Last year, during my major depressive episode, I figured that depression was such a recurring problem for me that it could not be merely psychological. I was noticing that certain foods would give me stomach aches or have me fall asleep, only to wake up super hungry after my nap! My body was often tired, even after having adopted a regular fitness routine from the age of 18. I thought that maybe my body was lacking nutrients, because, despite my exercising, I still had very poor eating habits and never saw food as my friend, but rather more like an enemy that mostly hindered my fitness goals. One day, I remembered that as a child my father would always tell me to eat fish because it made me smarter, and that would get me excited about eating it every time. So with that in mind, my excitement found me again as I went to work doing intensive research on the effects of food and nutrition on the brain. Countless–maybe some, needless–clinical appointments were booked in an attempt to find deficiencies, diseases or intolerances within my body. I had to know; my resolve was set to attaining full rehabilitation in mental, physical, and spiritual health if I was ever to get back on my feet again.
Scratching the Surface of Nutrition & Mood
The Second Brain
Let’s start with gut health. The gut is considered in science as a second brain in which 100 trillion bacteria and millions of microbial genes contribute to the health of the actual brain. (Kranjac, Psychology Today) This party of organisms is called gut microbiome. When gut health is compromised, not only does it put the body at risk of physical disease, but it also puts you at risk of neuropsychiatric/mood disorders. The gut becomes inflamed when we are chronically stressed and/or regularly eat pro-inflammatory foods (here’s a list), which worsens depression and anxiety. Dr. Emily Deans states in her column Evolutionary Psychiatry for Psychology Today:
Now the immune system works wonders and inflammation saves your life nearly every day from all the pathogens out there like the flu and strep, but chronic levels of inflammatory response also lead to all sorts of chronic disease, for example depressive disorders, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis and multiple sclerosis…the gut microbiome plays a key role in regulating our immune response. Thus the make-up of our gut microbiome could make the difference as to whether we are sick or well, both mentally and physically.
There is a lot to take in about the gut, like the fact that about 80-90% of serotonin (an important chemical in the body in charge of balancing your mood) is produced there. The gut microbiome can be improved by switching to more wholesome foods, increasing good bacteria (with the help of a probiotic or pickled food, for example), and lowering stress. This reduces chronic inflammation, which makes us feel better.
Did you know that a lack of vitamin D can worsen or cause depression? A recent review of 14 studies done at St.Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Canada, found a correlation between depression and low levels of Vitamin D. What’s more, is the case for S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder), where many people’s moods worsen during colder months, when the sun is not at it brightest and, by the afternoon, not present at all. The ray that carries vitamin D is the UVB ray, and without enough of it, vitamin D stores can deplete. (Archer, Psychology Today) You need to go outside to get it, but a vitamin D supplement will also help to restore proper levels. Another study proved that vitamin D supplements successfully improved the moods of three depressed women after 12 weeks.
You Must Love Fat
You may or may not be aware of this by now, but Omega-3 fatty acid improves cognitive performance and decreases inflammation in the gut. Cognitive performance not only includes mood, but also memory and accuracy, among other things. In fact, some symptoms of Omega-3 deficiency include mood swings, tiredness, and poor memory–all very common symptoms of depression as well.
My Experience so Far
I must admit, I am a little reluctant to share my experience. I don’t want anybody to start restricting their diet as I have for so many years, even after having learned this information. I was working with a holistic nutritionist not long ago to learn how to balance out my meals and to change my rocky relationship with food. Since last year, during my “nutrition craze”, I have tested the above-mentioned research claims on myself. Paying close attention to how I feel after I eat something. Here’s my experience:
I know now why I love summer so darn much, and that’s because it makes me so happy. In the winter, it’s usually painfully hard, no matter how much sleep I get, to get up in the early mornings. I feel bitter and sad like I cannot seize the day. It’s winter right now, and now I use Ddrops (vitamin D supplement), which are helping my mood tremendously in the mornings. I found sugar to be an instant trigger for depression. I get terrible gas, stomach ache, and high levels of anxiety when eating a certain amount of wheat, so I keep it at a minimal. And, incorporating healthy fats into my diet has been the most beneficial thing for me thus far. It has allowed me to experience fewer mood swings over time, and now they happen very rarely. I also used to wake up highly anxious, like in a frenzy, but now that almost never happens. On top of eating foods like olive oil, coconut products, nut butter, and meat, the nutritionist had also recommended I use Genuine Health’s Omega-3+ Joy. They are big pills, and four per day is the recommended serving. To be honest, I’m never keen on taking these pills ’cause they’re so big.
My relationship with food is being reconstructed. I’m going to give myself credit here and say I am halfway there. Disordered eating is an issue that has plagued my life and planted deep roots I was only recently aware of, and am now trying to pluck. It’s my hope that this information will prompt you to ask yourself some questions, and seek professional help from doctors, dietitians, and/or holistic nutritionists.
McIntosh, James. “Serotonin: Facts, What Does Serotonin Do?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 29 Apr. 2016, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/kc/serotonin-facts-232248.
Zehring, Brad, DO, The Importance of Nutrition in Psychiatric Treatment, http://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/practice-management/the-importance-of-nutrition-in-psychiatric-treatment/article/400073/