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Can Changing Your Diet Boost Mood and Help Manage Depression Symptoms?

Depression symptoms can happen to anyone, with about 8.4% of the population experiencing a major depressive episode in their lifetime. Not all symptoms of depression are severe enough to merit treatment like psychotherapy and medication and may be managed through healthy lifestyle habits. Which leads to a common question: Can eating better cure depression?

Symptoms of Depression

Major depressive disorder can have a variety of symptoms, depending on the individual and the severity of the condition. Symptoms of depression can affect both psychological and physical health. Some emotional symptoms of depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia)
  • Angry outbursts
  • Low self-worth or self-esteem
  • In severe cases, self-harm or suicidal ideation

(Note: If in crisis, contact the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 to immediately reach a crisis counselor.)

Physical depression symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues

There are some healthy lifestyle habits you can follow to manage symptoms of depression, and while you can treat depression and improve mental health, food alone can't "cure" major depressive disorder. But there are some interesting links between nutrition and mental health.

Connections Between Diet and Symptoms of Depression

Studies have shown a connection between a healthy diet (something along the lines of the Mediterranean diet) and mental health. Food is fuel for your brain, so to improve brain health, healthy eating can make an impact. High-quality food choices rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourish and protect the brain from oxidative stress, which in turn can influence mental health.

Mental illness is more complicated than tracing the reason that we develop depression to food choices alone. However, nutritious foods can have a positive impact on mental health.

Serotonin and Diet

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is almost exclusively produced within the gastrointestinal tract (95%), and it helps to regulate sleep and appetite, inhibit pain, and moderate your mood. Digestion not only processes the foods that you eat but can also impact your emotions. The microbiome of the gut plays an enormous role in overall health: creating a strong barrier against bad bacteria and toxins, limiting inflammation, and ensuring that the body absorbs maximal nutrition from the food you eat.

By eating foods that support a healthy gut, such as leafy green vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish), essential vitamins, olive oil, and fermented foods, you can help support the mind and possibly lower your risk of depression.

Nutritional Psychiatry and Nutritional Psychology

Using nutrition to fight depression does not necessarily mean following a specific diet. A therapist may help you to focus more on healthy foods and work on cutting processed foods or sugary foods in an attempt to improve mental health.

Nutritional psychology and psychiatry are still fields of study in their preliminary stages. While some research has found links between a healthy diet and better mental health, there is still a need for robust, peer-reviewed studies in this area.

Foods That May Exacerbate Depression and Other Mental Health Problems

Poor diet has been shown to influence mental health as well. Eating too many processed foods, like refined grains, saturated fats, vegetable oils, and sugary foods, can lead to a decrease in mental well-being. Energy drinks and other sugary drinks are also common culprits and can create feelings of anxiety while leading to a depressive come-down. Some things to avoid if you are trying to manage your mental health include:

  • Red meat
  • Refined carbs (refined grains) and high-sugar foods
  • Fast food
  • Processed foods

Unfortunately, these foods make up the majority of the standard American diet. National health markers, according to the Nutrition Examination Survey, show that increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars is linked to an increased risk of depression, diabetes, anxiety, and other health conditions.

Foods For Better Mental Health

Some food choices that have been linked to improved mental health benefits include:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Foods rich in vitamin D, such as fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and high-fat dairy products
  • Whole grains like brown rice
  • Calcium-rich foods
  • Healthy fats like olive oil

The Mediterranean diet, rich in all of these nutritious food choices, is an ideal template to follow. Health care providers also recommend eating styles such as the DASH diet or the Mayo Clinic diet, since they are balanced and backed by nutrition science.

Other Lifestyle Habits That Can Help Improve Mental Health

While your therapist may focus on nutritional interventions to help manage depressive symptoms, they may also work with you on other lifestyle habits to help manage symptoms. These can include:

  • Getting regular, enjoyable physical activity
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Managing stress with mindfulness techniques
  • Improving sleep
  • Working on your relationships with others

Treatment for Depression with Therapy

If a nutritious diet and other healthy lifestyle habits are not doing enough to reduce symptoms, then therapy can help. Mental illnesses are not necessarily cured by certain foods, but by making an effort to increase healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and foods that are high in vitamin D and other vitamins, you may see an improvement in depression scores.

Major depression can be serious, so talk to a professional therapist in Austin about how to best deal with your symptoms. If you are interested in nutritional interventions, you may want to work with a therapist with a background in biological psychiatry or psychology. Depression is treatable, so don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health therapist for help.

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