Mental health issues are becoming more common these days. While there are many mental illnesses, the most prevalent one is depression which affects about 300 million people around the world. It’s important to note that depression is not just a state of sadness, and in a sense, it isn’t even a mental illness since it affects both mind and body.
The symptoms of depression do include sadness, but far more profound and unshakeable than ordinary transient sadness. In order to be diagnosed with clinical depression, a person has to feel this kind of sadness nearly every day most of the day for two weeks or more or have a markedly decreased interest or pleasure in all activities.
In addition, a person suffering from depression may also experience fatigue and low energy, body aches, headaches and cramps, irritability, insomnia/excessive sleep, feeling of guilt, worthlessness, losing interest in activities, difficulty in concentration/making decisions, change in appetite and weight, morbid thoughts, lack of confidence, social withdrawal and thoughts about suicide and death. In fact, depression is one of the most common causes of suicide and therefore, something that can be prevented.
The ‘second brain’
The treatment of depression may involve both therapy and medication. However, what many are unaware of is the fact that nutrition is an important factor in managing and preventing this condition.
The adage “you are what you eat” cannot be truer. The gastrointestinal tract is now considered our ‘second brain’: the gastrointestinal system has more than 500 million neurons, more than those in the spinal cord. The intestine is an intelligent sensing organ that transmits a lot of information back to the brain.
The gut is also teeming with ‘bacterial flora’, between 300 to 600 species of different bacteria that perform a whole host of beneficial functions, including boosting the immune system, aiding in metabolism and digestion, and helping in neurotransmission and signalling in the brain.
Any significant alterations in the type or number of these bacterial colonies may lead to ‘inflammation’ of the body, a process that can contribute to many diseases. While whole, high fibre foods improve the health of these bacterial colonies, processed, high sugar food alters these colonies.
The brain is composed of 60% fat and, the kind of fat that you get in your diet affects brain health. Research proves that brain health improves with a higher intake of Omega 3 fatty acids.
What should you eat
There are studies that prove the benefit of a Mediterranean diet in preventing depression. But any diet that has the following qualities will help:
Keeping the body metabolism balanced.
Providing the right kind of nutrients and micronutrients for brain health.
Helping the gut retain healthy bacterial flora.
A healthy diet then would be as follows:
High intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain and antioxidant rich foods.
Low intakes of animal protein.
Avoiding refined grains and sweets.
Including flaxseed or nuts in your diet.
If you are non-vegetarian, then eat uncontaminated fish.
Low levels of vitamin D can also leave a person feeling low and anxious. This can be worse in people with depression. The most natural source of this vitamin is sunlight. Vitamin D can also be obtained from foods such as mushrooms or through supplements.
Apart from ensuring that one gets all these essential nutrients, it is also imperative to stay hydrated by drinking sufficient water throughout the day and getting some physical activity.
What should you avoid
Caffeine in any form can give us a boost of energy but only till the effect wears off. Apart from this, it is better to avoid sugar in any form, including in sweets and soft drinks.
Consume alcohol in moderation. While a glass of wine may seem like the perfect way to end your day, it is known to exacerbate depression.
A right and healthy diet is the best gift you can give to the body and the brain. Eating well can become a positive step in the right direction, if followed diligently.