Last edition of Athens Now, I began to explore the role of nutrition in mental health. I quickly became aware that this would be a series of articles, not just a one-time topic like I usually do. In the article, we explored the fact that depression is a result of inflammation in our bodies, not just a chemical issue. This edition, we will take a further look at neurotransmitters and how they are affected by what we eat. As we discussed, “traditional” diets (those that were common prior to the 20th century) can decrease the incidence of depression by as much as 25-30%.
Some examples of traditional diets include Mediterranean, Japanese, and Hunter-Gatherer diets. As we discussed last edition, Mediterranean diets are high in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, some cheeses, oily fish and red wine (modest amounts of alcohol, especially red wine, can decrease the risk of depression). Japanese diets are rich in rice, green tea, eggs (raw), lean meats, vegetables, fish, high-quality soy, and sake. Hunter-Gatherer diets are typified by meats (grass fed beef, lamb, etc., fish, and poultry), eggs, vegetables, oils (coconut, olive, avocado, etc.), fruits, nuts, and tubers like sweet potatoes.
Inflammation is combated by antioxidants, which are mostly found in fruits and vegetables. We also get important nutrients from meats, nuts, and dairy products. Research suggests that fermentation magnifies the known benefits of these foods and influences their bioavailability and the activity of their chemical makeup. (Bioavailability is simply the degree to which whole food nutrition gets down to the cellular level where it can be fully utilized.) According to a study appearing in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, “the consumption of fermented foods may be relevant to emergent research linking traditional diets and positive mental health.” Also, fermentation may intensify specific nutrients (sources such as proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals) and phytonutrients (nutrients that come from plants) which directly and indirectly affect brain health.
A study done on unhealthy maternal and postnatal diets (diets high in processed and refined foods, high sugar beverages, and high sodium snacks) showed an increased risk of behavioral and emotional problems in those children. Depression risk is also increased in those exhibiting insulin resistance and elevated fasting glucose levels, which are precursors to Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. In addition, your gut microbes affect glycemic control and contribute to glucose tolerance.
Below is a list of specific items contained in traditional diets that are individually associated with protection against depression:
• High-quality soy
• Green tea
Some specific nutrients in the above mentioned items include magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, folic acid/folate (vitamin B9), and vitamin B12.
Nutrients from foods are precursors to neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the brain. The lack of which is often associated with depression and other mental health problems.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps with constriction of smooth muscle, regulating cyclic body process (i.e. sleep/circadian rhythm, etc.), contributing to well-being and happiness, and mood stabilization. Foods high in tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin, include:
• Dairy products
• Sprouted grains
• Dark, leafy greens
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that aids in movement, memory, attention, behavior, hormonal processes, cognition, pleasure, sleep, mood and learning. Foods that contain tyrosine, which is converted into dopamine, are as follows:
• Cottage cheese
• Plant-based proteins
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate anxiety, and is known to match the effects of benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin. Foods rich in this amino acid include:
• Brown rice
Emerging studies now show that the normally selective intestinal barrier might be compromised in depressed patients. Even mild chronic inflammation of the intestinal lining can increase the risk of depression. Things that increase the permeability of the intestinal tract (allowing waste products and inflammatory chemicals to pass through it and damage other tissues) include stress, exhaustive exercise, and the contemporary Western diet.
Some of these chemicals that are released due to the increased permeability of the membranes negatively impact neurotransmitters and elevate oxidative stress, a key component of depression and anxiety. One study shows that adherence to a traditional dietary pattern for ONE month can begin to reduce the chemicals that attack neurotransmitters by up to 38%. When this limitation of intestinal absorption is conquered, it curbs the breakdown and mirrors the proposed mechanism of prescribed antidepressants.
Oral probiotics and fermented foods can help build your gut microbiome and decrease anxiety and the perception of stress, as well as increase mental outlook. Fermented foods may increase the body’s ability to use magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, folic acid/folate (vitamin B9), and vitamin B12, and possibly even vitamin D. Fermentation is an ancient art that has value for health in many areas, including digestion and mental health.
Remember, you can choose a good mood by choosing good food.
By: Rachel Clark, RN, BSN