By Giovanni P.
It is not a secret that diet and nutrition are two of the most important factors in body chemistry—food is the source of all of the nutrients required by the body to perform all biochemical processes to run smoothly. Nutritional deficiencies, naturally, have a direct effect on how our organs and body process dysfunction. A good diet will reduce your risk of health problems. But emerging research has revealed that a good diet is also critical to good mental health.
Is it true that some foods are better for our brain that others, especially if we are depressed? A recent study from the Journal of Psychopharmacology (UK) has shown that there is a correlation between depressed patients and low levels of folic acid and vitamin B12 (Coppen, Bolander-Gouaille, 2005). Furthermore, researchers at the Clinical Research Center for Mental Health have linked inflammatory processes to clinical depression (Maes, et al., 2009).
The current theories on the nature of depression include serotonergic and cortisol dysfunctions. These are neurotransmitters that are understood to regulate feelings of well-being. But their dysfunctions have not provided sufficient explanations for the nature of depression.
The antidepressant drugs on the market today mainly target serotonin (80% of which are located in the gut), and while these have been administered to patients for years, just over two-thirds of depressed patients achieve remission—the significant alleviation of their symptoms of depression (Maes).
There is clearly something that is missing from this reductionist view of treating depression, and what these papers suggest is that an anti-inflammatory diet, supplemented with antidepressants prescribed by your doctor, is a better treatment than drugs alone.
The stresses of college life can he hard on certain people. Take it from me. My experience in dealing with stress—with especially difficult classes and social disorientation, supplemented with a diet of junk food and soda—did not help at all. Although this wasn’t my first time dealing with depression and anxiety, these academic and social stressors caused my mental wellbeing to collapse. But I found that changing my diet had a greater effect on my mood than just taking medication alone.
Even people who don’t suffer from clinical depression can benefit from these helpful guidelines:
The Anti-inflammatory Diet
In addition to helping lower your risk of serious illnesses, any diet full of fresh seasonal vegetables, fruits and healthy fats and low in refined carbohydrates and heavily-processed foods is beneficial. This is an anti-inflammatory diet. It is not specifically a special weight-loss program or a health fad, but a guideline for eating more whole foods and thus reducing inflammation factors.
The anti-inflammatory diet removes the risk of chronic inflammation, which is the root cause of most serious diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Inflammation occurs naturally in the body as a response to pathogenic attacks. But it can go haywire due to improper diet, attacking normal tissue.
The main culprit is refined carbohydrates and heavily-processed foods. This is because an overwhelming increase in simple sugars stimulates the production of inflammatory agents. Countering inflammation requires a diet with less refined breads, pastries, and junk foods and more of fresh vegetables, fruits and organic meats.
Omega 3s, Folic Acid and Vitamin B12
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to fight inflammation, so natural sources of omega-3s such as fish, organic meat and dark, leafy greens are essential (Oh et al., 2010).
Deficiencies in folic acid and vitamin B12 have been also been linked with depression, and conversely, diets high in vitamin B12 and folic acid have been linked with better treatment outcomes of depression. Coppen suggests on the basis of current data that supplements of both folic acid and vitamin B12 should be considered to better treat depression. Natural sources are better, such as animal organs (liver, kidney), eggs, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, legumes, and more. Naturally, an anti-inflammatory diet will more than provide this.
Whatever mental state you may be in, a better diet is beneficial for your mood. Mental health, as well as physical health, is a direct outcome of everything that you do, including eating. But of course, my advice is no replacement for the professional advice of a medical professional. For more resources concerning depression, consider those provided by the University Health Services at the Tang Center.
Giovanni P. is a fifth-year Physics major at UC Berkeley. His greatest achievement in life is finding the perfect Mozart sonata to pair with the perfect three-course dinner. (K378 with salad, steamed chicken with persimmon sauce, and a pomegranate tart with vanilla ice cream).
Coppen A, Bolander-Gouaille C. Treatment of depression: Time to consider folic acid and vitamin B-12. J Psychopharmacol. 2005; 19(1).
Maes, M, et al. The inflammatory & neurodegenerative (I&ND) hypothesis of depression: leads for future research and new drug developments in depression. Metab Brain Dis. 2009. Mar; 24(1):27-53.