According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States.
It’s also the leading cause of disability in the Unites States among people ages 15 to 44 years old. Unlike many other diseases, the majority of depressive episodes are found in younger populations and most prevalent in young adults ages 18 to 25 years old.
So, what does your food have to do with it? Short answer: a lot.
“Emotionally stable,” are the two most common words that I hear in my nutrition practice when people start taking better care of their body by eating healthier food. Most people are blown away at how much more stable their mood is after just a week or two of eating cleaner, heathier foods.
Food has such a massive impact on your mood because 95% of serotonin is produced in the small intestines. Serotonin is a master regulating chemical in your brain made from tryptophan. Tryptophan deficiency leads to lower serotonin levels and can results in mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and even insomnia. Serotonin is known as the natural mood stabilizer as it allows you to feel happier, calmer, more focused, less anxious, and emotionally stable. Yup, it’s pretty important. You can work with your doctor to measure your serotonin levels
The most common types of antidepressants prescribed are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which increase levels of serotonin in the brain. As medication is one option, there are also natural serotonin boosters as well.
Natural serotonin boosters include exposure to sunshine or light therapy, regular exercise, meditation and (of course) food. Foods that increase serotonin levels are eggs, cheese, turkey, nuts, salmon, tofu and pineapple. Foods that have tryptophan are known to increase serotonin levels. But to increase absorption of tryptophan, eating the foods in the list above with healthy carbohydrates (think rice, oatmeal and whole grains) is key.
But wait, there is a catch. The brain is a little more complicated, so eating more of these tryptophan-loaded foods alone may not necessarily increase your serotonin levels. The key is to think of food as the building block and a great place to start. Research is now telling us that a healthier gut may also improve your mood. The health of your brain and the health of your gut are extremely closely related, and what harms your gut also impacts your brain health. Eating a high-fiber diet, which allows your gut bacteria to flourish, has been shown to improve serotonin levels in the brain. What’s a high fiber diet, you ask? Think vegetables, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, etc.
Other types of food that help improve your gut health are those that are high in prebiotics (different than probiotics) and should be a regular part of your diet as well. These include chickpeas, beans, oats, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, nuts, onions, leeks, garlic and asparagus. These foods contain fiber that you can’t digest, and it’s this fiber that makes its way to your gut and feeds the healthy bacteria ... and improves your mood in the process.
So, if your mood is something you want to improve, speak with your doctor about checking your serotonin levels and consciously eat more tryptophan-loaded and prebiotic foods. These changes will all improve your mood and leave you feeling “emotionally stable.” If you are experiencing extreme sadness or depression, don’t stop with food – reach out to a licensed health care provider.
Fran Sutherlin is a local registered dietitian, health coach, speaker and owner of Sustainable Nutrition, which has offices in Durango and Bayfield and offers virtual-coaching options. She can be reached at 444-2122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.