The Link Between Food and Mood

The adage "you are what you eat" may be one of the most profound truths of our existence. So it should come as no small wonder that you experience a palpable sense of euphoria when you devour a decadent dessert or sample a slice of authentic New York from your favorite Brooklyn pizza spot.

The truth is that the foods we eat have an incredibly tremendous effect on our overall well being - and in particular on our mental health. We could even go so far as to say that food = mood.

So the question begs: Can food be a weapon in the war against depression? The science seems to point to a definitive "yes". Swinburne University of Technologyresearchers recently found a direct link between poor diet and lack of exercise and an increased risk for depression. Ergo, if we apply the reverse principle, we can expect opposite results. You might consider thinking of your body like a fine luxury automobile-depriving it of quality fuel will eventually lead to poor performance.

Depression is a complex illness that can manifest very differently in every individual. Today's research focuses a good deal on the role of serotonin in controlling mood. Remember, your brain is a 24/7 super-computer that computes nearly 70,000 thoughts per day. So to suggest that eating fewer french fries will help you shake off a depression would be an oversimplification. But the evidence is clear: diet and nutrition are mission critical in the battle for good mental health.The foods that we eat are part of a very sophisticated “neurological recipe” that enables production of the chemicals that we need to maintain mental balance. These neurochemicals create a kind of 'feel-good' cocktail in our brains:

Serotonin improves willpower, motivation, and mood.
Norepinephrine enhances thinking, focus, and dealing with stress. Dopamine increases enjoyment and is necessary for changing bad habits. Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, love, connection, and reduces anxiety.

GABA increases feelings of relaxation and reduces anxiety.
Melatonin enhances sleep quality. Endorphins provide pain relief and feelings of elation. Endocannabinoids improve your appetite and increase feelings of peace and well-being

Sounds perfect, right? But you will likely not find those items on the shelf of your favorite grocery store. A more practical approach would be simply cutting back on foods that can feed depression and doubling down on the ones that can help you to feel better.

Refined sugar and excess sugar
Artificial sweeteners
Processed and excess carbohydrates
Hydrogenated oils
Processed foods
Chemicals and contaminants in food

Unprocessed food, ideally fresh, organic and local
Dark Leafy Greens
Pastured eggs and meat
Wild smaller fish such as sardines or salmon
Fruit in limited quantities, especially berries
Healthy fats such as olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, avocado, nuts

That being said, we also need to consider the quantities of what we consume along with the timing of their overall effects. Caffeine and sugar can have immediate effects, while other substances affect us over time. The best options are foods that are fresh, unprocessed, clean and high in antioxidants (colorful vegetables, berries, fish, pastured meats, olive oils). Note that the real benefits come from consuming these foods on a regular basis over extended time. Why? Antioxidant-rich foods are essential for longevity as they reduce inflammation, provide essential nutrients and aid with detoxification.

A recent study focused specifically on evaluating dietary intervention for reducing depressive symptoms in adults. ‘The SMILES Trial’ tracked a counseling group with individuals who consumed a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and oily fish versus a control group who received non-nutritional social support over the same time period. The results showed a 30% remission rate of major depression among those who received dietary support while only 8% experienced remission in the control group. Eating healthy not only keeps you physically fit - lowering your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancers - but you'll see a significant mental health benefit as well. If you're battling depression, consulting a therapist or psychiatrist who takes an integrative approach may be a good option.

Author's Bio: 

Mind Body Seven is a group mental health and wellness practice consisting of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, psychotherapists and psychologists.  We focus on integrative, holistic and evidence-based mental health care.  We collaborate in patient care and share a common approach and a common goal of providing excellent care to our patients and clients.