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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Experiencing off days where you feel sad is normal. However, if it persists and begins to interfere with your daily life, it could be depression. Because of the stigma around mental health, about 60% of people with depression don’t ask for help (Chand, 2020).
If you’re experiencing depression or at risk of developing it, there are options to help. In addition to medical treatments (psychotherapy and medications), lifestyle changes may help fight off some symptoms of depression. The foods you eat can impact your mood.
This article covers foods that may help depression and some that could make your symptoms worse.
What is depression?
Depression is a mental health condition that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. There are multiple types of depressive disorders, including major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (Chand, 2020).
Researchers believe depression is caused by changes in neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate mood. Potential risk factors for developing depression include:
- Family history of depression
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Death of a loved one
- Major life changes
- Financial stress
- Diseases affecting the nervous system (stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, seizures, etc.)
Symptoms of depression
Depression can show up in various ways. You may experience some of the following common symptoms of depression (Chand, 2020):
- Problems sleeping
- Loss of interest
- Thoughts of worthlessness and feelings of guilt or shame
- Fatigue and low energy
- Loss of motivation
- Trouble concentrating and poor attention
- Changes in movement (such as trouble walking)
- Depressed mood and feelings of sadness
- Suicidal thoughts
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, seek medical attention or contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357. The helpline is available 24/7 as a free service to help provide information and connect you to services in your area.
Depression: symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment
Foods that help fight depression
Carbs, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals all play essential roles in your body, affecting your metabolism, mood, inflammation, and other processes in your body. That means the foods you eat may impact depression symptoms because they can change your energy levels, mood, and how your body feels.
Here are some foods that may help fight depression symptoms:
Flax seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the body. While omega-3s are usually associated with heart health, some research shows they may help reduce depressive disorders (Firth, 2019).
A 2021 study found that consuming flax seeds may improve mental fatigue, a common symptom of depression (Gholami, 2021).
There are about three grams of fiber in one tablespoon of flaxseed. Fiber slows down digestion, helping keep blood sugar more stable throughout the day and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes (McRae, 2018). Large swings from high to low blood sugar may lead to a crashing feeling for mood and energy levels, which may worsen depression symptoms. Flaxseed may help stabilize your blood sugar to prevent that crash.
Green leafy vegetables
Eating your veggies is a great way to fill your diet with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It’s important to all areas of your health to eat your veggies. Those leafy greens may be especially important for depression.
Vitamins and minerals found in veggies, like vitamins A, C, and E, act as antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants help protect cells from damage from oxidative stress, and research shows they help protect your brain health (Rao, 2008).
Green leafy vegetables also provide folate. A 2017 review of research shows that people with depression tend to have lower levels of folate than those without depression (Bender, 2017). So, eating more foods with folate may help to fight off depression symptoms.
Examples of leafy greens include spinach, kale, collard greens, cabbage, romaine lettuce, swiss chard, and arugula.
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Legumes are foods with pods filled with seeds, such as black beans, garbanzo beans, green peas, lentils, and kidney beans. Legumes provide lots of fiber and plant-based protein. Beans are another good source of folate, and their fiber may help keep your blood sugar levels more stable.
Fatty fish is one of the best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Examples of fatty fish include salmon, mackerel, trout, tuna, and sardines. Omega-3 fatty acids may lower your risk of depression by reducing inflammation and producing antidepressant effects (Roa, 2008).
A review of 26 studies showed that people who ate higher amounts of fish had a reduced risk of depression (Li, 2016).
Carrots are a great source of beta-carotene (which the body turns into vitamin A). Vitamin A acts as an antioxidant in the body, so it may help reduce inflammation and protect cells from free radicals.
One study found that low levels of carotenoids (including beta-carotene) predicted the development of depression symptoms (Milaneschi, 2012).
Chia seeds are similar to flax seeds in the nutrients they provide. They are great sources of omega-3s, antioxidants, and fiber. These nutrients may help reduce the risk of depression symptoms and keep energy levels more stable.
Berries are full of antioxidants and fiber. A 2020 research study found that eating blueberries reduced the number of depressive symptoms adolescents reported (Fisk, 2020). More research is needed to fully understand how blueberries impact depression. Still, the research is promising about the benefits of this delicious fruit.
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Turkey provides healthy fat, protein, and the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin that can become disrupted during depressive episodes.
Eating foods with tryptophan may increase sleepiness and feelings of calmness while reducing depressive symptoms (Roa, 2008).
Yogurt and kefir
Researchers have begun to explore the relationship between the gut and the brain. The bacteria that live in the gut may impact mental health and brain function. A 2016 meta-analysis found eating probiotics helped reduce depression (Huang, 2016).
Fermented dairy products, like yogurt and kefir, are good sources of probiotics. Other fermented foods that provide probiotics include sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and kimchi. Also, fiber-rich plants can help feed some of the good bacteria you already have in your gut, potentially reducing inflammation and boosting brain function.
Foods that may increase depression
Your mood and overall health can impact depressive symptoms. Limiting foods that may negatively impact your health and energy levels may help reduce your risk of depression. Some foods that may increase depression include:
Foods high in sugar are less likely to keep you feeling full and may cause large swings in your blood sugar. Research shows higher intake of sugar may increase the risk of depression (Ljungerg, 2020).
Foods commonly high in sugar include many desserts, soda, juice, ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, cereal, candy, and more. Check food labels to know how many grams of added sugar you’re taking in, and be mindful of how sugar impacts your mood.
Processed foods usually contain unhealthy fats, high amounts of salt, and often are stripped of healthy nutrients. Since fiber, vitamins, and minerals are often removed during processing, the foods lose many beneficial nutrients that improve your health and keep your energy stable.
Research shows that eating a lot of processed food increases the risk of developing depression symptoms (Ljungerg, 2020).
Healthy coping skills for anxiety, depression, and anger
Alcohol acts as a depressant in the body and slows the function of the central nervous system. Research suggests the excessive alcohol intake may increase the risk of developing depression (Boden, 2011).
Drinking too much caffeine can interfere with how much and how well you sleep. Research shows lack of sleep increases the risk for depression. A 2016 study found higher caffeine intake in adolescents was associated with more severe depression and insomnia symptoms (Jin, 2016).
Managing your symptoms
Depression is a complex mood disorder, and your risk for developing it depends on your genetics, medical history, and lifestyle. While depression can’t always be prevented, eating a healthy diet and limiting unhealthy foods may help lower your risk.
Diets that focus on eating whole foods, like the Mediterranean diet, are full of whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins, and fiber. Whole food diets may help reduce the risk of developing a mental illness and increase your overall well-being. If you are experiencing depression, don’t be afraid to talk with a trained mental health professional to help you create a plan to feel better. They may recommend therapy and/or medication to help you manage your symptoms, alongside your healthy lifestyle changes.
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Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.