Food For (Happy) Thought

A healthy diet can help improve seasonal affective disorder

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

With the holidays having come to a close, and much of the nation dealing with inclement weather and cold temperatures, it's natural to sometimes feel a decrease in mood and positive thinking.

But did you know simply eating a healthy diet can help improve your mood?

There's even a name for it, seasonal affective disorder, and it produces similar symptoms to clinical depression, including trouble falling asleep and waking up, a tendency to overeat, as well as low energy, difficulty with concentration, and can progress to real clinical depression, with feelings of hopelessness and inability to find pleasure in daily life.

Whether you're feeling down because of a cold, dark winter, or if you feel you have symptoms of depression regardless of the seasons, there is certainly help available. Your family doctor should be able to help you figure out if you have a mood disorder or depression that would benefit from an anti-depressant medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of both. But in the meantime, your health and your mood can be greatly impacted just by what you have in your kitchen.

Protein is needed for neurotransmitter production

Much research has been done on the impact of healthy eating and proper nutrition on one's mood. Medical science now knows that there are many foods that provide vital amino acids and nutrients that directly impact the neural chemistry of the brain. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter (chemical that communicates between neurons) in our brain, plays a vital role in the maintenance of a positive mood and feelings of calmness, and increasing it's presence in the brain is the mechanism of action of numerous anti-depressant medications. But did you know that the building blocks for serotonin come from the amino acid tryptophan, a common amino acid in the food we eat?

A 2005 study in the journal Pharmacology and Therapeutics gave depressed patients either the anti-depressant Luvox® or 300mg of the amino acid tryptophan (5HTP). Both groups reported improvement in their symptoms of depression, but the tryptophan group showed greater improvement in terms of their depression, anxiety, and insomnia. There's no shortage of good, healthy foods that contain this important amino acid, found in most proteinaceous foods. Examples include meats such as turkey, eggs, and red meat, as well as fish and shellfish. Nuts, beans, and dairy are also a great source of tryptophan, along with the foods made from them such as hummus, tofu, and yogurt. All these foods are also high in the amino acid tyrosine, which is needed for the production of the other two neurotransmitters closely associated with mood, dopamine and norepinephrine.

B-vitamins are essential for healthy brain function

The B-complex vitamins, often referred to by their name or number (B9 = folic acid, B2 = riboflavin, B3 = Niacin, etc) are some of the most crucial molecules to our bodies functioning and brain health. A deficiency in even a single B vitamin can cause serious disease, such as anemia, nerve pain, and skin lesions, among others. What's also being studied is that B vitamin deficiency can also have a big impact in creating a depressed mood. The journal BMC Psychiatry monitored the levels of vitamin B12 in patients undergoing treatment for depression over the course of 6 months. Patients who had higher levels of B12 responded better to treatment than those with less B12, even when corrected for factors such as smoking and drinking habits, family history of depression, and the method of treatment they were getting.

B-vitamins also help reduce the presence of homocysteine in the blood, a byproduct of the body's normal biochemical functioning. Research has shown that having elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood is a sign of B-vitamin deficiency, as B-vitamins are essential in breaking down homocysteine back into it's root amino acid. Research has shown that women who have high homocysteine levels are twice as likely to develop depression.

Foods that have high concentrations of B vitamins include meats such as liver, turkey, and beef, and produce like bananas, avocados, and beans. While most people should be able to get the necessary B-vitamins from their diet, there are many vitamin supplements that have full RDAs of B vitamins that can be found in most grocery stores.

Omega-3 fatty acids promote brain health, reduce depression

There's no shortage of favorable outcomes that have been linked to the consumption of foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, with research studies pointing to decreased cancer risk, improved cardiovascular health, and a healthier immune system. Add depression to the list of conditions that can be improved by omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that patients who received omega-3 supplementation with their anti-depressant medication regimen responded better than patients who did not receive omega 3 supplementation.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in 'fatty' fish, such as salmon, tuna, and anchovies, and are also sold as fish oil supplements in capsules. In addition to fish, flaxseed oil, soybeans, and green leafy vegetables also provide a great source.

See your doctor if depression isn't temporary

It's good to know that something as simple as improving your diet can help to alleviate a bad or down mood. All the foods listed seem to fall under the 'common sense' banner...eating healthy not only keeps your body healthy, but it keeps your brain healthy as well. However, it's also important to realize that clinical depression is a real disease, and sometimes it can't be treated just by eating right. If you try these diet tips and still feel depressed, please make it a point to see your family physician to discuss depression and what else can be done about it.

Depression impacts an estimated 15 million adults in the United States. Depression is a state of prolonged low mood and aversion to activity. A person's thoughts, behavior, feelings and physical well-being are affected and may include feelings of sadness, anxiety, emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, irritability, or restlessness. The primary treatments for major depression are psychological counseling and medications. Medication therapies include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs). SSRIs include: fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®), sertraline (Zoloft®), citalopram (Celexa®) and escitalopram (Lexapro®). SNRIs include: duloxetine (Cymbalta®), venlafaxine (Effexor®) and desvenlafaxine (Pristiq®). Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is an NDRI. Atypical antidepressants include trazodone (Desyrel®) and mirtazapine (Remeron®). Each medication category has different side effects.

Review Date: 
February 7, 2011