Can Food Improve Your Mood?

Can you eat your way into depression? Can you eat your way out of it?

Can you eat your way into depression? Can you eat your way out of it?

Depression is a common and serious disorder, and while its causes are multiple and complex, diet may also play a role.

Inflammation has been implicated in many diseases, depression among them. Inflammation is the body’s beneficial defense from injury and infection by invaders such as bacteria and viruses. On the other hand, chronic low-grade inflammation in the absence of attack or threat is harmful and can lead to serious trouble – it has been linked with heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, premature aging and also depression.

The inflammation-depression connection is a fascinating discovery that is gaining ground. Previous research has shown that inflammatory cytokines – substances such as interferon and interleukin that are secreted from immune system cells when those are activated or when they are used as drugs – can trigger major depression. There have been several studies that show improvement of depression symptoms when inflammation is controlled, either with drugs or with and an anti-inflammatory diet. A recent large prospective study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that an anti-inflammatory diet lowered the risk of depression, especially in men.

Can you modify the risk of depression by changing your diet?

A new meta-analysis in Public Health Nutrition gathered the findings of four studies, including about 50,000 people, to see if the inflammatory potential of their diet is linked with developing depression.

The tool used in this and in most research of pro- and anti-inflammatory foods is the Dietary Inflammatory Index. The index is based on thousands of scientific articles, which enabled scoring of every food and nutrient.

The researchers found that a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a higher incidence of depression, and that people eating diets with the highest inflammatory score had a 23 percent higher risk of developing depression.

Foods that protect mood

The anti-inflammatory diet shows promise. So should we get a copy of the Dietary Inflammatory Index and post it on the fridge? Here’s what the index tells us:

Foods and nutrients that have strong anti-inflammatory activity include certain spices and seasonings: turmeric, fiber, tea, wine, ginger; phytochemichals in plant-foods – flavones, flavonols, flavonones, anthocyanidins, isoflavones. They also include vitamins such A, E, D, C, and many from the B family, magnesium, mono and poly unsaturated fats, and omega-3 fats.

Foods and nutrients with pro-inflammatory activity include total fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, protein, refined carbs and iron.

This list, you’ll agree, is not particularly practical and doesn’t sound like a fun way to eat. Luckily, the index is pretty easy to internalize since it pretty much follows a pattern that you may find familiar.

The personification of a pro-inflammatory diet is a stereotypical American diet – low on fruits and veggies, high on highly processed food, meat, refined grain, desserts and sugary drinks.

The epitome of an anti-inflammatory diet would be a classic Mediterranean diet – a diet that highlights vegetables, fruit, spices and herbs, whole grains, garlic, onion, olive oil, fish and wine.

Another way to look at it: A healthy diet – which happens to also score as a low inflammatory diet – might protect from depression and ease its symptoms.

Again, depression is a complex and a very serious disease, its treatment usually requires many modalities, concurrently, and these studies are quite preliminary.

But since we already know that a healthy diet mitigates the risk of so many diseases, a low-inflammatory diet is already worth trying even without conclusive proof. It may also help fight depression. To do so, crowd your plate with foods that fight inflammation: veggies, fruits, whole grains, spices, herbs, nuts. Enjoy these, and there’ll be less room for pro-inflammatory foods such as soda, refined carbs, fried foods, red and processed meat.

Dr. Ayala