Using an Anti-Inflammatory Diet to Help Depression

You’re curious if it is true that you can use food to fight depression and if so, what exactly you should eat? I’m with you and it really is interesting. In this article, I will share with you some of the history and causes of depression, and the most important foods to fight depression. Little spoiler: yes, it’s all plant-based 😉

It’s not an easy topic to talk about – depression – is it, despite it being one of the most common mental illnesses and a leading cause of death. And maybe you are here, because you have been there – curled up in a ball, crying unconsolably and possibly for no apparent reason. Maybe the things you have tried so far aren’t working for you and you are looking for new ways to feel better? Maybe you want to feel better without taking medication? The good news is: you can start healing yourself knowing what constitutes an anti-inflammatory diet and using whole, plant-based food to fight depression.

Image showing a woman on the beach dressed in black, embodying depression. Depression is not just an illness of the mind.
Depression: not just an illness of the mind

A Short History on Depression

For decades, even centuries, scientists, medical research, and treatment approaches have considered the body and mind as two separate entities. This concept stems back to the 18th century, when the idea was first conceptualised that humans are made up of a physical part, and the mind – our soul part. For a long time, depression was – and is – therefore deemed an illness of the mind.

As a result, in the 80s and 90s, treatment for depression was also localised to the brain, considering the cause of depression to stem from an imbalance in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. As a consequence, SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors ) drugs that regulate the release of serotonin came to the market. You might have heard of the frontrunner of these: Prozac. Prozac first hit the market in the 90s, making billions in revenue.

Since then, there has been little research into alternative remedies for depression or even different approaches to considering the cause – and relief – for depression. However, recent research is slowly shedding light onto the interconnection between our physical body and our mind when it comes to mental illness. It is time to understand that our mind influences our body and vice versa. We are not robots and cannot exist in compartmentalised sections.

Causes for Depression

A major risk factor for depression is still genetics. But what evolutionary benefit was there to depression to still make it one of the most diagnosed mental illnesses today? It seems that depression might have had actual evolutionary benefits as it seems to have been an evolutionary strategy to fight infection in the body. Infections prompt inflammation in the body, as the body’s immune system and white blood cells prepare for a counterattack.

Remember the last time you had the flu or another illness? Most likely, you were feeling low, vulnerable, sleepy, antisocial, and mainly wanted to sleep, not do anything, or see anyone, right? Basically, you were exhibiting all the typical symptoms of depression. And there might be an evolutionary reason for why illness and infection cause depression: it tells us to rest, so that our body can fight off the infection. By being “antisocial” and avoiding contact with others, from an evolutionary perspective, we were thereby protecting others from getting infected. Makes sense, huh?

This means, that research is now finding a link between inflammation in the body and depression. When inflammation exists in the body, depressive symptoms tend to appear.

Image depicting a woman with a cold, flu or other sickness. Being anti-social and lethargic has evolutionary benefits when faced with illness.
Being anti-social and lethargic has evolutionary benefits when faced with illness

Depression and Inflammation

In itself, inflammation in the body is therefore not bad, as it is merely our body’s immune response to fighting off illness or infection. You’ve probably also experienced that when your flu was finally over, you started feeling happier again, more active, and sociable. So, as the inflammation in the body ceases, so do the symptoms of depression.

But what happens when the inflammation does not cease?

Newer studies now show how chronic inflammation of the body can be a leading cause for depression in modern society. From an evolutionary standpoint, there may be a reason for depression. However, in modern days, several factors – aside from genetics – can play into manifesting mental illness, such as depression.

Among these factors is lasting stress or a poor diet. Both these factors can lead to involuntary inflammation in the body and, as a result, to the typical appearance of depressive symptoms. Continuous stress, for example, leads to increased cortisol levels, which in turn leads to inflammation in the body. If the stress does not subside and cortisol levels remain high, so do the depressive symptoms.

Similarly, a poor diet can have pro-inflammatory effects in the body. Since we eat about three times a day, seven days a week, what we put into our mouths and bodies will have great impact on the level of inflammation in our body and consequently on our physical and mental well-being. If we eat poorly, three times a day, seven days a week, this will sooner or later show in forms of illness – bodily or mental.

Image showing hot dogs Processed foods, animal foods, and refined carbs: main contributors to inflammation in the body
Processed foods, animal foods, and refined carbs: main contributors to inflammation in the body

Anti-Inflammatory Diet to Help Depression

Yes, you guessed it! The good news is that you can greatly impact inflammation in the body with the foods you eat. More and more research shows the impact of a healthy diet on reducing inflammation in the body and contributing to a relief of depressive symptoms.

A study followed over 40,000 women that were not depressive over 12 years and found that those eating a more inflammatory diet, consisting of meat, refined grains and sugar, got more depressed. Surprising to some, omega 3s that are generally considered anti-inflammatory have actually been found to have no impact on inflammation or depression. Instead, fish eaters tend to have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for determining inflammation in the blood.

In addition, there are other foods and certain components that should be avoided for their inflammatory effects. For example, arachidonic acid is an inflammation-promoting compound that is found in – you guessed it – a range of animal products, mainly chicken, eggs, beef, pork and also fish.

Further studies on people eating plant-based diets have shown that reducing animal foods is not only beneficial for our physical well-being, but for our emotional well-being, too. Researchers measured participants’ mood levels using two psychological tests and found that the plant-based subjects reported fewer negative emotions than the meat-eaters.

In fact, studies have shown that the more servings of fruit and vegetables you eat in a day, the higher the reported well-being of participants. Thus, your diet has a direct correlation with your mood. An interventional study, where participants were split into three groups (eat as usual, encouraged to eat more fruit and veg, or actually given more servings of fruit and veg) corroborated these findings.

It is not so surprising then that the best diet to fight depression turns out to be a whole-food plant-based diet. Check out Dr. Greger’s video on an Anti-inflammatory Diet for Depression for more information.

Image depicting bowls of food with whole plant based ingredients. Eat more plant-based food to fight depression.
Eat more plant-based food to fight depression

Whole Plant Food Based Diet to Help Depression

Our brains use approximately 20% of our daily caloric consumption. So, of course, whatever macro and micronutrients we feed our body, also end up reaching our brain. Unlike believed in the 18th century, I find it astonishing to consider the brain and body two separate entities. To me, it makes perfect sense that one directly impacts the other. How else would you explain the benefits of breath work, meditation, or yoga on our general well-being, including our emotional and mental state?

Let me clarify that I am not a doctor, psychiatrist, or dietician. But I can also tell you one thing: why not eat more of these good foods to fight depression? After all, there are basically no side effects. For very little risk and investment you could receive a great reward. These are tips and guidelines, and I will always invite you to find what works the best for you.

A whole food, plant-based diet has many health benefits aside from fighting depression. I talk about this in my article Vegan Benefits for Health: 6 Tips to Get You Started. I am not surprised that what we choose to fuel our bodies with will, as a result, also greatly impact our emotional and mental well-being and that we can use food to fight depression.

Check out my article on Best Food to Fight Depression, where I explain in more depth what foods to avoid for depression and why the above-listed foods are especially great to fight depression.

You got this,

Keep finding your sparkle!

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