When it comes to treating depression, more often than not, the emphasis is placed on balancing neurotransmitters. In particular, serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter is often balanced using anti-depressants. However, an alternative approach is to delve a little deeper and consider what might be causing the imbalance to begin with.
Being deficient in any single nutrient has the power to alter neurotransmitter balance and brain function, which could be contributing to feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and stress.
Whilst there are a number of factors that can cause depression and these differ on a case by case basis, my first point of call would be to address potential nutrient deficiencies. Read on to find out the five most common ones.
This is the most common nutrient deficiency associated with depression. Folate is needed to produce serotonin as well as dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Thus, being deficient in folate disrupts the balance of these neurotransmitters.
Food Sources: Barley, beans, eggs, raw green leafy veggies, organ meats.
Like folate, B6 is needed to produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters, and these two vitamins work closely together. B6 can also be effective in relieving PMS symptoms, especially when combined with magnesium. The oral contraceptive pill is known to significantly deplete B6 levels, so deficiencies are very common in women.
Food Sources: Avocado, bananas, carrots, chicken, egg yolk, oats, lentils, salmon, sunflower seeds, walnuts.
3Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA &DHA)
These amazing fats are one of the most important nutrients for brain health and mental well-being. Brain cells are coated with fatty acids and the type of fatty acid is crucial to how they function and interact with neurotransmitters. If you don’t have enough Omega-3’s in your diet, your brain cells replace the fatty acid layer with cholesterol and Omega-6 fatty acids, which can make the cells rigid and prone to inflammation and damage. EPA, one type of Omega-3, helps reduce inflammation whist another type, DHA, keeps the brain cells fluid so that proper communication and neurotransmission can take place. More importantly, our bodies can’t produce these fatty acids on its own, so we must rely on getting them via our diet.
Food Sources of EPA & DHA: Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, cod, mackerel, herring and sardines.
Magnesium is one of my favourite nutrients and it is needed for a whole heap of important cellular functions, particularly those that relate to our mood. It’s required by the brain cells to communicate with serotonin and ensure levels are balanced. Stress significantly depletes magnesium, which can result in a vicious cycle of more stress, anxiety and depression.
Sources: Almonds, cashews, seeds, cocoa, eggs, figs, raw leafy green veggies, legumes, lima beans, whole grain cereals.
L-tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Therefore, not having enough of this amino acid available can cause a decrease in brain serotonin production. L-tryptophan is also known to suppress sugar cravings, another driver of depression. Like Omega-3’s, L-tryptophan is an essential nutrient that we need to obtain through a well-balanced diet.
Food Sources: Bananas, beef, beans, dairy products, fish, legumes, lentils, oats, sesame seeds, soybeans.
Words by Stephanie Malouf
About Stephanie Malouf
Stephanie is a Sydney-based Accredited Nutritionist that holds the philosophy, “being healthy is about finding the perfect balance between feeling your best without feeling deprived”. Stephanie also believes that you aren’t what you eat but rather what you absorb and thus optimising digestive function in addition to nutrition is a key focus in her practice.