Diet and Depression, part 1

Making changes to your diet can have a positive impact in easing depression.

The impact may not be overwhelming or immediate. Eating healthier probably won’t make much difference if you’re not taking other positive steps. But a healthy diet is one essential part of an overall program to smash depression. And an unhealthy diet can sabotage your efforts on other fronts.

A recent article in the Washington Post by Gisela Telis addressed this issue. Can what you eat affect your mental health? Unfortunately, the article leads with a miraculous overnight cure tale which probably won’t ring true for serious depression sufferers.

Jodi Corbitt had been battling depression for decades and by 2010 had resigned herself to taking antidepressant medication for the rest of her life. Then she decided to start a dietary experiment.

To lose weight, the 47-year-old Catonsville, Md., mother stopped eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and related grains. Within a month she had shed several pounds — and her lifelong depression.

“It was like a veil lifted and I could see life more clearly,” she recalled. “It changed everything.”

As they’re legally required to say in informercials, these results may not be typical. If Jodi Corbitt’s story is true, and if she has not suffered any downswings since 2010, more power to her. But no one should expect one dietary change to be a magic bullet against depression.

As for gluten in particular, I don’t fully understand what it is or why it’s bad, if it’s bad for everyone or just a minority who are gluten-intolerant. That’s one problem with trying to eat healthy: there’s so much confusing, often contradictory information out there about which foods are good or bad, it’s difficult for the non-expert to separate solid science from flaky fads.

Further into the Washington Post article, Telis quotes scientists who describe the connection between diet and mood in less dramatic terms. Researcher Michael Berk says, “For a mood disorder like depression, there are hundreds if not thousands of risk pathways that all contribute to the disorder. Targeting one factor doesn’t target all the factors that cause someone to develop depression. That’s why you need to develop an integrated package of care as the norm.”

That integrated package should include cognitive therapy targetting negative thought-patterns, anti-depressant drugs if necessary, and healthy lifestyle habits. Diet falls into this last category, along with exercise, sleep and meditation.

So what exactly does healthy eating entail? I’ll lay out my (decidedly non-expert) game plan in an upcoming post.

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