Fighting off mild depression involves positive thinking, but eating the right foods may be just as important. Certain nutrients found in healthy foods may alter brain chemistry which plays a larger role in your mental health. Complex carbohydrates, the B vitamins, and omega-3 fats are food groups and nutrients that may alleviate mild depressive symptoms and help you to feel more alert, primarily by increasing the amount of circulating neurotransmitters, chemical messengers, in the brain.
Complex Carbohydrates and Tryptophan
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as starchy foods, help elevate your mood because of their effect on your brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The nutrients found in complex carbohydrate foods help produce a class of neurotransmitters that influence behavior. One important neurotransmitter, serotonin, helps regulate mood, sleep patterns and appetite. Foods such as whole-wheat bread, pasta, potatoes, cereal and brown rice are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that converts to serotonin in the brain. Other nutrient-rich carbohydrate choices include starchy root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, corn and carrots.
The Tyrosine Connection
Low dopamine levels can cause depression, a loss of satisfaction, addictions, cravings, compulsions, low sex drive and an inability to focus. Tyrosine is another important amino acid (a building block of protein) found in dairy products, meats, poultry and nuts. It encourages your brain to release dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters act as stimulating substances to the brain and can help perk you up by making you feel more alert and sharpening your thinking. In addition to meats and dairy products, other specific tyrosine-rich foods that help increase dopamine levels are almonds, avocados, bananas, lima beans, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
Vitamin B-Rich Foods
Vitamin B6 is found in leafy green vegetables, fish, poultry and whole grains. This nutrient helps elevate serotonin to "feel good" levels. Not consuming enough folate-rich foods can also decrease the amount of serotonin in your brain. In fact, folate deficiency is a common nutrient deficiency in the United States. Often those who have been diagnosed with clinical depression have low levels of folate in their bloodstreams. Leafy green vegetables and starchy beans, such as chickpeas, kidney and black beans are rich in folate, but it is easily destroyed by cooking. Enjoy your leafy greens raw as often as possible.
Cold-water fish like tuna, herring, salmon and mackerel are high in the B vitamins, which help trigger the production of serotonin and rich in the polyunsaturated fatty acid known as omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish also help trigger the production of serotonin. A third reason to consume fish is that it is a good food source of the trace mineral selenium. A low intake of this mineral has been linked with depression. You can meet your selenium needs by eating more fish. Other food sources of selenium include whole grain cereals and breads.
- "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition;" Serotonin and Central Nervous System Fatigue; J.M. Davis, N.L. Alderson and R.S. Welsh; August 2000
- "Journal of Clinical Psychiatry;" Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Major Depressive Disorder; M.P. Freeman; 2009
- "Journal of Clinical Psychiatry;" Folate in Depression; M. Fava and D. Mischoulon; 2009