Can food make you depressed?

Depression is a difficult companion.  For me it is like having an unwanted and malevolent daemon, sometimes lurking on the periphery of my consciousness, sometimes right up close and tripping me up and sometimes smothering me completely. It can stalk me stealthily for weeks, edging closer and closer, or it can swoop upon me suddenly.

When in its clutches, I experience loss of all joy, a sense of separation and isolation, a feeling of total pointlessness, that I am an irrelevance and that everything I do is worthless.   This feeling can last for a day, a couple of days, sometimes a week, a couple of weeks, sometimes months.  I am very lucky though, I have never been completely debilitated. My way of dealing with it is to withdraw – not necessarily the best tactic for managing a feeling of isolation I admit, and I apologise if I ever seem stand-offish or dis-engaged, I don’t mean to be rude, I am just coping.

Although everyone experiences depression in their own way, it is a sad fact that a lot of people do experience it at some time in their life.  In the UK alone the statistics are saddening; according to the Mental Health Foundation 1 in 5 people have a diagnosis of clinical depression in any given year.  And there must be many, many more people who, like me, are not diagnosed and therefore outside these statistics.  What is more disturbing is that rates of depression in the UK are 10 times what they were in 1945 and major depression is becoming the No 1 psychological disorder in the western world. It is growing in all age groups, in virtually every community, but the growth is seen most in the young, especially teens – the very same demographic that is experiencing such a dramatic rise in levels of obesity and Type II Diabetes. At this rate of increase, depression will be the second most disabling condition in the world by 2020, second only to heart disease.

Diet and Depression

‘Depression’ by Ajgiel

What is happening that is causing this huge problem?   I am not a psychologist, but I would imagine that the causes of depression are many and varied with interlinkings and overlappings that are as individual as the people concerned. Sometimes depression is situational, the result of bereavement, grief, dramatic change of circumstance for the worse or shitty circumstances that are not changing for the better.  For others, the cause is less clear.  Many people today (especially young people) who have seemingly ‘normal’ lives, a warm bed, an intact and loving family and plenty to eat are still plagued with depression.  It would seem they have no obvious outward reason to feel depressed, and yet they do.  With all the added, self-defeating misery that comes from feeling guilty about feeling bad.

What has changed since 1945?

The answer, of course, is that many things have changed.   We now live in a way that could not have been conceived 80 or 100 years ago. We are bombarded by micro and radio waves, many of us live in polluted cities, we operate under huge levels of stress and we consume more information in a week than our early ancestors absorbed in a lifetime.

It can all seem a bit overwhelming, but there is one area where we can take control.

Prior to WW2 our diet consisted almost exclusively of organic produce.  People ate local food that was grown by themselves or by someone who lived nearby.  Even for city dwellers, fresh food was brought into town everyday from the farms in the surrounding countryside, not irradiated and flown half way round the world.  On the whole meat was a bit of a treat and, apart from high days and holidays, was used to eke out and add flavour to what was basically vegetable stew – think Lancashire Hot Pot, Pea and Ham soup, Cornish Pasty.  Depending on where you lived, the diet consisted mostly of complex carbohydrates from vegetables and grains, saturated fats (butter, meat), and the odd bit of fish.  Milk was a natural un-homogenised product that was delivered to the doorstep each morning and went off by the following day. People cooked at home, used up left-overs and only served cake when they had guests. Coca-Cola and hamburgers were at that time a barely audible Siren call.

Diet and Depression

If nothing else, our shops have changed in the last 80 years

Our bodies can’t process processed food

For the last 60 years our food has become more and more de-natured as each year passes. We are bombarded with what seems like an endless choice of products and brands.  But, on closer inspection, there is no choice at all, nothing but false alternatives; multiple variations on the repeated themes of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable fat and bleached flour.  Add in quantities of plasticisers, flour ‘improvers’, colourings, flavourings, sweeteners and preservatives, and you have a noxious concoction that is, literally as it turns out, depressing in the extreme.

This modern diet of highly processed foods, containing all sorts of ingredients we don’t understand and which our systems can’t recognise, creates amongst other things  an acid environment in our bodies which in turn leads to inflammation.   Inflammation is the precursor to all disease but there are direct causal links between inflammation and depression. A team at Emory University in Atlanta has established  a correlation between high levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) in the blood, a prime marker for inflammation, and depression.

The way it works is this.  Inflammation is our normal and natural response to trauma or attack by pathogens, it is part of the body’s natural healing mechanism.  When we eat an unbalanced diet or one that contains a lot of substances that our body doesn’t recognise as food (such as hydrogenated fats, chemical preservatives etc) our natural calibration systems are thrown out of whack and a healing response is triggered. Whilst this healing response is very useful in short term situations, like healing a graze or raising our temperature to deal with a cold, it is very bad for us when it becomes systemic as it does when the foods we consume daily trigger this response.  All sorts of horrible things happen in this situation and eventually we become subject to all the lifestyle diseases that are prevalent today – amongst other things, our cells become unresponsive to insulin, we lay down plaque in our veins, and we also become depressed.

Modern production techniques attack our internal messaging systems

In addition to the highly inflammatory sugars, fats and additives in our food, industrialisation has meant that our environment is just full of hormone disruptors. Phtalates, parabens, triclosan, di-ethanols etc, found in practically every FMCG product are added either as performance or production enhancers or simply leach out of the plastic packaging that surrounds them (I’m looking at you, Styrofoam).  These xeno-estrogens work as hormone and micro-biome dys-regulators and in combination with an inflammatory diet put our thyroids under constant attack.  The thyroid is the master-mind behind our entire endocrine system – the system that creates and transmits all the hormones that regulate and monitor our bodily functions, moods and natural rhythms. When under attack in this way the thyroid can either become hyper-active (hyperthyroidism which can create feelings of anxiety, tension and irritability) or under-active (hypothyroidism, associated with depression, loss of interest, weight gain).  In extreme cases there are auto-immune diseases of the thyroid such as Grave’s Disease or Hashimoto’s; but even if your thyroid is only marginally under-par, it can lead to the feelings of anxiety or depression mentioned above. And it’s not just our mental well-being that’s at risk; the sperm count is falling across the industrialised world and many of these additives are known carcinogens.

Diet and depression

Thrush on a plate

Happiness is a healthy gut

The third way that diet can impact our mood is via our digestive system. It is now known that there is a two-way link between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. When operating optimally, our brains and our guts work together to produce and manage our immune system and the bodily levels of Tryptophan and its beautiful daughter, Seratonin (the happiness hormone). Unfortunately, modern diets are a prime cause of  ‘dysbiosis’ – the situation when our gut flora become de-natured and unbalanced. This ‘microbiome’ in our gut is crucial to the partnership between our brain and our tummy and is therefore absolutely key to our health.  In order to keep the micro-biome in good working order, we need to consume a diet high in ‘prebiotics’ ie the sort of food that the good bacteria like to eat – aka fresh veggies and fermented foods (saurkraut, kimchi, yoghurt).  The bad bacteria and yeasts love diets high in sugars and refined carbohydrates and when these foods are in predominance the baddies thrive at the expense of the goodies.  This can result in the body being over-run by pathogens such as Candida which produce waste products that are toxic to our systems and are known to alter our mood and thought processes for the worse.

So, when the diet is poor not only can the gut not produce enough seratonin to keep us balanced, we develop an overgrowth of something that actively makes us miserable. On top of all that, unhealthy bacteria and yeasts cause us to crave more of the things they like to eat anyway – such as doughnuts, milk and jammy dodgers – and so we get swept into a self-perpetuating cycle of doom.

Maybe, one of the best ways we can support ourselves is to eat the sort of real, natural and unadulterated food we were designed to consume.

There is good news!

I am not a scientist and I am not about to trivialise the causes or experiences of depression or disease for anybody and I don’t want to over-simplify a complex matter.  But, whatever the trigger, it does seem possible that something as accessible as the food we eat could alleviate, or at least mitigate against, many of the physical causes or experiences of depression. And that’s something I find pretty empowering. We have enough to deal with without being made miserable by our food.  Anything that can diminish the causes or even the symptoms of depression (or any other kind of ill health for that matter) – even if it’s only a little bit – has to be worth taking seriously. We all know the link between a good diet and physical well-being, how amazing if simple choices around what we eat could positively impact our levels of happiness too!

It is possible that the kindest thing we could do for ourselves would be to go back to eating like our grand-parents and great-grandparents.

Since I set out to find ways to feel happier and healthier, it has certainly been my experience that taking positive choices in relation to my diet has dramatically increased my sense of well-being and reduced those horrible feelings of depression.  Of course I still have bad days, but the point is the journey, not just the destination, and the fact that we are all able to make simple changes right now, today, that will positively impact our health is, I think, extremely liberating.

Here is a list of the sort of foods you could consider eating every day to beat depression (and most other kinds of ‘un-wellness’):

  1. Leafy greens – full of anti-oxidants and phyto-nutrients to alkalise the body, reduce inflammation and support healthy gut bacteria
  2. Beans – a natural combination of protein and carbohydrate that helps regulate blood sugar
  3. Walnuts – rich in Vitamin E and Omega 3 fatty acids, both of which counter inflammation
  4. Mushrooms – brilliant prebiotics with all sorts of wonderful anti-inflammatory benefits too
  5. Onions – uber brilliant superfood
  6. Berries – low in sugar and high in flavenoids and phyto-nutrients, anti oxidant and anti-inflammatory
  7. Good fats – avocados, coconut oil, ghee, cold pressed virgin olive oil
  8. Dark chocolate – loaded with magnesium, zinc and other minerals which all support thyroid activity and general health
  9. Seafood and seaweed – natural sources of iodine to help your thyroid function
  10. Bone broths and stocks – deeply nourishing, calming and soothing, help you sleep

 

And here are some of the things to cut back on as much as you can:

  1. Refined sugar and refined carbohydrates.  Just when you most want a packet of Hob-Nobs, know they are a false friend.
  2. Dairy.  Like sugar and refined carbs , modern dairy is very acid forming and can be a major cause of inflammation, especially if consumed in quantity
  3. Bad fats – hydrogenated oils, most industrially produced vegetable oils (Sunflower, Canola etc), margarines are all high in inflammatory Omega 6 and other oxidising compounds
  4. Colouring and preservatives – E-numbers are generally a sign of something highly processed and have been associated with ADHD, asthma, aspergers and alzheimers (and that’s just the ‘A’s)
  5. Fatty food wrapped in plastic – especially fish, meat and cheese – chemical compounds leach from the plastic into the food.  Also NEVER put hot food in plastic, use plastic containers in a microwave or let cling film touch hot food.
  6. Non-fermented soy products. Soy sauce and miso are fine, but soy milk, tofu etc contain high amounts of xeno-estrogens and are easy to consume in quantities that can disrupt hormones
  7. Excessive alcohol – a depressant than alters your mood state
  8. Excessive coffee – a stimulant that interrupts the mechanisms for managing insulin
  9. Any kind of artificial sweetener – some, like aspartame, are directly linked to depression and most are just a whole load of crap you can do without
  10. Ibuprofen – it has a numbing effect which can intensify depression

 

 The title image is a picture I took of the Berlin Wall, complete with blobs of chewing gum. Somehow a perfect summing up of the false divisions we create and the horrible things we inadvertently put in our mouths.

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