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Research Shows Diet Can Potentially Cause—and Prevent—depression

Dr. Aneel Shafi

3 min read

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Recent research from University College London has helped shed light on the relation between depression and the role of nutrition. The researchers examined more than 40 trials and analyzed the data of over 32000 adults to find the relationship between food and mental health.

The results found that people who had a diet full of quality food, had a reduced risk of about 33 percent, as compared to people who did not follow the diet. What else does research say about food and mental health? Read on to find out:

What type of diet is good for mental health?

In the aforementioned research, people who had reduced risk of depression were following the Mediterranean diet. This diet, by all accounts, is based on 100 percent unprocessed ingredients. In includes healthy dietary fats, fresh produce and small lean meats like salmon or tuna. Moreover, there is a limited intake of unhealthy sugar involved. Mediterranean diet has been used previously to combat hypertension and other vascular diseases. Previously, it was considered to be the healthiest diet in the world.

This diet not only focuses on cutting down the processed stuff, but it is more about what you are adding in—the omega 3 fatty acids, the healthy fatty fish, and the raw nuts and olive oil. Of these, the omega 3-fatty acids could have a vital role in the reduction of anxiety and depression.

Prior research from 2011 where medical students increased their intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found that anxiety reduced by 20 percent in these subjects. Additionally, another research in Spain found that people who followed the Mediterranean lifestyle closest had a reduced risk of about 50 percent of depression as compared to those who weren’t following the lifestyle and diet.

Another diet that can improve mental health and wellbeing with reduced risk of anxiety and depression is the DASH diet. This diet incorporates whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat food with limited sugar intake.

The DASH diet is more about cutting out sugar than the Mediterranean diet. A study conducted in 2017, found that intake of sugar—about 67 or more grams a day—in men, was linked with a 23 percent higher risk of developing depression and anxiety over five years.

Data from Rush Medical University Center, found that in comparison to the western diet, the followers of DASH diet were much less likely to develop depression over six years.

Relationship between food and mind:

People who are attempting to cut down processed and sugary food experience symptoms like physical withdrawal, food cravings, headaches, anxiety, mood swings and poor sleep. These symptoms are similar to people who are attempting to cut down marijuana and smoking cigarettes.

This suggests that processed foods can create a kind of addiction in the brain—as explained by researcher Erica Schulte, at the University of Michigan. According to the participants, these symptoms are worst between the second and fifth day of reduced junk food consumption, exactly similar to the time span of drug withdrawal symptoms.

According to Schulte, previously the similarities between consumption of ‘heavy’ intake of processed food and substance addiction were noted in terms of biological effects and behavior.

However, it is the first time that withdrawal symptoms are being noted by researchers when junk food consumption is reduced. This could open up a whole new avenue for research, as food addiction could be a part of behavior and psychology rather than an issue of nutrition.

While the exact science behind it is not completely understood, we do understand that vitamins and minerals help in the synthesis of serotonin, which is a kind of happy hormone. Moreover, too more sugar intake has found to decrease the protein in the brain known as BDNF—brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which plays a major role in the development of anxiety and depression.

Another organ that can potentially play a role in our mental health—according to recent research—is our gut. Gut microbiota could communicate with our brain and other systems that affect depression and anxiety. This microbiota, in turn, is linked to healthy food intake.

How can this research help combat depression?

Changing nutrition could be a great addition to traditional therapy like medication and CBT, in a safer and more cost-effective way. Moreover, it could be a great introduction to self-care. Nutritional intervention can improve mental health in two ways: decreasing unhealthy habits, and improving the healthy habits.

When treating depression with traditional therapy, say a doctor and medication, it is also the process of working with a doctor that helps a patient, while the actual medication can account for maybe 15 percent of biological changes. Similarly, the change in diet and nutrition can affect brain health in a similar yet non-invasive way.

In conclusion, it is when you start taking care of yourself and taking control of your diet that you get re-moralization. That’s the real antidepressant in fact.

No treatment or therapy works 100 percent for everyone. If you are suffering from anxiety or depression, your first avenue should be seeking help from a healthcare provider. However, parallel therapy through good diet and nutritional changes can also bolster mental health and recover from depression and anxiety.

Stressful minds can turn into unhealthy bodies; if you have a stressful situation in life, then take time to unwind and catchup with your health.

Book an appointment with top psychologists in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi through oladoc.com, or call our helpline at 042-3890-0939 for assistance to find the RIGHT professional for your concerns.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are intended to raise awareness about common health issues and should not be viewed as sound medical advice for your specific condition. You should always consult with a licensed medical practitioner prior to following any suggestions outlined in this article or adopting any treatment protocol based on the contents of this article.

Dr. Aneel Shafi
Dr. Aneel Shafi - Author Dr. Aneel Shafi is a Psychiatrist practicing in Lahore. He has MBBS and FCPS (Psychiatry) degrees and been helping patients deal with mental health issues for over 7 years. You can book an appointment with Dr. Aneel Shafi through oladoc

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