Depression is a common mental disorder that causes symptoms like persistent sadness, irritability, decreased energy, and loss of pleasure in daily activities. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders – it is estimated that roughly 5% of adults suffer from depression and can lead to suicide – the magnitude of depression has impelled scientists to identify the root cause of this disorder and any possible treatment approaches (WHO, 2021). Currently, the cause of depression is unknown. Scientists have accepted that one possible cause of depression is an imbalance of brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters. To combat this imbalance, researchers have formulated a drug, known as SSRIs, that aims to increase the level of serotonin to alleviate depressive symptoms. Although antidepressants have been an effective treatment route for some, research has suggested that nearly half of depressed patients did not experience a reduction in symptoms after two courses of antidepressant treatment (Wiles et al., 2014). Therefore, one can surmise that the neurotransmitter hypothesis does not account for all cases of depression and other potential causes for depression should be considered. Researchers have also hypothesized that depression could be caused by over inflammation in the brain. Numerous studies have concluded that there is an association between Major Depressive Disorder and persistent low grade central inflammatory activation (Park et al., 2018). For example, individuals that are at a high risk for depression (categorized by early life trauma), show increased inflammatory responses to stressors compared to low risk individuals (Miller and Raison, 2016). The stressor in question could be something as simple as giving a presentation to a group of experts; in this case, the body initiates an immune response against a threat to self esteem instead of a pathogen. The directionality of this correlation has also been examined in previous research; one study deduced that increasing the inflammatory potential of diet leads to depressive symptoms in female adolescents. Since it has been established that over inflammation in the brain can lead to depression, experts have speculated that an anti-inflammatory diet could reduce current depressive symptoms or act as a protective measure against the development of depressive symptoms.
The hypothesis that diet can act as an antidepressant seems too simple. Today, individuals with depression are advised to undergo talk therapy or begin a course of antidepressants. However, it’s important to recognize how our modernized society could play a key role in the prevalence of depression. Increasing evidence suggests that disruptions in mankind’s relationship with a variety of non-lethal immunoregulatory microorganisms and parasites – that were omnipresent in the environment humans evolved in – induces the widespread immune dysregulation that is associated with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases (Miller and Raison, 2016). Through biological processes, these microorganisms reduce inflammation and suppress effector immune cells. As our society becomes more sanitized, especially in a pandemic, modern humans are bereft of this immunoregulatory input from microorganisms. Especially with the high-comorbidity between depression and autoimmune diseases, I believe a possible explanation of the inflammatory properties associated with depression are a result of our strained relationship with microorganisms (Miller and Raison, 2016).
Since research has showcased that a diet rich in anti-inflammatory components may be protective against depression, here is a list of foods that possess anti-inflammatory compounds (Brackett, 2021):
- Olive oil
- Green tea
Brackett, A. (2021). The 13 Most Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Can Eat. Healthline. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/13-anti-inflammatory-foods
Miller, A., Raison, C. The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target. Nat Rev Immunol 16, 22–34 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2015.5
Caroline Park, Elisa Brietzke, Joshua D. Rosenblat, et al. Probiotics for the treatment of depressive symptoms: An anti-inflammatory mechanism?. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 73. 2018. Pages 115-124
Wiles N, Thomas L, Abel A, et al. Clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy for treatment-resistant depression in primary care: the CoBalT randomised controlled trial. Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2014 May. (Health Technology Assessment, No. 18.31.) Chapter 8, The prevalence of treatment-resistant depression in primary care. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK261988/
Depression. (2021, September 13). WHO | World Health Organization. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression
15 thoughts on “You are what you eat”
My main takeaway from this post is that depression is extremely complex and can emerge or be treated in a variety of ways. I was surprised about the mentioning of food as being a potential factor in depressed or non-depressed individuals. I think this highlights the complexity of mental health disorders and does really showcase that there is no one right answer to curing depression. Additionally, as I was reading this post I was thinking about how, particularly more recently, there have been increased calls for coming out and having hard conversations when an individual feels they are dealing with depression. Particularly with men, I find that there is sometimes a perception that men will receive less sympathy and be viewed as “less of a man” if they admit feeling sad or depressed. I think this is a major contributor to the problem for some people battling depression and therefore I think it is critical that we end the stigma surrounding mental health disorders and show compassion to our peers, family, and friends who may be fighting battles we had no idea about. I would interested to learn more about that and maybe ways that social media or possibly programs/organizations have tried to spread information encouraging people to take the first hard step and admit they need help. Overall, I think this was a really informative post and I feel as though I learned a great deal more about depression and some potential cures!
TW: Eating disorders
I think this is also interesting because you’re also what you DON’T eat; there’s a strong correlation between eating disorders and other mental disorders. I know some experts consider this to be a form of self harm/punishment, others think it’s an attempt at gaining external love/validation, and all agree that eating disorders are addictive. Unfortunately, the eating disorder and other disorders feed off of one another. Having an insufficient quantity of any food, especially the foods you mention in your piece, worsen mental health. If you’re not eating enough, neither brain nor body will heal. Because eating disorders are addictive (and often gain external validation due to diet culture and other harmful social norms), it’s hard to break the vicious cycle. The foods you mentioned are probably the best for people who struggle with eating disorders to try and adapt to because of the ability to heal the mind and, hopefully, the body/its relationship with food. I know people struggle with safe foods (myself included) so these items may be outside the realm of possibility, but I think research into the best foods to try and break out of eating disorders is an interesting tangent from your piece. Great job!
I appreciate this post as it begins the conversation about how our mind is part of our body and that when either of those things are disrupted we can witness the effect in the other.
Additionally, I am now considering how your conversation about the foods we eat affecting our brains can belied into present conversations about the gut microbiome.
It was really interesting to learn that 5% of adults suffer from depression, which when you put it into perspective is a significant part of the population. It makes you wonder how many people are walking around undiagnosed, and think that they are alone in what they are feeling. I also learned that scientists believe that the cause of depression could be chemical imbalances in the brain, and SSRI’s are used to help combat this imbalance. I also really liked at the end how you made a list of foods that possess anti-inflammatory properties, and the school of thought being they may help combat depression. Overall this was a really great read!
Although I was familiar with some of the preliminary information, the hypothesis that brain inflammation could be a cause of depression. It is an interesting direction to consider, especially considering the surge of unhealthy processed food in our modern world. It was nice to read what foods can combat depression, but I am now also curious as to what foods may be the most triggering for inflammation followed by depression. Great work.
I really enjoyed reading this post! I have very little firsthand experience with depression (I’ve never had it or known anyone dealing with depression) and for this reason I am not very informed on depression. Therefore, I learned so much from this post. The biggest takeaway for me was understanding that there are indeed things that we can do to help minimize the detrimental effects of depression. Prior to reading this post, I always (naively) assumed that depression wasn’t something that could be treated in ways that didn’t involve treatment and medication. However, understanding that paying more attention to diet and what we put into our body can have a true effect on our mental health and well being is not only shocking but very important and useful information! In my opinion, the most interesting research finding presented was Miller and Raison’s (2016) because it emphasizes that humans have for years neglected (whether intentionally or not) factors that affect our health and well-being: “Increasing evidence suggests that disruptions in mankind’s relationship with a variety of non-lethal immunoregulatory microorganisms and parasites – that were omnipresent in the environment humans evolved in – induces the widespread immune dysregulation that is associated with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.” I will share this post with others with the hope that they will not only learn something but implement this useful and healthy strategy into their own lives: eating foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds such as Broccoli and avocado. Thank you for sharing!
I like the idea of linking diet to depression and it provides me with a new way to fight my depressed emotions. I also learned about a possible cause of depression (imbalance of brain chemicals) and how the hypothesis was disputed by some scientific evidence.
From the article, I also learned that taking too much inflammatory diet might lead to depressive feelings. Dos it mean that it’s better for humans to stop intaking any inflammatory diet? Does having inflammatory diet have any benefits. If so, how can we balance the amount of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory food in our daily life? I would like to learn about that.
I really like the anti-inflammatory diet list you provided at the end of the article because it helps us to apply the knowledge in the article to our real life. I think that you might can insert some pictures of the food in the list to make the post look more interesting and colorful.
Learned a ton about different eating habits and their links to depression in this post. One of the aspects that I think is so interesting is that you propose diet as a potential therapy alongside combinations of medication and/or traditional therapy. I also learned about your gut health, and how your gut health is directly connected to your overall health and even your immune system. Thanks for sharing!
This blog post was definitely eye opening. People always say that eating good foods can make you feel better (and possibly reduce depression) but I never fully understood the biological bases of these claims, and that they are more concrete. Something I learned from your post is that our over-cleanliness as a society has outcasted certain possibly important microorganisms. I always thought that there may be problems associated with refraining from ever getting sick (like mothers hoping that their babies will get a little sick so that they can build up an immune system) but this is a very interesting example. Something very surprising to me is that not getting exposed to these microorganisms can be detrimental to MENTAL health, but it makes sense (our society separates physical and mental health far too much). I wonder what other societal shifts have lead to increased depression in our society?
This is a really cool way of thinking about the saying “You are what you eat.” I never knew that food could act as an antidepressant. Maybe this can be another reason why food can be so addicting to some people. I would love to see more research about this. Great work!
Awesome post! Depression and its causes are certainly complicated, and while it’s exciting that scientists have identified some causes, I think we have a long way to go before we fully understand why some people develop MDD and others don’t. Clearly, depression can be caused or exacerbated by environmental circumstances such as traumatic events and access to healthy foods, but one thing that I wonder is if there is also a significant genetic component. It’s very exciting to know that individuals with depression may be helped by a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, but it seems like this change in diet may need to be preceded by some other treatment such as medication or therapy. Unfortunately, when someone is depressed they may not have the energy or motivation to be this intentional about what they are eating. It would be awesome to see therapists incorporating this sort of advice into their techniques, or even an uptick in counselors who specialize in helping clients improve their diet in this way!!
This is a fascinating topic! I hadn’t really considered how the presence of certain foods in our diet could increase the risk of developing depression. Likewise, I find it interesting that inflammation is often talked about in other aspects of physical health, such as its relevance to autoimmune diseases or muscle problems, but that its relevance to mental health isn’t as known. I also acknowledge the importance of stating that the hypothesis that diet can act as an antidepressant is an oversimplification, therefore a multifaceted approach to aiding depression, such as a combination of therapy and medication, should be utilized. Overall, this post was highly informative!
I like the phrase, “You are what you eat” and mostly thought of it as people being a food description or a food in general (such as sweet or potato) or if you eat healthy, you’re healthy, and if you don’t, you’re not. I was surprised that specific foods with anti-inflammatory components could help reduce depression. I hadn’t thought about that with the pandemic, sanitization, and masks that our immunoregulatory input from microorganisms has decreased.
I have always been interested in the gut-brain axis as the only other location in our body in which neurotransmitters are produced is our gut. This being evidence for the gut being our first brain from an evolutionary perspective. You are what you eat is an interesting way to approach immune health. What we introduce into our systems are very likely to change our gut microbiome and in turn affect our immune response.
I like this aspect of treating mental conditions (e.g. depression) as it refocuses and reframes the problem. The diet we eat has a tremendous impact on our mental state (as you stated). As the famous saying goes, the stomach is the second brain. Reading this reminds me of how different cultures look at ailments in a non-eurocentric (cartesian view) being of the mind separate from the body. As we understand the mind to originate from the brain, we often focus solely on the brain ignoring all the other aspects. For example, the Esan people (as they are known) of Southwestern Nigeria view the mind and body as fundamentally the same despite their logical and functionally distinction (that we understand them to be or can comprehend). Furthermore, take serotonin, for instance; we have a brain-centric focus on serotonin despite the most amount being produced in the gut.