Diet and depression: The link between food and mood

The relationship between diet and depression has been studied extensively by both medical professionals and mental health experts. Since the ‘body-mind’ connection represents one of the most complex phenomena known to science, understanding how the two influence each other can be quite challenging.

Nevertheless, after decades of studies, researchers have finally managed to crack the diet-and-depression mystery, thus gaining valuable insights into how food affects mood and vice versa.

But the relationship between diet and depression extends far beyond what goes on at a biological level. In other words, we often tend to attribute various meanings to our day-to-day eating habits. As a result, food can become a source of comfort, a distraction, or even a dysfunctional strategy for dealing with unpleasant emotions.

What is depression anyway?

Most experts define depression as a mood disorder that has a profoundly negative impact on our thinking and behavior.

Those of us who struggle with this condition often find it impossible to get a handle on those worrying thoughts that prone us to social isolation and inactivity.

According to the World Health Organization, over 320 million people are living with depression worldwide. [1]

As you can see, depression is a severe disorder that needs to be adequately diagnosed and treated by a specialist, be it a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

Before we get to how diet impacts depression and vice versa, let’s take a closer look at some of the common signs of depression.

What are the typical signs of depression?

When it comes to mood disorders, mental health experts believe conditions such as depression or anxiety manifest at a psychological, physical, and social level. Some of the most common symptoms of depression are:

  • Persistent sadness and pessimism
  • Guilt, shame, and helplessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep-related problems
  • Exhaustion
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Lack of focus
  • Social isolation
  • Decreased productivity
  • Misdirected anger.

If you’ve been experiencing some of these symptoms for more than 2-3 weeks, perhaps it’s time to seek professional help.

The link between diet and depression

Microbiota: Not every bacterium is ‘bad’ for your health

We know for a fact that our brain and gastrointestinal system share a close link. And this link is best portrayed by the constant exchange of information between the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system.

Did you know that some of the bacteria residing in your gastrointestinal tract – the microbiota – can produce significant changes in brain activity? The bacteria that make up our microbiota can influence cerebral function through changes in microbial content, hormonal responses, and metabolic changes.

In fact, some of the bacteria residing in your stomach and small intestine produce GABA, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in mood regulation. 

Long story short, what goes on in your gut can have a significant impact on brain activity, and consequently, the mood changes specific to conditions like depression.

Poor eating habits can contribute to depression

As we discussed before, the meaning that we attribute to food can play an important role in depression and other mood disorders. While some choose to see food merely as ‘fuel,’ others use it to cope with unpleasant emotions.

If you’re dealing with depression, food can provide the ultimate comfort. It easy to veg out on the couch, with a bag of chips, binge-watching TV shows, and ignoring the painful emotions that have brought you in this state.

And the worst part is that the comfort you get from food will reinforce this behavior, transforming it into a dysfunctional coping mechanism that keeps you from seeking proper help.

Can diet help us fight depression?

But just as food can ‘deepen’ depression, so can it alleviate the symptoms associated with this condition. Once again, it’s not always about what you eat but how you eat.

For example, having a regular meal routine, adding diversity to your culinary preferences, and giving up on junk food are some of the ways in which you can fight depression through diet.

In fact, some experts believe that a Mediterranean diet based of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and cereals can provide all the nutrients your body (and mind) needs to keep depression at bay. [2]

A matter of healthy habits

Since diet and depression seem to share a close bond, researchers have turned their attention to other lifestyle factors that might alleviate the unpleasant symptoms associated with this mood disorder.

A recent study revealed that diet, sleep, and exercise represent the “holy trinity” of effective strategies for combating depression and an excellent addition to ‘traditional’ treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.

Eating to stay healthy (mentally and physically)

If you’re dealing with depression, the first you should remember is to refrain from using food as a source of comfort and a distraction from the negative emotions generated by this condition.

Stick to a meal plan that includes a rich diversity of foods so that your body and mind will benefit from all the minerals and nutrients they need to stay in tip-top shape.

Getting some quality sleep

We know for a fact that people who are dealing with depression can often find it difficult to get enough shut-eye. The constant torrent of negative thoughts and painful emotions is the main reason why sleep eludes them.

You can improve the quality of your sleep by going to bed at the same hour each night (even when you’re not feeling sleepy), avoiding digital devices one hour before bed, and using a brief relaxation technique to calm your mind before you slowly drift into sleep.

Sleep better to feel better!

The benefits of exercise

Both physicians and mental health professionals agree that an active lifestyle is among the smartest choices you can make. Not only that a regular exercise routine keeps your body healthy, but it also prevents psychological problems like depression, stress, and anxiety.

Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with depression, getting out of bed and going out for a jog might prove too big of an effort. However, even doing the bare minimum is better than doing nothing at all. If jogging or going to the gym seems impossible right now, you can always go for a walk in the park or around the neighborhood.

Overall, getting a better understanding of the link between diet and depression can help us implement healthy eating habits and other practices that keep mood disorders in check.

Meta description: The link between diet and depression holds the key to robust physical and mental health. Find out how diet can alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of depression.

References:

[1] W. H. Organization, “Depression and Other Common,” World Health Organization, Geneva, 2017.

[2] A. Sánchez-Villegas, P. Henriquez, M. Bes-Rastrollo and J. Doreste, “Mediterranean diet and depression,” Public Health Nutrition, vol. 9, no. 8A, pp. 1104-1109, 2006.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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