Few of us are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression, despite the fact that we understand to some extent the relationship between nutritional deficiencies and physical illnesses. Depression is still thought by many to be a biochemical or emotional based issue, however nutrition can determine the extent and duration of depressive symptoms.
Neuroscience research conducted by clinicians like Dr. Caroline Leaf and others suggests that nutritional factors are very much intertwined with emotions, cognition, and behaviors. Some of the most common mental health issues include obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and ADD/ADHD.
Numerous studies show that the dietary intake pattern of most American and Asian populations as opposed to Mediterranean countries are often deficient in nutrients such as essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Also, evidence now suggests that the pathology of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) may be rooted either primarily or secondarily to oxidative stress in the body (A. Sarandol, ET AL.).
Our brains are more sensitive to oxidative stress and free radicals than other tissues. The brain is only about 2% of the weight of the human body, yet it uses approximately 20% of its energy. MDD is also distinguished by the activation of an inflammatory response system, thus increasing free radical production.
What is interesting is that inflammation shows up in different people as different symptoms. Some people may exhibit cardiovascular disease, others diabetes, or an autoimmune disorder. Still yet others manifest depression, anxiety and mental illness. It is no surprise that these things are often listed as comorbidities (the presence of two or more chronic diseases) since they have the same root: inflammation. What was interesting in the study relating MDD to oxidative stress was the conclusion: the drug combination used had no effect on measurable oxidative stress markers in the body at the end of 6 weeks.
So what is the solution? Many people think vitamins will help their nutrient deficiencies, but according to a study done at John Hopkins University, vitamins are at best a waste of money, providing no clear benefit. At worst, they can do more harm than good, with high concentrations of isolated and fractionated vitamins E and A, as well as beta carotene, could increase the risk of death in certain individuals. Therefore, use vitamin supplements judiciously, or avoid them altogether.
This still leaves the question as to how to nourish our bodies, and therefore our brains. The solution is a diet that is high in the various micronutrients we need to keep our bodies functioning such as vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate (or vitamin B9), zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (EPH/DHA). The Mediterranean Dietary Pattern (MDP) which is high in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and oily fish is now thought to reduce inflammation due to its richness in antioxidants that come from these whole foods.
“Optimizing our nutrition is a safe and viable way to help avoid, treat, or lessen the symptoms of mental illness. Poor nutrition is a significant and modifiable risk factor for the development of mental illness,” said Julia Rucklidge, a PhD professor of clinical psychology in Christchurch, New Zealand, who has studied the treatment of ADD/ADHD and other mental health issues with micronutrients for the last 10 years.
We rely on medications, but honestly we need to stop visiting the “pharmacy” and start visiting the “farm” to decrease the prevalence of mental illness. I am not dismissing the effectiveness of medications on some severe forms of mental illness, nor advocating that you should stop treatments prescribed by your healthcare practitioner without first consulting them. They can be very effective for some people in the short term, but on a long term basis have lasting effects on our bodies. Despite our reliance on these drugs, our outcomes are no better than they were 50 years ago.
The research is clear: the well nourished brain is better able to withstand stress and recover from illness. Sixty to eighty percent of people will respond to better nutrition. Let’s get serious about the role nutrition plays not only in our physical health, but also our mental health.
By: Rachel Clark, RN, BSN