It’s never easy to talk about depression, though it’s become common enough that we all likely know people who are affected. The origin of depression is different for each individual, and there may be multiple causes that are compounded over time. There are few, if any, effective ways to address all of these at once, and medications usually do not deal with the causes of depression.
Diet Affects Mood Through Your Immune System
More thorough treatment may involve considerable modification of one’s approach to life, relationships, daily habits, expectations, work, personal history, and belief systems. Things that trigger mood change are best talked through with an experienced professional who can help navigate a step-by-step path of working through what can be resolved and putting healthy closure on what cannot.
However, studies into depression have discovered that diet can make a sizable impact on mood — and that it does so through the immune system. Poor dietary quality can “feed” depressive symptoms by training immune balance towards inflammation, which in turn affects the brain, heart, and other organs. Diet-induced inflammation affects the body at all levels, making it more difficult to alter the course of depression.
Takeaways for Diet and Mood
While diet alone is not the solution to low mood, healthy eating habits are linked with better mental health. This 2020 study carried out in Australia found that nutrition instruction plus dietary improvement (including fish oil, containing omega-3 fats) made a beneficial difference in individuals with depression.
Recent research has also revealed other valuable takeaways on diet and mood:
- Higher nutrient density goes hand in hand with a better mood. Higher nutrient density means getting more minerals, plant nutrients, vitamins, and other non-calorie nutrients for every calorie you consume as fats, carbs, and protein.
- Omega-3 fats are among the most needful calories you can get, because they beneficially influence mood as well as immune function.
- The diet pattern most strongly associated with positive mood is high in veggies, fruit, olive oil, fish, and whole grains, and low in animal-based foods. It’s a lot like the classic Mediterranean diet, which also happens to be famous for limiting inflammation as we get older.
- The gut has been called “the second brain” because many chemicals used by the brain are found in the gut — some of them are synthesized there — and because gut health has such a profound influence on mood. A great example of this is serotonin, a substance used by the brain in regulating mood, and a target of many mood-altering drugs. Most serotonin is made in the gut! Feeding healthy microbes that live in your gut with the healthy pattern described above is a very “brainy” way of keeping your chemistry trained for better cognition and mood.
- A diet pattern consistently linked to poorer mental health is high in refined grains, red meat, sweets, high-fat dairy products, and potatoes, and low in produce. And yes, this Western-style food approach is also associated with inflammation, especially during aging.
- The human body has evolved to carry out the kind of intense physical activity that allowed us to survive over the millennia. Exercise stimulates the brain and coordinates its function with muscles in ways that nothing else can replicate. Staying active is a central determinant of mental health, regardless of what form it takes.