Food and Mood

By Robert Luby, MD

Note:This article is not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

Interested in more information on how inflammatory foods may contribute to depression? To learn more about the subject, sign up for our Depression... An Inflammatory Condition? class on Thursday, January 24 from 6:00 - 7:30 p.m.

Food can play a significant role in initiating, perpetuating, exacerbating, and treating depression.  In order to understand how this may be possible, it is necessary to understand the role of inflammation with regards to depression.

Inflammation is the normal transient response manifested by the immune system in the presence of microbial infection, tissue trauma, psychosocial stress, and inappropriate foods.  In the short term, inflammation is a necessary and beneficial response to each of these adverse environmental encounters.  Inflammation mediates the natural healing processes of the body to facilitate recovery.

A problem arises however, if the environmental “encounter” becomes a “sustained exposure”.  One such sustained exposure is the regular ingestion of foods which are “pro-inflammatory”.  This type of eating pattern has the potential to create a sustained and prolonged inflammatory response of the immune system.  Unlike the beneficial outcome of a transient inflammatory response, a sustained inflammatory response can have devastating effects, especially upon the brain and the “neurotransmitters” which mediate the state of our mood.

The neurotransmitters which are the most important with regards to depression are serotonin and dopamine.  Nuclear factor kappa-B, tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukins, interferon, and cytokines are the names of some of the chemicals produced by the immune system.  Beneficial in the short term, these molecules wreak havoc on the brain when chronically over-produced.  They are responsible for decreasing the levels of serotonin and dopamine as well as for the down-regulation of cellular receptors for serotonin and dopamine.   The result of this unfortunate outcome is the state of mood which we recognize as depression.

Many foods (or ingested substances) are capable of producing a pro-inflammatory response which may result in a state of depressed mood.  Although there may be variation among individuals, the foods most likely to produce this type of response are sugar, trans-fats, omega-6 oils, preservatives, and additives.  This is yet another reason why it is important to eliminate as much as possible the ingestion of most processed foods.

Happily and conversely, many other foods naturally produce an “anti-inflammatory” effect upon the immune system, with a resultant down-regulation of the harmful neurotransmitters mentioned above.  These include most fresh vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices, and unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

From the perspective of good nutrition, in order to reduce chronic inflammation and potentially prevent or treat depression it is important to follow these precepts:

  • Eat the rainbow (brightly colored foods)
  • Eat aromatic foods (nicely spiced foods)
  • Eat foods that are alive, or were very recently alive (fermented, fresh, and local foods)
  • Eat foods with no or few additives (if more than three ingredients, skip it)
  • Eat untainted foods (organic)
  • Eat foods which are not packaged (be discerning about items in a box, a bag, a bottle or a can)
  • Eat more foods purchased on the periphery of the co-op, fewer from the aisles (produce, not processed)
  • Eat foods which are food (if you cannot pronounce it, it is probably pro-inflammatory)

By following these simple dietary tips, you may minimize both inflammation and depression.  After heavy holiday eating, January is the perfect time to make new food resolutions, which will likely have you feeling great in the new year!