Thursday, March 29, 2018 by Isabelle Z.
Depression can be a difficult illness to manage. Most people think of it largely as a mental illness, but the effects it can have on a person’s physical health are significant. For example, those suffering from depression are more likely than others to eat a poor diet that jeopardizes their heart health. The relationship between diet and mental health is a two-way street, and understanding it can lead to improved treatments.
Doctors are very quick to prescribe antidepressants for depressed patients, and this approach is flawed because of their poor efficacy and serious side effects. It also completely ignores a crucial aspect of emotional well-being: a person’s diet.
American medical schools are often criticized for their lack of nutritional education, so it’s not surprising that this topic doesn’t get a lot of attention. However, there is an entire field within medicine, nutritional psychiatry, that knows just how important what you eat is to every aspect of your mental health.
For example, it’s known that inflammation in the brain is behind many mental health problems. This inflammation starts in the gut when nutrients are lacking, which is why consuming omega 3 fatty acids, probiotics and magnesium have all been associated with mood improvements.
When it comes to depression and poor diet, it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg question. It can be hard to say in some cases whether a person’s poor diet caused their depression or their depression led them to eat an unhealthy diet. However, there is an undeniably higher risk of heart problems and poor eating habits in depressed people. This can make overcoming depression even more difficult as the resultant medical problems can seriously impact mood.
A study in the Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism concluded that depressed adults could improve their eating habits by paying better attention to the nutritional values of their food. This is easier said than done, however, as depressed people tend to lack the motivation needed to make healthy eating choices. Indeed, depression is considered a risk factor for heart problems, with one study revealing that a heart attack survivor with depression’s risk of death was three times that of survivors who aren’t depressed.
If doctors were as eager to discuss the role of nutrition in mental health as they are to pull out their prescription pad, it could go a long way toward alleviating these problems. Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil and fish and less animal-based food have a lower risk of depression. Conversely, those who eat a diet high in red and processed meats, sweets, and refined grains have a higher risk of depression.
It works both ways, as the Australian SMILES study proved. Researchers found that depressed people who ate a modified Mediterranean diet had significantly greater reductions in their depression scores after just 12 weeks than those who ate a typical diet. In fact, nearly a third of those who adopted this healthy way of eating noted a remission in their depression symptoms, making the results better than chemical antidepressants.
In that study, participants were given nutritional counseling, along with sample food and recipes, to set them on the right track. While motivation remains a big obstacle for many people with depression, these results show that it is well worth the effort to guide depressed patients toward better eating choices, not only to help protect their heart health but also to help them treat the illness in the first place.
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