Stress, low mood, lack of sleep. These are symptoms most of us just put up with on a daily basis. But later in life, these conditions could lead to a bout of depression. How can diet help in these situations?
Depression in later life is widespread and debilitating. It frequently coexists with other illnesses or disabilities and may worsen their outcome. When dealing with mood disorders, the whole health history of a person needs to be considered, including diet, lifestyle and current medications. Eating plenty of vegetables, fruit and fish lowers the risk of depression, whereas a diet high in processed food increases this risk. Many people with chronic depression are unable or unwilling to eat a healthy diet at a time when they need it most, and consequently may suffer from nutrient imbalances or deficiencies which can further exacerbate their depression. Even mild dehydration can alter a person’s mood.
Poor absorption is another important factor to consider, because as we age our output of gastric juices decreases, and it becomes difficult to break down food properly. Stress, food intolerances, drugs and exposure to toxic substances affect the integrity of our delicate intestinal membranes and as a result nutrients may not be absorbed well. A lack of magnesium, zinc, iron and B vitamins (including folate) has been associated with an increased risk for depression. Insufficient vitamin D levels also increase this risk, particularly in men and women over 65. Although data is still limited and further study required, taking a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral is a wise precaution.
Low levels of omega-3’s in the blood are also linked to mood disorders. Clinical trials suggest that fishoils in diet improve the outcome of mild to moderate depression by affecting membrane structure and neurotransmitter uptake in the brain. The essential fatty acid EPA is particularly beneficial, taken as a supplement at one gram/day.
The herbal remedy St John’s Wort (600–1200mg/day of a standardised herbal extract containing 0.3% hypericin) may help to improve mild to moderate depression, but it is important to check with a doctor or pharmacist first, as herbs and supplements can interact with medications.
Depression occurs more frequently in those with chronic low-grade inflammation and immune dysfunction. Consistently raised levels of inflammatory cytokines (cellular messengers) may cause sleep disturbances, changes in mood and loss of interest, energy and appetite. If the body cannot produce sufficient anti-inflammatory cytokines to restore balance in response to a psychological factor such as stress, or a physical threat in form of a virus or bacteria, depressive episodes become more likely.
Nutritional and diet interventions to improve digestive and immune function and resolve inflammation are often effective. These include targeted nutrient, probiotic and essential fatty acid therapy and they should be considered on a case-by-case basis alongside traditional care options.
References for this article are available by emailed request.
Martina Watts MSc Nut Med MBANT NTCC is a practising Nutritional Therapist in Brighton, UK and Editor of “Nutrition and Mental Health: a handbook. An essential guide to the relationship between diet and mental health”. Pavilion Publishing Ltd.