Major depressive disorder (or simply “depression”) is a serious mood disorder that causes persistent sadness and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, often making it difficult for people with the condition to do their usual day-to-day activities.
Along with sadness and lost interest, common symptoms of depression include fatigue or lack of energy, changes in appetite, unintended weight gain or loss, sleep problems, concentration issues, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, or thoughts of suicide.
Treatment for depression typically includes psychotherapy (aka “talk therapy”), medication, or a combination of the two, according to Mayo Clinic. Certain lifestyle changes, such as a more nutritious diet, can also help people with depression feel better.
“Poor nutrition plays a significant role in depression,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist and senior adjunct professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain. The more balanced you make your meals, the more balanced will be your brain functioning,” she says.
Although a healthy diet isn’t a substitute for standard depression treatments, it can still play an important role in managing and preventing symptoms. Research shows that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, for instance, is linked to a reduced likelihood of depression symptoms compared with diets high in pro-inflammatory foods like red and processed meats and fast food.
While there’s no specific diet that treatment guidelines recommend for people with depression, studies do suggest that incorporating the following six foods regularly into your diet may boost your mood if you have the condition.
Research shows that vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression. People who get sufficient amounts of vitamin D experienced an improvement in depressive symptoms, according to a meta-analysis of 41 studies. That’s good news for people who love seafood: Fish — specifically trout, tuna, salmon, and mackerel — are rich in vitamin D.
Trout, tuna, salmon, and mackerel are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may also be linked to depression especially among people with omega-3 deficiencies. Regular consumption of foods rich in omega-3s appears to relieve depression among people who aren’t getting enough of this nutrient, according to one scientific review.
Your doctor can help you determine if you have a vitamin or nutrient deficiency — and whether that may be worsening your depression.
2. Lean Protein Foods
There’s power in lean protein, research shows. Lean protein is well-known for physical health benefits including stronger muscles, better heart health and improved odds of weight loss — but did you know it may help boost your mental health, too?
Lean protein can play an important role in regulating mood, says Dr. Serani. Although more research is needed on the role protein plays in the management of depression, a study of nearly 18,000 U.S. adults found that dietary protein intake reduced the risk of depressive symptoms.
Low-fat cheese and milk, eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, low-fat Greek yogurt, and beans are all good sources of lean protein, Serani notes.
These foods are also packed with vitamin B12, according to Mayo Clinic. “B vitamins can help protect and maintain the nervous system, including the brain, and can be found to help with overall mental health,” says Scott Lyons, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Florida.
Vitamin B12 also plays a role in the production of brain chemicals that influence mood, and a deficiency in this important nutrient may be related to depression, per Mayo Clinic.
3. Dark Leafy Greens
Yet another reason to fill your plate with dark, leafy greens, which are known for their heart health benefits: Foods like spinach and collard greens are excellent sources of magnesium, which can help support a healthy mood, says Serani.
Low levels of magnesium are common among people with depression, according to a systematic review of 12 studies. Another study showed that low magnesium intake was significantly linked to depression, especially in people under 65. That same study found that those who increased their magnesium intake had reduced depressive symptoms, especially in younger adults.
4. Green Tea
Widely considered one of the healthiest beverages in the world, green tea comes with loads of potential benefits, including improved heart health, lower cholesterol, and reduced cancer and diabetes risks.
Some research suggests it may boost mood because it contains the amino acid L-theanine, says Serani. L-theanine can have various positive effects on the brain and body, including increased focus, alertness, calmness, and relaxation.
One small study showed that an additional dose of 250 milligrams (mg) of L-theanine each day for eight weeks along with their usual medication safely reduced symptoms among people with depression.
Because this was a small study, more research is needed to confirm these findings. But in general, there’s usually little to no harm in adding one or a few cups of green tea to your day. Be mindful of the caffeine content in green tea, however, especially if you have heart or kidney issues. One cup of green tea has about 28 mg of caffeine, per Mayo Clinic.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are not only delicious and satiating, but they can improve your mood, too.
That’s partly because nuts and seeds are rich in L-tryptophan (sometimes referred to as simply “tryptophan”). It’s an essential amino acid needed by the body to make serotonin, a brain chemical that’s involved in mood regulation and plays a key role in depression, says Serani.
One small study showed that individuals who consumed high levels of tryptophan experienced significantly less depression, irritability, and anxiety than those who consumed lower levels of it.
6. Ancient Grains
Although “ancient grains” is a popular health buzzword, the term has no official definition. The Oldways Whole Grains Council loosely defines ancient grains as grains that have remained largely unchanged over the previous several hundred years (as opposed to foods like modern wheat, which has frequently been bred and changed).
Ancient grains include whole-grain foods such as spelt, barley, quinoa, and buckwheat. These foods can help support mental health because they contain complex carbohydrates and have a low glycemic index (meaning they help maintain a stable blood sugar level), says Serani.
A large study of nearly 80,000 post-menopausal women showed that diets rich in high-glycemic foods (meaning foods known to cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, such as added sugars) may be linked to an increased risk of depression.
Another much smaller study showed that participants who consumed high-glycemic diets were more likely to have a depressive mood over time than those who consumed low-glycemic diets. But a meta-analysis showed that consuming more complex carbs (like those found in ancient grains) may reduce the severity of depressive symptoms.
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