Several years ago, a woman named Barbara came to me for help with weight loss. At the time, she was 52 and she had gained nearly her age in weight (42 pounds) over the previous year.
She was a biology professor and she’d been passed by for tenure for a second time. She felt despondent and demoralized. It wasn’t just the job; she couldn’t shake a general feeling that her life was never going to get better.
Barbara didn’t have much of an appetite. She drank coffee and diet Red Bulls every day, and finished her day with a bottle of inexpensive wine and cigarettes. The only vegetable she ever ate were potatoes in the form of french fries. She was perpetually exhausted.
Suspecting depression, I referred Barbara to a psychiatrist for an evaluation and for medication and follow-up. She started taking anti-depressants and began to feel better.
My job as an MD with an emphasis in culinary medicine was to prescribe not pills, but dietary and lifestyle modifications that could complement the pharmaceutical treatment.
I tested her vitamin D, which was low and asked her to start taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day. I also encouraged lifestyle adjustments: go for a walk with a friend each day and skip the wine. She did her best to do both.
Introducing mood-stabilizing foods was also key. Food alone can’t cause or cure depression, but there’s a growing body of research that’s linked chronic inflammation and neurological diseases, including depression. And diet can have a profound influence on inflammation.
Here are some of the dietary changes I encouraged Barbara to make:
- To help dampen inflammatory response and systemic inflammation, the latter of which has described as “a major cause and consequence of depression according to the neuroinflammatory hypothesis”, eat more omega-3s, such as sardines, salmon, anchovies, flax meal, walnuts, omega-3 enriched eggs. Long-chained omega-3 fatty acids, as well as zinc and magnesium–two micronutrients that have been linked to the development and treatment of depression–enhance the effectiveness of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which improves neuroplasticity. Reduced neuroplasticity, essentially an impaired ability to develop new neural networks, has been found in depressive disorders.
- To balance homocysteine level, eat more foods rich in Vitamin B (low B can lead to an accumulation of homocysteine, a common amino acid, elevated levels of which have been linked to depression). Barbara learned to love New Zealand Marmite, a vitamin-enriched dark yeast spread that she put on toast. Other good sources of B vitamins include: red meat, poultry, fish, whole grains, dark leafy greens, such as spinach, and legumes such as lentils and beans.
- To brighten your day, eat something with saffron. Adding a bit of this fine, thread-like crimson spice will do more than just add color to your foods–it’s been shown in studies to have antidepressant effects. The precise mechanism of why saffron works is still being scientifically scrutinized, but it’s likely due to its combined ability to affect serotonin and to work as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. In Barbara’s case, she loved to use saffron in what she called her “depression dish” (although anti-depression dish might have been more accurate!): saffron lentils with garlic and three chilies. You can also try my Golden Saffron-Flavored Paella.
You might also be sure to eat often from this list of top anti-depressant foods, included in a systematic review of evidence published in late 2018:
- mustard, turn, or beet greens
- lettuces (red, green, romaine)
- Swiss chard
- fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, or parsley)
- liver and organ meats (spleen, kidneys, or heart)
- poultry giblets
If you or someone you love is experiencing low mood, I encourage you to try some of these lifestyle and dietary modifications. These should not be considered a replacement for seeking psychiatric care, but rather can work in tandem in helping boost mood.
Remember: help is always available. The National Suicide Prevention Line provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress: 1-800-273-8255. You will be connected with crisis resources for you or your loved ones.