Depression: is your diet making you sad?


How to deal with depression?

Nutritional balance is the foundation for emotional balance.

With the hours of sun diminishing and the days getting colder and darker as winter approaches, it is easier to experience low mood.

This is absolutely normal, as with less Vitamin D, activation of the happy neurotransmitter serotonin is impaired.

Before you hole up for winter or take an handful of anxiolytics and antidepressants, make sure to establish nutritional balance, which is the foundation for emotional balance, despite being ignored by most psychiatrists and practitioners.

Depression is rated by the World Health Organisation as the leading cause of disease burden amongst high income countries.

Depression is an increasingly common disorder that is characterised by states of anhedonia (a pervasive low mood), reduced energy, concentration, attention and memory as well as slowness in achieving tasks, low self esteem, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, states of agitation, sleep and eating disturbances and can lead to ideas or acts of self harm.

Despite food does not have the power to change dramatic life conditions, it does have the ability to regulate nutritional deficits associated with biochemical dysregulation, giving you mental clarity, energy and balanced mind to take charge of your life.

If you are feeling down, continue reading and learn how to cook yourself happy and vibrant !

The mechanisms of depression

There are several causes to the disease, including genetic and early life shocks such as abuse or neglect in early stages of life, but what mostly contribute to trigger the illness is stress.

Stress refers to environmental factors such as significant life events as well as physiological such as endocrine abnormalities.

These two factors are often concatenated and one evokes the other, resulting in the following main events:

1) Stress induces endocrine imbalance

Stress HPA axis
Dinan T. G. and Cryan J. F.(2012)Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: Implications for psychoneuroendocrinology.

The Hypotalamus Pitutary Adrenal (HPA) axis produces abnormal levels of steroid hormones, glucocorticoids like cortisol, in response to psychological and physical stressors.

It has been shown that patients with depression have high plasma levels of cortisol, a compound that regulates the sympathetic system, increasing heart rate and contributing to increase the feelings of anxiety as well dysregulated metabolism of glucose (which can lead to abdominal obesity and further low self esteem).

2) Stress induces changes in the brain

High levels of stress directly impairs the size of the hippocampus, decreasing memory, concentration and cognition.

Brain scan from patients with depression show atrophy at dendrites in this brain region, resulting in less inter-communication between brain cells and “stagnant thinking”.

Chronic stressors, like many toxins we are exposed to, directly contribute to this and thus is important to empower our brain with the right foods.

Radley, J. J., Sisti, H. M., Hao, J., Rocher, A. B., McCall, T., Hof, P. R., McEwen, B. S., and Morrison, J. H. (2004). Chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex. Neuroscience 12
Radley, (2004). Chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex.

3) Stress lowers serotonin levels

Serotonergic dysregulation (specifically at postsynaptic 5-HT1A receptors and somatodendritic 5-HT1A) is thought to be the consequence of overexposure to corticosteroids.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter present in a multitude of brain pathways. It influences greatly behaviour as it controls arousal, attention, sleep, feeding and mood patterns.

It is made in the body and brain from an amino acid called tryptophan, which can be found in the diet.

Deficiency in tryptophan is likely to make you depressed.  Exercisesunlight, love-making and reducing your stress level also tend to promote serotonin production.

Most of antidepressant drugs work as to increase this neurotransmitter.

The right food to fight low mood

1) Lower your stress (hormone)

  • Eat Spinach

The magnesium in these leafy greens help balance your body’s production of cortisol. Try mixing it raw with a citrus fruit for maximising the health benefits and flavour.

  • Beans and Barley

Not only do they offer a good source of carbs, but contain a phospholipid, called Phosphatidylserine, which is located in cell membranes and that help counteract the adverse effects of cortisol, helping you feeling calm and improving your sleep.

  • C Vitamin and beta-carotene

Research has shown that beta-carotene and vitamin C-rich produce, help slow the production of cortisol.

Good sources of vitamin C are found in blueberries, broccoli, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, peppers, potatoes, strawberries, tomato.

Good sources of beta-carotene are found in apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, collards, peaches, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potatoes.

Barley, cannellini beans minestrone, with spinach and carrots
Barley, cannellini beans minestrone, with spinach and carrots
  • Dark Chocolate

The naturally occurring antioxidants in dark chocolate can help your body decrease inflammation and slow cortisol production. The results of one study indicated that consuming about 40 grams per day reduced cortisol levels. You don’t have to feel guilty about this indulgence – just limit it to a piece or two.

2) Avoid refined sugars

There is a direct link between mood and blood sugar balance.

All carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose and your brain runs on glucose.

The more uneven your blood sugar supply the more uneven your mood.

Eating lots of refined sugar is going to give you sudden peaks of glucose in your blood.

Symptoms that this is going on, include fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision.

Since the brain depends on an even supply of glucose it is no surprise to find that peaks or lack of sugar has been implicated in aggressive behaviour, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

In order to allow your brain feeling good, you need to feed it. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and fruits are great sources of slow releasing carbohydrates.

Have a couple of portions at each meal and you will notice a clearer mind.

3) Decrease neurotoxicity = less toxic thoughts

Asparagus avocado sushi
Asparagus avocado sushi

It has been shown that daily supplementation of omega 3’s fatty acid EPA has even superior anti-depressant action than DHA, providing a great natural anti-inflammatory agent.

EPA is directly available from seaweed or second hand from mackarel, herrings, salmon.

High blood levels of homocysteine have been linked to a variety of disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Homocysteine raises as blood levels of B-vitamins folic acid, B6 or B12 decrease and this has been directly linked to higher likelihood of developing depression as well as less responsiveness from anti-depressant drugs.

Studies comparing the effects of giving an SSRI (a family of anti-depressant) with either a placebo or with folic acid, reported that 93% of patients combining medication with folic acid improved their symptoms.

These studies also show that more patients, treated with folate only, experienced a reduction in their symptoms of greater than 50% after ten weeks compared to those on anti-depressants.

Having a high level of homocysteine, (with plasma levels higher than 15), doubles the odds of developing depression. The ideal level is below 7, and certainly below 10. The average level is 10-11. The higher your level the more likely folic acid will work for you.

Asparagus are high in folate, as well as avocados. Cashews, which are rich in zinc, can also lower homocysteine.

4) Increase your serotonin levels

Serotonin synthesis and release mechanisms
Serotonin synthesis and release mechanisms

As aforementioned, serotonin (or 5-HT) is a fundamental neurotransmitter made by the conversion of dietary tryptophan by the enzyme Tryptophan Hydroxylase. Serotonin is further conversed onto melatonin, the “sleep transmitter”.

Tryptophan can be found in many protein rich foods such as spirulina (an algae), soybeans, eggs, bananas, oatmeal and fish.

Serotonin is usually released with carbohydrates, so make sure to have a lot of fruit and whole grains near.

5) Intolerant mood may be hiding food intolerance

Some foods are associated with mood problems. If you experience digestive symptoms including diarrhoea, constipation or bloating and cramps it may be a good idea to test for food intolerance. Another symptom that is usually associated with difficulty on processing food is unexplained anaemia.

Gluten intolerance (the protein found in wheat, rye and barley) is vastly underdiagnosed and it does not only interfere with your digestion but your mood, concentration and arousal may be affected too.

In a huge population study, Coeliac Disease (a severe intolerance to gluten) was associated with an 80% increased risk for depression.

Dairy is also often hard to digest and again this can lead to unhappy gut which is incredibly related to overall mood.

Supplementing with probiotics and digestive enzymes before your meals is a very helpful practice to aid your system processing food.


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Nauert, R. (2014). Vitamin D Linked to Seasonal Depression.Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2014

Dinan T. G. and Cryan J. F.(2012)Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: Implications for psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychoneuroendocrinology37(9):1369-78

Varghese, F.P. and Brown, S.E. (2001) The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Major Depressive Disorder: A Brief Primer for Primary Care Physicians. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry3(4): 151–155

McEwen, B.S. (2005) Glucocorticoids, depression, and mood disorders: structural remodeling in the brain. Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental 54(5): 20-23

Mgarinos, A.M. McEwen B, et al (1996) Chronic Psychosocial Stress Causes Apical Dendritic Atrophy of Hippocampal CA3 Pyramidal Neurons in Subordinate Tree Shrews. The Journal of Neuroscience 16(10): 3534-3540;

Radley, J.J. et al. (2004) Chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex. Neuroscience. 125(1):1-6.

Viola Brugnatelli

Viola Brugnatelli is a Neuroscientist specialised in Cannabinoid circuitry & GPCRs signalling. Her academy and research training let her gain extensive experience on medical cannabis and terpenes both from preclinical as well as clinical perspective. In her vision, collective human knowledge behold the power for overall improvement of life, thus, it should be accessible and shareable. Viola is Founder of the science online magazine Nature Going Smart, and works as a consultant for companies & individual patients, as a speaker at seminars and workshops and as a lecturer in a CME course on Medical Cannabis in Italy, at the University of Padua.

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2 Responses

  1. Elena Furio says:

    non sono riuscita a trovare l’articolo in italiano.
    incapacità mia o non esiste?
    nel secondo caso, direi “peccato” !

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