, which can migrate into the food
- Trans fats, which can harm your memory among other things
It is possible to fight depression with a good, can-do mindset coupled with positive changes to your diet, all of which can help you start on the path to effortless healing and taking control of your health.