Everyone feels sad from time to time, but depression is characterised by prolonged feelings of sadness, dejection and hopelessness. One in five women and one in eight men will experience depression at some point in their lives.
Depression is a complicated illness, which can involve a number of contributing factors such as genes, environment, lifestyle, brain activity, psychology and personality.
Regular exercise can be an effective way to treat some forms of depression. Physical activity causes brain pleasure centres to be stimulated and leads to feelings of wellbeing. Exercise can also be an effective treatment for anxiety. Some research studies indicate that regular exercise may be as effective as other treatments like medication to relieve milder depression.
Depression, health and heart attacks
On average, depressed people only exercise about half as much as people who aren’t depressed. This lack of cardiovascular fitness puts a depressed person at an increased risk of heart attack. It also seems that depression and exercise influence each other – a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression and depression increases the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle.
Serotonin – the brain chemical
Serotonin is an important brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that contributes to a range of functions, including sleep and wake cycles, libido, appetite and mood. Serotonin has been linked to depression.
Some researchers have found that regular exercise, and the increase in physical fitness that results, alters serotonin levels in the brain and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing. Some research indicates that regular exercise boosts body temperature, which may ease depression by influencing the brain chemicals.
Regular exercise may alleviate symptoms of depression by:
Unfortunately, there’s no specific diet that works for depression. No studies have been done that indicate a particular eating plan can ease symptoms of clinical depression.
Still, while certain diets or foods may not ease depression (or put you instantly in a better mood), a healthy diet may help as part of an overall treatment for depression.
Here is some dietary changes you can make to enhance your mood.
These good fats are needed to build the brain’s neural connections as well as the receptor sites for neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Research has shown people with depression appear to have lower levels of omega-3, in particular the EPA variety, and supplements can improve symptoms significantly.
- Eat more: Oily fish such as trout, salmon, mackerel and sardines. Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are also good sources.
B vitamins are important for nervous system function and the production of energy from food and are considered “anti-stress” nutrients, helping to relieve anxiety and treat depression. Niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and folic acid (B9) all work with the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin, the “feel-good” chemical.
- Eat more: Legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegies, eggs, chicken, red meat and milk.
- Eat less: Refined grains and processed foods.
Keep blood-sugar levels balanced. If they fluctuate during the day, so will your mood and this can be a contributing factor in people with depression. A diet high in sugary, white, processed carbohydrate foods will cause sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in your blood, which can result in irritability, fluctuating mood and anxiety.
- Eat more: Wholegrains, fresh fruits, vegies and legumes. Having smaller meals more regularly and including protein-rich foods also helps to stabilise blood-sugar levels and curb sugar cravings. Try yoghurt, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, chicken and legumes.
- Eat less: Processed or sugary foods and cut down on caffeine and alcohol.
Serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel content, is manufactured in the body using the amino acid tryptophan, which must be supplied through the diet. Tryptophan is also needed to produce melatonin, which is vital for getting enough sleep. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. In clinical trials, tryptophan augmentation has been shown to diminish depression.
- Eat more: Lean chicken, turkey, beef, brown rice, fish, milk, eggs, cheese, nuts, bananas, peas, pumpkin, potato, corn and spinach.