What’s the number one prescribed medication in the country? Not pain killers, not drugs for treating heart disease, not even medications addressing a very common concern, heartburn. The most commonly prescribed medications currently being filled are for treatment of depression.
It makes sense seeing as how depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
With so many scripts being filled for this condition, one might assume that antidepressants are an effective treatment for depression. Sadly, this assumption is short of true. Don’t get me wrong, depression takes on many facets and has a complex web of influencing factors that contribute to the condition, and for some, medications are certainly a necessary part of the treatment protocol. However, the complex nature of depressive disorders is enough to help us realize that treatments for depression should also be diverse and multifaceted as well. Medication alone will not resolve the majority of sufferers’ issues.
There are several other treatments proven to be just as, or in some studies, more effective than medications at helping those with depression, including psychotherapy particularly interpersonal therapy, behavioral therapy, and cognitive therapy. Also of note, exercise, light therapy, acupuncture and St. John’s Wort have been heavily studied for their effectiveness.
While I’m a fan of discussing ALL options with your primary care provider before starting any new protocol, I’m also not an expert when it comes to treatment of depression. Where I can share my expertise is to helping to uncover the food and mood relationship that we’re learning more and more about almost daily.
A note on food and mood. Some find it odd that something so ‘minute’ as the foods we consume on a daily basis could have such a dramatic effect on our body and brain chemistry. But, hear me out before you judge. Let’s say for instance you have a teenager. Said teenager comes home from school having not had lunch and is starving! Teenager proceeds to be disengaged, snippy, and downright rude. I know what you’re thinking, ‘she’s just being a teenager’, right? Possibly. But, notice what occurs the instant the teenager is fed. Suddenly, the walls come down, the eyes brighten up and the cranky teen has once again become your little angel. Maybe you can even recall a time when you yourself felt ‘hangry’. That nasty place where hungry and angry collide. It’s no joke that our foods and moods are inextricably connected. The pathways and mechanisms are sophisticated and cumbersome, likely why several years of a less than adequate diet can lead to the eventual breakdown of these pathways and slowly or abruptly interfere with our moods.
So, what are we to do in attempt to improve our mood with food?
Step 1: Crowd out the bad stuff.
I doubt this is the first time you’ve read that sugar and all its aliases (corn syrup, cane syrup, agave nectar, etc.) have connections to nearly every modern disease, from metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and chronic pain conditions such as arthritis. Too much sugar and the resulting insulin resistance that can occur has also been linked to mood disorders and can influence the severity of depressive symptoms.
If you’re just getting started, try cutting out sugar in the more obvious places like soda, fruit juices and desserts. As you get better at making smarter swaps, also take note of the less obvious sugar bombs like flavored yogurt, granolas and protein bars. And because this question always comes up, the artificial kind is certainly not a warranted alternative. If you must use anything to sweeten, local honey or real maple syrup is always my go to!
While much research points to the fact that too few omega-3 fats in the diet might be an underlying factor for the rise of depression globally, it’s likely more so due to what’s preventing omega-3 absorption and utilization. Hello vegetable oils! Corn, soy, and cottonseed oil, just to name a few, are some of the industrial seed oils that compete with the omega-3’s found in fatty fish and whole food nuts, seeds, meats and eggs for absorption. Rather than loading up on fish oil and flax seeds, it might do you better to cut out the junky salad dressings and opt for extra virgin olive oil instead. Or, in lieu of meat that’s fed a diet of corn and soy, opt for meat and dairy that’s been allowed to eat grass. These small changes pay off in droves when it comes to body chemistry.
Shelter and Shade:
While shelter may be one of our most basic needs, it’s likely that we’re getting just a bit too much. Since the advent of urbanization, cars, trains, and desk jobs, now more than ever American’s are spending most if not all of their day indoors. Why is this important from a nutritional standpoint? This all points back to our global chronic deficiency of vitamin D. There’s rarely a patient that I see who has a ‘normal’ vitamin D level. Myself included. Thus, it’s no surprise that proper supplementation of 5,000 IU daily can dramatically increase serum levels, but it’s spending more time outdoors with less sunscreen and fewer clothes that can really elevate our mood. Think about it. When was the last time you were at the beach, basking in the sun and didn’t feel happy? It’s not just the daiquiris that do the trick!
Step 2: Pour in the good stuff:
Not unlike a car, our bodies need fuel to function and I’m not just speaking to calories rather, I’m talking nutrients. Micronutrients at that! The tiny, inconspicuous, often underappreciated ones…
The following list of micronutrients and food sources have been shown to have a positive effect on mood. Aim to get more of these in each day as a means of pouring in the good stuff to crowd out the not so good stuff!
ALA – Alpha-linolenic Acid: Eggs, flaxseeds, purslane, walnuts, kale, brussels sprouts, broccoli
Anthocyanins: Purple cauliflower, blackberries, blueberries, purple potatoes, raspberries, purple okra, eggplant, dark chocolate
Chromium: Broccoli, turkey, garlic, 100% grape juice, potatoes
CLA – Conjugated linoleic acid: Meat and dairy products from grass fed cows, sheep, bison and lamb
DHA – Docosahexaenoic acid: Mussels, sardines, salmon, mackerel, shrimp, halibut, scallops
EPA – Eicosapentaenoic acid: Fatty fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel), shrimp, oysters, clams, grass fed beef, bison
Folates: Leafy greens, lentils, black-eyed peas, asparagus, beef liver, eggs
Iodine: Seaweed, cod, wild shrimp, potatoes, milk, yogurt
Iron: Clams, oysters, beans, grass fed beef and lamb, duck, liver, sardines, spinach, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, molasses
Lycopene: Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, guava fruit, watermelon
Magnesium: Halibut, almonds, cashews, leafy greens (spinach, beets, collards), yogurt, potatoes, peanut butter, whole wheat bread
Oleic Acid: Olive oil, pastured lard, avocado, fish, almonds
Quercetin: Onions, buckwheat, apples
Sulforaphane: Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts
Vitamin A: Chicken and beef liver, eggs (yolk), whole fat milk, cheese and butter, oysters, salmon and roe
Vitamin D: Seafood, pasture raised pork, lard and mushrooms that have been exposed to the sun
Vitamin E: Almonds, olive oil, avocado, sunflower seeds, barley, wheat germ, dark leafy greens (beet greens, collard greens, swiss chard), peppers, tomatoes
Zinc: Oysters, crab, grass fed beef and lamb, pasture raised pork, beans, cashews, peanuts, dark chocolate
The last but perhaps the most important thing to note about food and mood is that it’s not only a matter of ‘we are what we eat’ but more importantly, ‘we are what we absorb’! Absorption is a process that takes place when we have the right systems in place and by systems, I mean microbes. Yes, bacteria in your gut! There’s a bodily connection routinely studied called the gut-brain axis, where what happens in the gut (good or bad) affects the brain and vice versa. There are many brain and mind related conditions that have deep seated roots in the gut.
Probiotics are a buzzword these days and for good reason, there’s more of them in our body than there are cells! Or at least there should be… That has been the issue as of the last 50 years or so. As we’ve gotten ‘cleaner’ and more hip to slathering pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antimicrobials, and antibiotics on just about every living thing, we’ve completely and totally disrupted the microbial ecosystem living inside each one of us. Thus, a lot of research is pointing to the fact that all we have to do in order to cure chronic and debilitating diseases including depression and mood disorders is, fix our gut! So how do I suggest we do that? Well for one, don’t be afraid to get dirty! I’m not suggesting we forget what mother taught us about washing our hands, but maybe we don’t need to be so clean that everything gets sanitized with antibacterial wipes. Also, we could certainly stand to eat more foods that have these probiotics or microbes, built in. A few of my favorites are sauerkraut (or kimchee if you like it spicy), grass fed yogurt, and a home brew called Kombucha tea. A daily dose of good bugs for your gut can dramatically improve your health.
The other half of the recipe is good fuel for the friendly bacteria. That’s where the often-confused PRE-biotics come in. This is the food the good bugs eat. The preferred source of fuel are resistant starches like cold potatoes, greenish bananas, and beans.
So, what else can we do to improve our moods?
Food first has always been my philosophy, but I’m of the belief that we don’t live in a utopian society where we get all that we need from food, thus supplementing the diet can come in handy to give us a leg up on the competition. Below is a list of a few supplements, herbals and activities that are reputable in research but as always, should be discussed with your health care provider before you start!
Avoid blood sugar swings
Sweat it out
Take a forest bath
Try meditation or yoga
Play some music
Lastly, here’s a recipe for ‘Instant Bliss Balls’ that always seem to lift my spirt!
Recipe: Mood Boosting Energy Bites:
2 cups walnuts, halves and pieces
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup coconut, shredded
2/3 cup cocoa powder
8 fresh dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons water
Pinch of salt
1 to 3 drops peppermint oil (optional)
Combine the walnuts, sunflower seeds, dates and coconut in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for 30 to grind the ingredients.
Add the cocoa powder, salt, water and the peppermint oil to the bowl and process until the mixture forms a paste.
Form the paste into medium sized balls by rolling a portion of the paste between your palms. Place the finished balls on a tray lined with waxed paper and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving.
What’s your go to strategy for boosting your mood? Feel free to share here, or in our Facebook community!
Wishing you good vibes only today,