Depression – The dietary Link



It has been estimated that about one in five adult Australians will be affected by depression during their lifetime, and for women this condition is significantly more common than for men. The World Health Organization believes that by 2020 depression will become the second biggest health concern on the planet.The Australian depression charity, Beyond Blue provides a checklist of symptoms on its website that can be used to provide a rough self-diagnosis. The two major factors are either being in a depressed mood, or experiencing a loss of interest or pleasure in activities. If these continue over a period of two weeks then depression should be considered. Secondary symptoms include weight loss or gain, sleeping difficulties, slow or hastened movements, tiredness, feeling worthless, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts about death.

Mainstream Depression Therapies

The two most common treatments for depression are pharmaceuticals – that can produce a wide range of side effects and psychological techniques. These include antidepressant drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft that alter the brain’s chemistry, and block the body’s biochemical pathways, and Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Narrative Therapy.

Other techniques used to tackle the condition include Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming (EMDR.) Moderate exercise has also been found to be helpful. The endorphins released when walking have a mood-enhancing effect, and spending time in the sun increases exposure to Vitamin D, which has been found to have anti-depressive effects.

Nutritional Therapies

Over the past decade, some researchers have investigated depression and other forms of mental illness from a very different angle in ways that could revolutionise how this condition is treated.

They believe that nutritional deficiencies, resulting in an imbalance in nutrient and neurotransmitter levels, are often a large part of the picture. This view is backed up by numerous studies, and in some cases these indicate that a nutritional approach can be more effective than antidepressant drugs.

It has been discovered that serious nutritional imbalances are far more common among people with a mental illness than for the rest of the population. If a person affected in this way is exhibiting symptoms caused by such an imbalance, even referring to ‘mental illness’ is perhaps a misnomer.

Two important 20th century pioneers who attempted to tackle mental illness through a nutritional paradigm are Carl Pfeiffer (US) and Dr. Abram Hoffer (Canada.) Both worked in the field of ‘orthomolecular medicine’, a term coined by Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling that indicates the treatment of disease using substances that are natural to the body. Pfeiffer took the view that if a drug can alter the brain’s biochemistry, a combination of nutrients is capable of doing the same thing, with no side-effects.

At the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Illinois, five distinct unbalanced nutritional and biochemical profiles have been identified among depressed people, who are offered specialist testing to determine which nutrients they need to take to correct the imbalance. From a survey of about two hundred people experiencing depression, 92% showed some improvement after following the program, and about two thirds were able to discontinue their medication.

Nutritional approaches have also been found to improve a person’s responsiveness to psychotherapy as an avenue for tackling depression.

Omega 3 Connection

Over time, a clearer picture has been emerging of which nutrients and dietary elements play the most important role in helping to prevent depression and alleviate its symptoms.

The Omega 3 oils EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the body, and are needed for maintaining the brain’s nerve cell membranes. As the typical Western diet is rich in sources of Omega 6 oils, it is beneficial to try to achieve a

1:1 ratio between Omega 3 and Omega 6 by seeking out sources of Omega 3. Some people suggest eating fatty fish two to three times a week.

Statistics from around the world show a negative correlation between depression rates and seafood consumption. In Japan, where seafood consumption is high, depression rates are extremely low. The difficulty here is that fish stocks everywhere are becoming steadily depleted, and with a growing population the world will probably need to rely more on vegetable sources for its future Omega 3 intake.

In the last stages of pregnancy, the mother’s body is commonly depleted of DHA, which is believed to contribute to the problem of postnatal depression. Taking a supplement can be helpful at this time.

Other Dietary Factors

The B-group vitamins are vital for regulation of the nervous system, and depression heads the list of B-vitamin deficiency symptoms. The winter depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D) is a condition from cooler climates that is linked to Vitamin D deficiencies caused by a lack of sunlight. It is a good idea to try to get some sunlight every day, if possible.

Zinc is an important anti-depression mineral, and deficiencies are found in a high proportion of the population. It tends to operate in a see-saw relationship with copper, where severe zinc depletion has been known to push copper up to toxic levels. This type of imbalance is far more common among women than among men, and is also associated with ADHD, autism and behaviour disorders. It can be detected using hair analysis.

Due to a lack of motivation, depressed people often fail to take adequate nourishment, which can start a downward cycle unless checked. Researchers have found that the depressed are more likely to have a high acid diet, and that their health could benefit from eating a majority of alkaline-forming foods. It is also worth keeping in mind that nutrients from food can be depleted by tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, caffeine, stress, refined sugar and refined flour.

Foods that may trigger depression include casein (found in milk and cheese), chocolate, the artificial sweetener aspartame, caffeine (in tea, coffee, chocolate, cola drinks), and gluten. Some people are also convinced that a strong link exists between hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and depression. Sometimes depression is the first sign that a person has this condition.

The Role of Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are chemicals used by the brain that play an important role in regulating mood and their levels are affected by both antidepressant drugs and food intake.

Three key neurotransmitters that can be linked to depression are serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. They are produced in the body via the process of methylation, a chemical reaction that is essential to many physiological functions. Undermethylation is likely to lead to a deficiency of one or more of these neurotransmitters, and this condition can be reversed using dietary strategies. Proteins in the diet are important, as they are rich in amino acids that serve as the building blocks from which neurotransmitters are made.

Tryptophan is a chemical that produces the metabolite 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP.) Also known as serotonin, this is available as a supplement that is often taken to tackle depression. Tryptophan-rich foods include fish, turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, avocados, bananas and wheatgerm. Dopamine and norepinephrine-rich choices include almonds, avocados, bananas, pumpkin seeds, dairy products, lima beans, and sesame seeds.

Some websites warn that low-carbohydrate diets can trigger depression, due to the fact that they result in low levels of tryptophan and serotonin. It is believed that the herb, St John’s wort, which is widely used for depression, works by raising levels of dopamine and serotonin while reducing adrenaline.

Changes Slow in Coming

Despite a growing body of evidence to show that nutritional approaches towards depression are safe and, in most cases, effective, they still remain on the fringes, having failed to make any significant impact on the options commonly offered at psychiatrists’ clinics and doctors’ surgeries.

Obtaining Anti-Depression Nutrients From Foods

As an alternative to taking supplements, or as an additional booster, these are some rich food sources of a range of nutrients that play a role in tackling depression, ranked in order of nutrient-density:


Lettuce, asparagus, mushroom, spinach, sunflower seeds, tuna, celery, peas, tomato, eggplant.


Mushroom, liver, spinach, lettuce, asparagus, silverbeet,broccoli, egg, yoghurt, milk.


Mushrooms, tuna, chicken, liver, asparagus, salmon, lettuce, lamb, turkey, tomato.


Mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, liver, sunflower seeds, tomato, strawberries, grapefruit, yoghurt, egg.


Spinach, capsicum, garlic, tuna, cauliflower, banana, celery, cabbage, mushroom, asparagus.


Meat, seafood, yoghurt, milk, egg.


Capsicum, parsley, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, lettuce, brussel sprouts, pawpaw, kale, grapefruit.

depression.jpg VITAMIN D

Sunlight, salmon, shrimp, milk, cod, egg.


Spinach, kelp, molasses, silverbeet, yoghurt, lettuce, kale, cheese, celery, milk.


Parsley, spinach, silverbeet, lettuce, molasses, tofu, kelp,  green beans, leek, kale.


Silverbeet, spinach, kelp, basil, squash, pumpkin seeds, molasses, broccoli, cucumber, flaxseed


Lettuce, spinach, pineapple, raspberries, silverbeet, kale, maple syrup, molasses, garlic, grapes.


Silverbeet, lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, celery, fennel, broccoli, squash, cucumber, molasses


Liver, mushrooms, spinach, beef, lamb, squash, asparagus, silverbeet, miso, shrimp.


Flaxseeds, walnuts, salmon, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, brussel sprouts, squash, tofu.

It seems as though our culture, which is obsessed with the quick fix, prefers to avoid more in-depth investigations that set out to trace the causes of depression rather than just masking the symptoms. People interested in nutritional approaches to depression will need to carry out their own research for a while longer.