Diet and Depression: Foods and nutrients for recovery
By Jon Johnson |
Reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD
Last reviewed Sun 16 July 2017
Depression is a prevalent mental health illness throughout
the world, causing negative thoughts and behaviors in those
who experience it.
Many people with depression seek natural treatments for their symptoms, in one form or
another. While there is no specific diet to treat depression, what a person consumes may play a role in managing its symptoms.
What’s the link between diet and
Links between diet and depression were misunderstood until recently. Many factors contribute to depression symptoms, and there are dietary considerations for each of them.
A recent study posted to BMC Medicine demonstrated that a group of people with moderate to severe depression improved their mood and signs of depression by eating
a more healthful diet.
The study was the first to prove that diet alone could reduce depression symptoms. The dieters followed a specific program for 12 weeks that included one-on-one counseling with a dietitian. The treatment diet encouraged eating whole foods while discouraging things such as refined foods, sweets, and fried food.
Dieters showed greatly reduced symptoms when compared to other groups. In addition, more than 32 percent of participants experienced remission, so were no longer considered depressed.
Important foods and nutrients for
The following foods and nutrients may play a role in reducing the symptoms of depression.
Selenium can be a part of reducing symptoms of depression in many people. Low selenium
levels have been linked to poor moods.
Selenium can be found in supplement form or a variety of foods, including whole grains, Brazil nuts, and some seafood. Organ meats, such as liver, are also high in selenium.
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with many mood disorders, including depression. It is
important to get enough vitamin D to help in the fight against depression.
This vitamin is obtained easily through full body exposure to the sun, and there are also many high-quality supplements on the market that contain vitamin D.
Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel.
Omega-3 fatty acids
In a study posted to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers observed that populations
that do not eat enough omega-3 fatty acids might have higher rates of depressive disorders.
Good sources of omega-3s may include:
cold water fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds, nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
The quality of these foods can affect the levels of omega-3s they contain.
Eating omega-3 fatty acids may increase the level of healthful fats available to the brain,
preserve the myelin sheath that protects nerve cells, and keep the brain working at the
highest level. In turn, this can reduce the risk of mood disorders and brain diseases occurring.
Antioxidants have become popular as they fight free radicals. Free radicals are damaged
molecules that can build up in different cells in the body and cause problems, such as
inflammation, premature aging, and cell death.
The brain may be more prone to this type of damage than other areas of the body. As a
result, it needs a good way to get rid of these free radicals and avoid problems. Foods rich in antioxidants are believed to help reduce or reverse the damage caused by free radicals.
Everyday antioxidants found in a variety of whole foods include:
vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin A (beta-carotene).
These nutrients may help reduce stress-related symptoms of psychiatric disorders.
Some B vitamins are also key in mood disorders such as depression. Vitamin B12 and folate,
or vitamin B9, have both been linked to a reduced risk of mood disorders.
Sources of B vitamins include:
eggs, meat, poultry, fish, oysters, milk, and whole grains. Fortified cereals may also contain vitamins B12 and folate. Other foods that have folate in
dark leafy vegetables, fruit and fruit juices, nuts, beans, whole grains, dairy products, meat and poultry, seafood, and eggs.
Eating a varied diet is an easy way to ensure there is enough folate in the diet.
Zinc helps the body perceive taste, boosts the immune system, and may also influence
depression. Zinc levels may be lower in people with clinical depression, and zinc
supplementation may also improve the effectiveness of antidepressants.
Zinc is found in supplements. Foods, including whole grains, oysters, beans, and nuts, are
also good sources of zinc.
High-quality proteins are the building blocks of life. Getting adequate protein is essential for
everyone, but some forms of protein, in particular, may be more helpful for people with
Foods such as tuna, turkey, and chickpeas have good levels of tryptophan, which is needed
to form serotonin.
Serotonin deficiency was once thought to be a major cause of depression. We now know that
the link between serotonin and depression is very complex, but it does seem to influence
depression in many people. Including foods rich in tryptophan in a diet may help relieve
Foods to avoid
Just as certain foods and nutrients may be of benefit to people with depression, there are
also some that should be avoided.
For people with depression that is linked to anxiety, it may be important to avoid caffeine.
Caffeine can make it difficult to sleep and may trigger symptoms of anxiety in many people.
Caffeine also affects the system for hours after it is consumed. It is best for people with
depression to avoid caffeine if possible, or reduce consumption and stop consuming it after noon.
Though occasional alcohol drinking is seen as an acceptable distraction, it may make
depression symptoms worse.
Excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk of panic attacks or depressed episodes.
Alcohol also alters a person’s mood and may turn into a habit, which could influence
High-calorie foods with few nutrients in them may also influence depression symptoms.
Foods high in sugar and refined carbs can promote a crash, as the energy from them is
depleted. This can make a person feel mood swings or energy swings.
Nutrient-dense whole foods are a much better approach to balancing mood and energy
Highly processed or refined oils, such as safflower and corn oil, are very high in omega-6 fatty
acids. Having too many omega-6s in the diet can cause an imbalance in the body that may
promote inflammation in the brain and influence depression symptoms.
Other factors that play a role in depression
There are other factors that link to both diet and depression and play a role in this mental
Emerging research has shown gut bacteria to play an integral role in major mood disorders,
including depression and bipolar disease. A 2016 meta-analysis reported that probiotics, in
both supplement form and in fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir, resulted in significant
reductions in depression.
More research is needed to identify the
therapeutic value of specific strains, but so
far Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium show
Obese people may be more likely to be
depressed, and depressed people are more
likely to become obese. This may be due to
hormone changes and immune system
imbalances that come with depression.
Spending time outdoors and at least 150
minutes of physical activity weekly have been
shown to improve mood and depressive symptoms.
Some people with depression also have substance abuse problems. Alcohol or other drugs
can interfere with sleep patterns, decrease motivation, and alter a person’s mood.
Sleep may also play a role in depression. The body’s natural sleep cycle creates moodaltering
chemicals to match the time of day. Altering this natural cycle may affect how well the
body can use these chemicals.
Most adults respond well when they get 7 to 8 hours of sleep, though the number varies from
person to person. It may also help to reduce exposure to blue light, during the hours leading
up to sleep. Blue light is emitted by electronic devices and low-energy light bulbs.
Outlook and when to get help
Changing the diet to relieve the symptoms of depression is a promising step in treatment. It
should not be seen as the only step needed, however. Working directly with a doctor before
changing anything in a treatment plan should always be the priority.
There are also many support groups to help people move to a healthful diet and to keep
people’s morale high, as they fight depression.