Feed your mind right: A guideline on diet in depression

So it’s not only weight loss that needs dietary modification. It has been proved over and over again that diet play one of the key roles to prevent and cure obesity, diabetes, hypertension- all lifestyle diseases. But diet in depression! Surprised?
Yes, if you or any of your loved one is suffering from depression or any mental illness, it’s high time you start focusing on diet. Diet as a part of lifestyle modification has been found to be effective for depression treatment along with need-based counseling and medicine.
No, you are not alone. There are more than 300 million people in the world suffering from depression. If you are in India, you have more than 5 crore people suffering just like you.
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Yes, depression is clinically proven a serious mental health disorder which makes people disable to do even normal day to day activity. If you still think it is a typical urban and affluent class problem, check the latest studies and start educating yourself.
All of us feel sad at times. It is just a normal emotion like anger, fear, happiness, surprise, etc. So being sad or just “feeling depressed” is not the one we are talking about. There are different types of depression depending on multiple factors and all are “real” if not treated on time can affect life to a larger extent.
If you are thinking about what causes depression. The answer is not simple. Research suggests it may cause due to –  neurotransmitter imbalance, faulty mood regulation, genetic factor, specific medical condition, certain medicinal side effects, any stressful life incidence and many more. Now how does diet play a role to better the situation?

Diet in depression – how is it important?

Think about our physical activity. It has gone down almost to zero for many of us. Whereas your brain is working every single second without a break. And now, it is probably working even more than ever. You need to supply energy to keep it running. Food is the source of that energy. Therefore good food is a must to generate a high-quality fuel to keep the brain running sustainable without any break/damage.  A quality diet in depression is important for 4 interrelated reasons –

    • To keep the gut healthy

Do you know gut is your second brain? Yes, your gastrointestinal tract (gut) has a different set of nervous system, which generates many of the same neurotransmitters just like your brain. There is a dense bacterial population in the gut lining. These bacteria help us to digest foods, produce certain vitamins and regulate the immune system. As per a recent study, certain bacteria were found to be reduced in people with depression. Therefore protecting the gut microbiota (balanced bacterial population) is one of the key points for the dietary management of depression.

    • To ensure antioxidants

Poor diet enhance the oxidative stress in the body and release free radicals. These free radicals roam around, attack cells, proteins, DNA and bring changes in the structure which cause multiple health disorders. Usage of antioxidants found to be beneficial for the treatment as well as prevention of depression.
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    • To maintain the hormonal balance

Hormones work together along with enzyme, neurotransmitters to run our system flawlessly. If the amount of any hormone goes up or down under any situation, the entire chain of hormonal balance gets disturbed. Estrogen and cortisol are three major hormones which regulate the mood and play a crucial role in depression. Progesterone controls estrogen. Estrogen boosts neurotransmitter- serotonin, GABA which gives a calming effect and promote sleep. Cortisol, as you know, is the stress hormone. Cortisol inhibits insulin activity and leads to high blood sugar and create multiple other disturbance. All these equilibria need to be supported through a balanced diet in depression.

    • To supply adequate nutrition for generating neurotransmitter

One of the major factors for depression is a chemical imbalance – lesser production of neurotransmitter.
Thus a diet for depression focuses on the adequate supply of amino acids, minerals, and vitamins required for producing neurotransmitter.

What’s the special diet for depression?

You need a diet in depression to create hormonal balance, maintain gut health, supply antioxidants and nutrition for neurotransmitter? Sounds difficult right? But actually doing nothing special should be the motto while planning a diet in depression. A seasonal, local, wholesome, homemade balanced diet with variety is the key to ensure everything. Though it looks simple, but unfortunately not. Let’s look into this in details-

Choose your carbohydrate carefully –

Carbohydrates are a must for getting energy. But where do we get carbohydrates? All your rice, wheat, corn, millets and their products like puffed rice, flaked rice, semolina, bread, noodles, pasta, cornflakes, muesli, oats, popcorn, etc are the major source of your carbohydrate.
Now you need to be mindful to choose the right one. Stop eating ultra-processed (cornflakes, muesli, instant noodles/pasta, biscuits, cookies, commercially baked products, ready to eat or microwave popcorn) carbohydrate.
Choose the less processed version like normal rice, roti, puffed rice (murmura), flaked rice (chirwa), broken wheat (dalia), semolina (sooji), ragi, millets, steel cut oats, corn, homemade popcorn, etc.
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Shall I eat only brown rice or millets?

The idea of having carbohydrate is to supply energy to your body. Overdoing is not required. Eat simple white rice to get energy easily. Once a while (once/twice a week) you may eat brown rice or millets. Wondering why? When you suffer from depression, most likely you have weak digestion, diarrhea, abdominal pain, acidity, etc. Unprocessed whole grains (brown rice/ millets) are rich in fiber which take a long time to digest. So instead of putting an extra burden on your digestive system, eat medium processed cereals to digest them better.

How about chocolate pastry – as it makes me feel good

Chocolate pastry (read muffin/cake/cookies and all other sugar-loaded products) gives you a temporary joy but damage your system from the root. Start saying “no” to such refined carbohydrate.

But why not?

Ultra-processed cornflakes, instant pasta/ noodles, commercially baked items such as cookies, cake, muffin, pastry, ice cream, cola drinks are loaded with refined sugar, refined oil, refined salt, chemicals, and preservatives. Repeated consumption of such products damage the gut lining and influence the growth of “bad bacteria”. Therefore the balance of good and bad bacteria in gut get destroyed which leads to various digestion issues, weaker immunity, inflammation, vitamin deficiency, etc.

Protein is essential –

Protein is the building block of life. If you are vegetarian, don’t panic for protein deficiency. Add natural protein such as pulses, nuts, and seeds in the daily diet. Choose the pulses as per local availability and seasonal variation. Each pulse has a different amino acid profile so instead of having one particular pulse every day, add variety. Eat 3-4 types of pulses every week. This will help to complement the amino acids and ensure high-quality protein.
Eat good quality of fish, egg, chicken, meat, milk and milk products. Remember that hormonal and chemical treatment of cows, chicken, goat, etc is very common these days. So, focus on the quality of such food rather than the quantity. Hormone injected milk, egg, chicken, etc are quite capable to disturb your hormonal balance. So stay alert and eat mindfully.
Tryptophan(an amino acid) is essential to produce serotonin (the neurotransmitter). Along with multiple other factors, it has been found low in patients suffering from depression.  Ensure a supply of tryptophan through pulse, nuts, seeds, egg, milk, fish to make the situation better.
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Fat is fine

Fat is essential for a various reason. Include the right fat in the diet. The study shows population eats food low in omega-3-fatty acid is much likely to suffer from depression. Add nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews), seeds (pumpkin seed, flax seed, sesame seed, melon seed, etc), kachi ghani/ cold pressed oil, ghee, homemade butter in a diet.
Avoid refined oil at all cost. Regular use of refined oil creates inflammation and in turn many other health hazards. You will be shocked to know, all outside commercial foods (packaged or unpacked) are made with refined oil.
So choose your oil wisely and consume in moderation.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals play a major role during depression specifically for their antioxidant properties. Please note products fortified with vitamin A or D does no good to your body. So look for the natural sources. Vitamins like A (beta carotene), B complex (especially niacin, folate, and B12),  C, D, and E are essential in the daily diet. Among minerals- zinc, magnesium, manganese, etc. have been found to play a major role in producing neurotransmitters thus treating as well as preventing depression.
No, don’t get confused. You don’t need to have multivitamin-mineral tablets to get them. Just be mindful to consume plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits on a daily basis. Go by the season and local availability to cut down the unnecessary pesticide load on your body. Be careful to wash them properly before consuming. Drink a glass of lemon juice or 1-2 pieces of amla ( Indian gooseberry) or a guava every day. If it is summer do not abstain yourself from eating a mango. Have all possible vegetables – pumpkin, gourd, tomato, carrot, beetroot, green leafy vegetables as much as possible.

Special attention – Fermented food

Fermented foods are unavoidable for ensuring your gut health. No, you don’t have to spend on probiotics. Start having kanji, idli, overnight soaked rice (panta bhat), curd, homemade pickle (sun-dried), etc to your daily diet. Don’t overdo it. Just make sure every day you are having any one of the fermented food as per your tradition.
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Exercise, sleep, and depression

In most cases, depression is considered a lifestyle disorder. So not the only diet, you have to concentrate on increasing your physical activity and engage yourself in some kind of exercise. It is proved that activity and exercise help to improve mood.
Sleep is another crucial factor in today’s lifestyle.  Sleep helps to reset the hormonal balance and detoxify your body. Research suggests most of the lifestyle disorders are triggered by lack of sleep.
Try to get good sleep. It is non-negotiable and a must.

Bottom Line

You are in pain. A pain which nobody can see. Try to help yourself. Start eating well. Diet for depression is not that difficult. It’s not a fad or fancy diet. All you need is a simple, local, variety of homemade food as per season. Yes, do focus on each word. Each word will guide you to pick the right food. Stick to natural food as much as possible. Eat moderate in amount but concentrate on the quality of food. Have fresh fruits and vegetables along with nut and seeds. Stop eating outside food at all cost. Cut down all refined ingredients – refined sugar, flour, salt, oil. Enjoy homemade food.  Even homemade sweets also. Satisfy all your craving by making a homemade version.
Diet in depression is not like magic that will change the way you feel overnight. But it has the power to bring gradual improvement. Get involved in physical activity and exercise. Start drinking enough water. Try to have a deep sleep. Eat good food in moderation. Continue with need-based medication and regular counseling as a part of your depression treatment. You will be fine soon. We are waiting to see you stand again.

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