Nutrition & Depression

by Joni Gerken


Diet and mental well-being are starting to get so much attention that a new line of therapy has been developed called Nutritional Psychiatry. The foundation of Nutrition Psychiatry is increasing evidence indicating a strong association between poor diets and exacerbation of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.


Classifying a diet as poor or good is a pretty general statement, but one factor within diets that seems to have the most influence is eating processed foods and refined sugars compared to whole foods which incorporate complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes. They help provide energy to feel good without the highs and lows associated with simple carbohydrates such as sugar. They also provide nutrients that are lacking in refined foods.

Serotonin, a major neurotransmitter associated with depression and mood is produced mostly in the gastrointestinal tract. For adequate serotonin synthesis, gut health plays a role.


Much research in this area is on the bacteria that live within our gut since these bacteria protect the lining of our intestine to prevent infection and encourage proper nutrient absorption. Research continues to show the negative impact of processed foods on gut bacteria, which is probably associated with additives in these foods as well as lack of prebiotics. Prebiotics are food for the good bacteria in our gut, and are naturally part of many whole foods, especially vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains.


Recent research has shown benefits of different micronutrients on improving mood. These micronutrients include zinc, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, and vitamin D. But why go to a pharmacy and spend money on synthetic and refined versions of these nutrients when we can get adequate amounts in a diet rich in whole foods?


So, what is a good diet to keep us from feeling down in the dumps? From what we know, a diet that is balanced with lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and plentiful in a variety of fruits and vegetables is a great place to start. One diet that is getting credit for reducing symptoms of depression is the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean diet not only emphasizes whole foods but also a generous amount of healthy fat, and both animal and plant based lean proteins.