Antidepressants and therapy, while both effective, are not the only means available to combat depression. Exercise has been described as a “wonder drug” for reducing symptoms, walking in nature reduces negative thoughts, and meditation can have a powerful positive effect.
But there’s another, often overlooked, way to help reduce depression: Food.
Our brain relies on nutrients to work effectively and studies have found that Omega-3, amino acids, B vitamins, Vitamin D, and minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron help create strong mental health. The Mediterranean diet, with its abundance of olive oil and leafy vegetables, contains many of these nutrients. One study of more than 15,000 people over 10 years found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of depression.
Nutritionist Melissa Brunetti, who focuses on the connection between diet and mental health, says that an ideal breakfast for people struggling with depression would be eggs (which include amino acids, Omega-3, Vitamin D, and fatty acids), with sprouted-grain toast and smashed avocado. The fatty acids in eggs are key, she says.
“Our brain is about 60% fat and we need to get our fat from a dietary source. Avocado is rich in tryptophan, which is a pre-cursor to serotonin, which is our feel-good chemical. It also has folate and Omega 3 in it.”
Those who crave chocolate can also act on that instinct: Chocolate, like avocado, contains tryptophan.
Nutrients such as amino acids are necessary to produce hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. But regulating blood sugar can also help maintain a good mood.
Have three meals and a snack between lunch and dinner—as well as before and after working out—to avoid feeling the irritability that comes with low blood sugar, says Brunetti. She advises lentils, red meat, sweet potatoes, and spinach.
And despite various warnings about the risk of weight gain from eating late at night, Brunetti says that a carbohydrate such as oatmeal with a little honey could be good for people who have trouble sleeping. You’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night if your blood sugar is low, and so a snack before bed helps sleep throughout.
Of course, avocados and oatmeal alone are no cure for depression. But in combination with treatment, they can create the right physiological conditions for good mental health.
“Nutrients are needed to fuel our brain. If we’re not getting the nutrients in through diet, then we don’t have the nutrients to formulate our neurotransmitters, our neurochemicals, or regulate our blood sugar or hormones,” says Brunetti. “Food can have huge impact on people’s mental health.”