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Mental Health Matters Journal for Psychiatrists & GP's

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You are what you eat. Almost.

While depression isn’t a labelled ingredient found in foods, depression impacts on your diet, which impacts on depression, in a vicious cycle. This is because depression leads to poor motivation and low energy which can fuel and exacerbate the effects of poor eating habits.

Poor eating habits lead to weight gain, poor body function, low energy and can enhance the effects of depression. Poor diet can also make you susceptible to depression — making you at risk of a relapse if you have a poor diet after recovering.

Former US Representative Patrick Kennedy — of the Kennedy dynasty — knows all too well the importance of eating right.

With a sad family history of mental illness and a pressured political career, Patrick is keen to help maintain good brain chemistry, which is affected by diet. So he’s trying to eat lots of fruit and protein and cut down on refined sugar and caffeine.

By Patrick’s own admission, he hasn’t had full success yet, but as he says: “My goal is progress, not perfection.”

A good diet can help you gain more energy, improve your mood and maintain your weight and put you in a position to build on this foundation to take action on the other strategies to help you combat depression, including exercise.

What should you eat, how and why?

A couple of words of caution: I’m not a dietician or nutritionist. Do consult with your doctor or dietician before making any significant changes to your diet, and any diet must be balanced.

Cut out processed foods

In ‘Back From The Brink’ I cite a fascinating study by Felice Jacka of Australia’s Deakin University in Melbourne, in which they found that a healthy diet – one high in fruit and vegetables and low in processed foods – predicted better mental health at follow-up. Even the American Journal of Psychiatry, in an editorial in its March 2010 issue, states that:

It is both compelling and daunting to consider that dietary intervention at an individual or population level could reduce rates of psychiatric disorders “It is both compelling and dauntingto consider that dietary intervention at an individual or populationlevel could reduce rates of psychiatric disorders

Reduce alcohol

It’s a central nervous system depressant and when you are depressed, any perceived benefits are at best short-lived and at worst eclipsed by the psychological and physiological harm it can cause if you regularly drink excessively. Better to deal with depression without the aid of the bottle.

Serotonin and vitamin B6

According to a recently-published study in the February 2013 edition of the Neurochem International Journal, titled ‘Effect of diet on serotonergic neurotransmission in depression’, “The neurotransmitter,serotonin (5-HT), synthesised in the brain, plays an important role in mood alleviation, satiety, and sleep regulation.” The maintenance of serotonin levels is targeted by many modern anti-depressants.

Serotonin is found naturally in many foods, but these external sources of serotonin are blocked by the blood brain barrier from accessing the central nervous system.

However, tryptophan, also naturally found in foods, can pass through the blood brain barrier and convert into serotonin with the aid of vitamin B6.

So one important element of diet to consider is foods rich in tryptophan, taken with some carbohydrates and foods rich in vitamin B6.

The role of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates trigger insulin response, which enhances the availability of tryptophan in the central nervous system and so help release serotonin into your body. Increased serotonin makes us feel good, hence the craving for carbohydrate-rich diets.

However, whilst carbohydrate stimulate a quick release of serotonin, they do not assist the ongoing production of serotonin, so should not be an extensive part of your diet. But taking a small amount of carbohydrates with tryptophan-rich foods can help convert the tryptophan into serotonin. So consider a small helping of brown rice, nuts or legumes with your meal.

Serotonin-rich foods

An increase in fruit in your diet is always a good thing regardless of whether you have depression or not! Fruits such as kiwi fruit, plantains, bananas, sour cherries, pineapples, tomatoes and plums contain serotonin. Walnuts are reported to contain the highest amount of serotonin.

Tryptophan-rich foods

Tryptophan can be found in proteins, found in foods such as turkey, fish, chicken, cottage cheese, nuts, cheese, eggs, and beans. Flaxseed oil also contains tryptophan, as do sour cherries.

Vitamin B6-rich foods

Grains such as cereals, brown rice and breads are rich in B vitamins, as are chicken, corn, eggs, green leafs, legumes, nuts, peas and sunflower seeds.

Eat right, feel right

Knowing what to eat and why is important, but remember – you can’t ‘eat’ your way out of depression. You must combine your diet into a holistic treatment plan, which must include exercise, utilizing your support network and, where appropriate, medication.

Back From The Brink contains information on how to build a good, balanced diet to help you manage depression, reduce the risk of relapse and give you more energy to lead a thriving life.

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