Food & Depression – a link between what we eat and how we feel
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Food impacts our mood – greatly. Isn’t that a message worth spreading? Eating fruits and vegetables may help to protect our brains and prevent depressive symptoms. How, you wonder? Let me shine a light on that.
Depression is a mental disorder that affects your mood and causes symptoms such as sadness, disinterest and low energy. The monoamine theory states that depression is caused by a chemical disbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow our billions of nerve cells to communicate with one another. One class of neurotransmitters is called monoamines to which serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine belong. These neurotransmitters are neurochemical indicators of stress and happiness and greatly impact whether we feel anxious, confident or happy. Of course there needs to be a certain balance of such neurotransmitters, which in this case monoamine oxidase (MAO) takes care of. MAO eliminates excess monoamines to maintain that balance. Interestingly, MAO appears to be elevated in those who suffer from depression. This means that our mood-boosting neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are broken down to a larger extent than they should be.
How is this problem tackled thus far? With antidepressants. Antidepressants help to boost neurotransmitters to improve their levels in our brain and thereby reduce depression-associated symptoms. Other medications simply block the MOA-induced neurotransmitter breakdown but not without side effects (eg. potential brain haemorrhage when eating certain fermented foods and cheeses).
Back to food: Instead of taking antidepressants or other synthetic drugs, we might have effective tools sitting right on our kitchen counter in a fruit & vegetable bowl. Yes, you heard me! Plant foods such as apples, berries, onions, grapes, green tea, dark leafy greens as well as whole grains and beans provide us with a substance called phytonutrients. These naturally occurring chemicals also inhibit MAO – with no side effects whatsoever. Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. As opposed to carbohydrates, fat, proteins, vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients are not considered essential for life – however they still play a part in maintaining health.
Herbs and spices such as cinnamon (YEIH!), cloves, nutmeg, curcuma and oregano have a similar effect thanks to their phytonutrient properties. Think about it: MAO causes the breakdown of serotonin and dopamine through oxidation. Now, what can help to prevent that process? Right, anti-oxidants! Phytonutrients such as found in sweet potatoes and dark leafy greens contain highly coloured antioxidant pigments – the right foods aren’t difficult to spot, my fellow foodies!
My advice to you: eat at least a few vegetables and fruits every day (for example 5 different vegetables and 3 fruits) that have bright colours and ensure that your system is supplied with sufficient phytonutrients to keep your mental health intact!
Now, let’s go and grab a carrot, shall we?
*if you would like to read more about this topic, find relevant scientific publications down below:
Therapeutic Effects of Phytochemicals and Medicinal Herbs on Depression:
Viewpoint: Mechanisms of Action and Therapeutic Potential of Neurohormetic Phytochemicals:
History and evolution of the monoamine hypothesis of depression: