Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with depression, offered medication, and are looking for a more holistic way to manage depression; or you suspect that you might be depressed and are looking for natural ways to make yourself feel better.
Either way, you’ve most likely come across information that suggests that you can manage depression and your mood with food.
But is it actually true that you can manage depression with diet?
Studies have shown that there is a connection between the bacteria in our gut and depression.
Before we dive into the science, I have to let you know that the information found here does not replace having a relationship with a licensed mental health practitioner or medical doctor.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
The bacteria in your gut is responsible for producing some of the most important neurotransmitters, or mood regulators, in your body because it uses the same neurochemicals to process information as your brain.
These neurochemicals include:
Up to 90% of your body’s serotonin is found in the gut and it plays a major role in digestion. It is essential for peristalsis, the wave-like muscle contractions that move food to different processing stations in the digestive tract.
It doesn’t just live in your gut, however. It can also be found in blood platelets and throughout your central nervous system.
Dopamine plays an essential role in emotion, motivation, and addiction. It also plays a part in the brain’s reward system — if you win an award dopamine is released in your brain making you feel happy. Like serotonin, it is also produced by the bacteria in your gut.
GABA stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid. It has a calming effect on the brain and the immune system. It also helps you digest food and regulates gastrointestinal activity by producing gastric, or stomach, acid.
Your gut, the long tube that starts at your mouth and ends at your anus, contains at least 100 trillion bacteria of at least 500 species.
This diversity is essential for the health of your digestive system.
Not only does it help to fend off pathogens, microbes that are dangerous for your health, it also helps to maintain balance, so no one type of bacteria has control.
If the balance of bacteria in your gut becomes imbalanced, is provokes an immune response called dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis can cause inflammation, which has been shown to contribute to both depression and anxiety.
Interestingly enough, studies have shown that depression can be transferred from human to animal through the microbes in your gut.
In a study conducted by John R. Kelly (no relation to the R&B singer) et al, fecal matter was transferred from human patients with major depression into rats. After the transfer, it was noted that the rats became depressed.
I know poop talk isn’t always the most comfortable, so I’ll stop there. Hopefully, that’s enough to convince you that the gut plays an integral part in your mood.
With this in mind, how can we manage depression with diet?
The bacteria in your gut are constantly communicating with each other, but they are also communicating with your brain. This communication happens primarily through the vagus nerve, a long nerve that wanders through your body that is connected to all your bodily organs.
There is research to suggest that if we have a healthy gut, we can also have a healthy brain.
Of course, everyone has a distinct digestive environment that is affected by:
Trauma and mood imbalances
The food we eat most frequently
That said, there is no “one size fits all” diet. We can, however, support the health of our digestive system and our mood by adding foods to our diet:
Dieting and restriction can reduce the variety of microbes in your gut, leading to dysbiosis.
For this reason (and many others), I recommend adding variety to your diet rather than eliminating or restricting entire food groups.
Foods that may help you manage your depression:
1. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
Fiber acts as a prebiotic, or food for your gut bacteria.
Gut bacteria, Bifido in particular, enjoy fiber. As fiber moves through the digestive system, it is consumed by your gut bacteria. From the fiber, butyric acid is produced. This helps to repair any damage present in the gut lining, encouraging the production of neurotransmitters.
A few natural prebiotics include:
2. Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut
Fermentation has been used for thousands of years as a means of preserving food. It also encourages the growth of bacteria and microbes that help to improve and restore the health of your gut, or probiotics.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3’s help to reduce inflammation and improve the diversity of bacteria in your gut. They also help to improve memory and cognition by supporting the production of new nerves and synapses.
You can find Omega-3’s in:
Nuts and Seeds
Fish, like salmon, trout, tuna and sardines
4. Supplement with a high quality probiotic
While probiotics have become more commonplace, not all probiotics are reliable and they certainly aren’t all created equal. Drago et al tested 13 commonly available probiotics and found that out of the 13 only 4 contained the bacterial strains and colony counts that were listed on the label.
With that in mind, I recommend choosing a probiotic that contains a variety of microbe species as mixtures have been proven to be more effective than single species alone in many cases.
The brand I recommend is The Seed. It contains prebiotics and many of the bacterial strains proven to help improve mood imbalances related to depression.
Will the suggestions here cure depression?
As I mentioned earlier, everyone’s gut environment is different and there are no one size fits all solutions when it comes to mental illness — what works for some may not work for all.
Some folks may be able to manage depression with food and other lifestyle additions, while others may need to use medication in conjunction with food and lifestyle additions.
In either case, I recommend meeting with a HAES nutritionist, therapist, and/or medical practitioner before making any changes to your current routine.
My hope, however, is that this empowers you to get curious about the ways in which you can support your mood on a daily basis.
More info on this topic can be found in the following books: