Eat to Beat the Blues
Ever wonder why you can’t resist the urge to overdo it on unhealthy foods when you’re feeling down? Turns out there’s a physiological reason we eat too much bread, ice cream, and other “comfort” foods when we’re depressed: The sugar and carbs they typically contain give us a mental and physical lift. But that sense of contentment often fades in an emotional and nutritional crash that can deepen your blues. Healthier foods, on the other hand, can actually boost your mood—and you ought to find comfort in them instead.
“B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients have powerful effects on brain chemistry, and can often right imbalances that cause mood disorders such as depression,” says William Walsh, PhD, founder and president of the Walsh Research Institute, an organization that studies brain biochemistry. “In fact, ‘nutrient therapy’ may well be the best treatment for depression.”
Nutrients, like antidepressant medications, work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain—chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinepherine, and endorphins that send messages between nerve cells, called neurons. In order for neurotransmitters to form, the brain needs nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. If the brain has a shortage of these nutrients, an abnormal number of neurotransmitters can result. For example, vitamin B6 plays a major role in the production of serotonin, which regulates anger, aggression, mood, and metabolism. If vitamin B6 is lacking in your diet, odds are you’ll also be deficient in serotonin.
But before you think a good multivitamin is all you need, Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, says food is often more effective than supplements when it comes to brain health. “In most cases, a balanced and varied diet is the best way to influence brain chemistry,” says Gomez-Pinilla. When good-for-the-brain nutrients are consumed in whole-food form, they work optimally because they’re accompanied by other nutrients and compounds that help the body absorb them better, enhancing their effects. Even better? If you get these brain-healthy nutrients from food, you’re less likely to exceed safe limits, which is not always the case when taking supplements. For example, overly high doses of folate in supplement form may have secondary effects like causing cardiovascular problems and increasing the risk of colon and breast cancer, says Gomez-Pinilla.
If you suffer from depression, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and regular exercise, which further stimulate the brain to produce mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. It’s also important to eat a balanced and varied diet that includes foods packed with these mood-boosting nutrients:
Amino acids help the body produce neurotransmitters that affect your mood. “For example, the body uses the amino acid L-tryptophan to make serotonin, and the amino acid L-tyrosine to make norepinephrine,” says Joel C. Robertson, author of Natural Prozac (HarperOne, 1998). “Both are neurotransmitters that positively affect your mood.”
Find amino acids in: Turkey, cheese, chicken, fish, beans, almonds, avocados, bananas, and pumpkinseeds.
The body needs B6 to convert the amino acids mentioned above into neurotransmitters, says Robertson. If it lacks this vitamin, this conversion process will falter, and mood-elevating serotonin levels are likely to drop.
Find vitamin B6 in: Beef, tuna, chickpeas, bananas, turkey, and prunes.
Another essential vitamin, B12 also plays a role in converting amino acids to those all-important brain neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine. Vitamin B12 helps the body make SAM-e as well, a compound that’s involved in optimal neurotransmitter production and function. Some studies suggest that low levels of SAM-e can lead to symptoms of depression.
Find vitamin B12 in: Clams, oysters, chicken, crab, salmon, turkey, tuna, milk, and eggs.
An important nutrient, especially for women of childbearing age because of its role in neural tube development in the fetus, folate may be a major factor in forming SAM-e and the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine as well. Research shows that people who suffer from depression almost always have low levels of folate, which causes symptoms of anxiety and in severe cases, schizophrenic behavior.
Find folate in: Turkey, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, spinach, black beans, asparagus, collards, and turnip greens.
Crucial for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, magnesium is usually lacking in those with depression. In fact, one study reported “rapid recovery from major depression” after treatment with magnesium, and found that magnesium helped relieve the anxiety and insomnia often associated with depression.
Find magnesium in: oat bran, halibut, spinach, barley, pumpkinseeds, beans, and artichokes.
The brain requires zinc to produce GABA, a compound that eases anxiety and irritability—which often increase in conjunction with depression, says Walsh. A high level of anxiety can exacerbate depression, manifesting in a condition known as “anxious depression,” says Robertson.
Find zinc in: oysters, crab, turkey, lentils, barley, yogurt, and pumpkinseeds.
This powerful antioxidant keeps nerve cell membranes flexible, says Gomez-Pinella, which allows neurotransmitters to travel between cells seamlessly. If the membrane becomes rigid, signals “bounce off” the exterior of the cell, disrupting the transfer of information.
Find vitamin E in: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, tomato sauce, turnip greens, hazelnuts, and sweet potatoes.
Like vitamin E, these heart-healthy fats keep nerve cell membranes flexible, says Gomez-Pinilla. Omega-3s also boost oxygen levels in the blood, says Robertson. The extra oxygen increases the body’s ability to convert amino acids into neurotransmitters. Studies show that a deficiency in DHA, a form of omega-3 fat, impedes the transmission of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
Find omega-3 fats in: salmon, sardines, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseeds. n
Lisa Turner is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.
What to avoid when you’re battling the blues:
Diet cola. Aspartame, the chemical sweetener used in diet sodas and other sugar-free foods and beverages, is an excitotoxin, says Joel C. Robertson, author of Natural Prozac (HarperOne, 1998). He describes aspartame as a compound that decreases the efficiency of neurotransmitters in the brain, hampering their ability to transmit information.
Coffee. Overdoing it on the java—more than four or five cups a day—can increase symptoms of depression for some people by blocking serotonin, says Robertson. Try cutting back to no more than a cup in the morning, and see if symptoms improve in a couple of weeks.
Sweets. Just like caffeine, sugar has a powerful effect on neurotransmitter production and brain function, says Robertson. Simple sugars and carbs cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar levels, creating mood swings, fatigue, and grogginess. Blood sugar imbalances also deplete vitamin B, which can worsen a bad mood. Keep blood sugar steady by eating four or five smaller, protein-based meals throughout the day, and avoid refined sweeteners (including honey and “natural” sweeteners) and simple carbs like bread, pasta, and cereals.
Alcohol. More than two alcoholic beverages a day can worsen symptoms of depression, says Robertson. First, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and can slow neurotransmitters. Secondly, alcohol disrupts the REM stage of sleep, which is necessary for serotonin production.
Simply Sad—or Depressed?
We’ve all been blue from time to time, usually in response to stressful or traumatic life situations. A painful divorce, a scary medical diagnosis, or the loss of a job can trigger lack of appetite, insomnia, and a feeling of deep sadness—all symptoms of “minor depression,” a transient and time-limited condition. But if your blues last longer than a few weeks, or if they occur outside the context of a major life change, you may have what’s known as “major depressive disorder,” or MDD. Signs of MDD include sad, anxious, or empty feelings; feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness; insomnia; changes in appetite; loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities; and, at the extreme, thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts.
If your sadness seems like more than transient moodiness, or if it’s accompanied by severe changes in sleep, appetite, or behaviors that interfere with your life, contact a health care professional. And if you have any thoughts of suicide, seek immediate medical help. Call the National Suicide Hotlines at 800.784.2433 or 800.273.8255 if you’re in crisis; they can get you the help you need.
Chickpea and Red Pepper Salad With Lemon-Garlic Dressing
1/2 cup silken tofu
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 small garlic clove, pressed
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
4 cups mesclun mix
4 cups arugula
1 15-ounce can chickpeas
1 small red pepper, cored and cut into thin strips
1/2 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup black olives
1/2 cup almonds
Additional whole basil leaves for garnish
1. To make dressing, combine tofu, olive oil and lemon juice in a blender, and puree until smooth and creamy. Add garlic and puree again for 5 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons of the basil leaves and pulse briefly to combine, leaving some visible pieces of basil. Set aside.
2. In a medium salad bowl, combine mesclun mix, arugula, remaining basil, chickpeas, red pepper, and onion. Add just enough dressing to very lightly coat, and toss to mix. Divide salad among four individual plates and top each with olives and almonds. Garnish with additional basil leaves, if desired, and serve immediately.
nutrition info per serving: 387 calories; 26.1 g fat; 2.9 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 11.7 g protein; 30.2 g carbohydrates; 7.8 g fiber; 433.8 mg sodium
Warm Artichoke and Crab Dip
Serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
3 medium garlic cloves, crushed
1 15-ounce can artichoke hearts, chopped
1 small Serrano chile, seeded and finely minced
6 scallions, thinly sliced (include some green tops)
1/2 cup Montrachet, or other creamy goat cheese
1/2 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over
1/4 cup grated Asiago cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped raw walnuts
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and sauté red pepper and garlic until red pepper is tender. Remove from heat and stir in artichokes, Serrano chile, scallions, and goat cheese. Gently fold in crabmeat.
3. Transfer to a lightly oiled baking dish. Sprinkle with grated Asiago and walnuts. Bake on middle rack about 20 minutes.
4. Remove from oven and serve warm, with sliced whole-grain baguette or crackers.
nutrition info per serving: 210.4 calories; 15.3 g fat; 4.8 g saturated fat; 21.1 mg cholesterol; 9.4 g protein; 10.6 g carbohydrates; 3.6 g fiber; 296.8 mg sodium
Spiced Nut and Seed Mix
Makes 21/2 cups
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup walnuts
1 cup almonds
1/2 cup pumpkinseeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons flaxseeds
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. In a medium saucepan, combine butter, olive oil, agave, and spices. Cook on low heat for one minute. Add nuts and seeds; coat well.
3. Spread in a single layer on baking sheet. Roast 5 minutes, or until nuts are golden.
nutrition info: 203.4 calories; 17.7 g fat; 2.3 g saturated fat; 3.1 mg cholesterol; 5.9 g protein;
8.5 g carbohydrates; 3.4 g fiber; 118.9 mg sodium
Poached Salmon Over Spinach With Mango Salsa
1 cup fresh or frozen and thawed mango cubes
1 Serrano chile, seeded and minced
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 6-ounce salmon fillets
4 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 10-ounce bag baby spinach leaves
1. To make salsa, in a medium bowl combine mango, chile, onion, cilantro, and lime; stir to mix. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
2. In a large skillet, heat olive oil. Place salmon fillets, flesh side down, in a skillet and cook for 1 minute, or until lightly browned. Turn fillets over and place in skillet, skin side down. Sprinkle fish with soy sauce, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Add 1/2 inch of water to skillet, cover, and cook on medium until fish is opaque, 6 to 10 minutes.
3. Remove fish from the skillet and increase heat to medium-high. Add spinach to the skillet and cook for 1 minute, or until just wilted. Remove spinach and divide among four individual plates. Top each plate with a salmon fillet; garnish with salsa.
nutrition info per serving: 366 calories; 18 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 92 mg cholesterol; 37 g protein; 15 g carbohydrates; 3 g fiber; 311 mg sodium