Each year on 10th October, the Mental Health Foundation marks the day by raising awareness about mental health and well-being. Whilst we would probably all consider ourselves as reasonably tolerant and open minded, there is still quite a significant stigma about depression. If we haven’t experienced depression directly, it’s highly probable that we know someone, perhaps a friend, relative or workmate, who suffers. Mental Health Statistics report that 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year and 1 in 6 of us experiences this at any given time. In 2001 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem, of which 154 million are affected by depression.One of the major side effects of depression is that the way we think about food changes and this can influence how we eat – both the types of food and how often. Because food can directly influence our mood, our diet is even more fundamental when we’re feeling low.
The Glycemic Index
The brain needs energy supplied at an even rate in order to function optimally. Sudden peaks in blood sugar will adversely affect behaviour, anxiety, depression, and fatigue, so it is particularly important for people with depression to keep their blood glucose levels even. Although commonly known for its diabetes and weight loss benefits, the glycemic index (most commonly referred to as GI index), which ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels, is a good guide to informing us which foods to include as part of a healthy diet, and indeed which foods to limit.
While all carbohydrate foods are eventually broken down into glucose, quick-release simple carbohydrates (such as high sugar foods, glucose and fructose) are broken down more quickly into glucose than complex carbohydrates (such as wholemeal grains), releasing glucose rapidly into the bloodstream. Repeated ‘spikes’ of glucose can decrease insulin sensitivity, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as promoting oxidative stress in the veins and arteries – a cause of coronary heart disease. After the highs come the energy-sapping blood sugar lows and, frequently, strong urges to reach for another sugary carbohydrate snack to perk us up. Indeed individuals who suffer from atypical depression (a subtype of depression) often overeat and report an almost irresistible craving for carbohydrates.
White sugar and other refined carbohydrates, such as those found in processed white bread and white pasta, white rice and most convenience foods, supply few nutrients to the body but use up important B vitamins, which are essential for our nervous and immune systems, as well as healthy digestion. Avoiding refined foods and sugar, as well as consuming foods with a low GI value, will help to keep blood sugar levels even. Perhaps a more accurate reference guide to prevent blood sugar spikes is the Glycemic Load(GL) ranking system, which is based on a food’s GI value and average portion size. For example, whilst an apple is not low GI, it has a low GL and will barely influence blood sugar levels.
It is extemely common for depression sufferers to have low levels of B vitamins and essential minerals such as zinc, selenium and magnesium. These water-soluble vitamins and minerals must be consumed daily to avoid depletion. Deficiency can, in turn, hinder the body’s ability to utilise specific omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to lift our mood by elevating serotonin and regulating levels of this important neurotransmitter.
EPA, a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, not only influences serotonin and dopamine in the brain, but is also converted to powerful anti-inlammatories via a series of enzyme-mediated steps. It is these enzymes that rely on the presence of B vitamins and essential minerals in order to function, without which the body’s production of natural anti-inflammatories is minimal, and can even result in the production of inflammatory substances. Combining a good nutritional vitamin and mineral supplement with 1 gram EPA daily (or 4 capsules Vegepa) can help to balance serotonin levels and alleviate the symptoms of depression.
Carbohydrate cravings are also linked with low levels of chromium, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce cravings. This is because for blood sugar to provide energy, it must be escorted into each of our cells where the energy conversion takes place. Insulin then ‘unlocks’ the cell, allowing glucose to pass in. But there is a missing link. Insulin doesn’t work properly unless biologically active chromium is present as a cofactor (much like a catalyst).
With many modern food processing methods, up to 80% of chromium is lost – particularly with whole wheat and raw sugar when they are processed to white flour and refined sugar. If we regularly opt for these refined foods over their healthy wholegrain relatives, chromium levels within the body can easily become depleted.
Whilst it is likely a low priority during episodes of low mood to concentrate on our eating habits, following a few general guidelines can help to restore healthy brain chemistry and minimise sugar-induced mood swings.
– Avoid processed foods.
– Keep red meat to a minimum or eat organic (red meat is high in inflammatory omega-6 unless animals are fed on natural grass).
– Drink plenty of water, as the brain needs to be hydrated to function at its best.
– Don’t forget your ‘five a day’. Make sure you get plenty of vitamins and minerals by eating a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. If you eat them raw they’ll supply even more nutrients.
– Eat two portions of oily fish weekly to top up on omega-3, containing the natural antidepressant EPA, or take 2 capsules of Vegepa morning and night.
If you found this article interesting, you might like to read more about anti depression foods.