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THE ANTIDEPRESSANT IN YOUR REFRIGERATOR

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About 20 years ago, my mom gave my then-new bride and me what has over the years become one of our most use-worn cookbooks: The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Being someone at the time who enjoyed eating whatever I wanted, a cookbook with the word “diet” in it would not normally grab my attention.

But fortunately my wife is smarter than me, and I love olive oil, garlic, tasty spices and fish, so these were and are recipes that have never felt like diet food. Throw in a little red wine, and you’ve got a regular celebration.

The idea is that by eating food that features a variety of multicolored, nutrient-rich vegetables, low in saturated fats, with an emphasis on more omega-3 fatty acids (found in deepwater ocean fish like salmon), our hearts and the rest of our bodies can be much healthier over time.

But this story is becoming much more interesting…

It looks like the food we eat may have a lot to do with our psychological and emotional health as well.

In almost every area of life, things have improved incredibly over the past five or six decades. Our health and longevity are better; pollution is lower; violence has declined; our abstract reasoning ability has grown… and technologically we have come to accept things like laptops and smartphones that were pure science fiction a half-century ago.

Yet there is one serious affliction that has grown by about fivefold over that same period of time: depression.

There are certainly many reasons for this. Martin Seligman has shown that depression is often a symptom of helplessness. We’re more sedentary nowadays, which can exacerbate a sense of the inability to act (more on that in next week’s column).

We also see the worst of what’s happening among all 7 billion of us, piped directly into our limbic system via modern media, so if we watch the news at all, we can feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that we’re helpless to do much about it… when the truth is mostly the opposite.

We also, I think, have less tolerance for what used to be normal fluctuations in mood, to the point where the current diagnostic manual of psychiatry doesn’t even allow for depression during a normal grieving period after losing someone we love.

But now we’re beginning to see a more interesting pattern regarding health and happiness – or their absence. Just as we’re seeing with heart disease and certain brain disorders, it looks as though much of depression may have its roots in a physical process: inflammation.

Recently, in We Need A Sense of Awe, I talked about the damaging effects of inflammation, and how the experience of nature and a state of awe can help to counter this harmful process. What we eat has an even more direct and profound impact.

More specifically, a diet full of vegetables may be one route, not only to better physical health, but to better mental health as well.

Research is showing that our happiness and mental health rise with the number of daily portions of fruit (berries are best) and vegetables we eat, peaking at about seven helpings; it boosts mood at least as well as taking an antidepressant.

Seven helpings of fruits and vegetables a day significantly improve the mood and mental health of young adults around the age of 19; while on the other hand those eating the least healthy foods increase their risk of depression by 79%.

A Mediterranean diet centers on vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereal, legumes and fish. It significantly reduces our risk of depression, and it cuts our risk of developing Alzheimer’s in half.

Then there’s the role of omega-3 fatty acids. We can get this in fish and flaxseed oil, as well as meat, poultry and eggs that are grass-fed. We can also take omega-3 fish oil supplements with good effect.

Omega-3s counteract inflammation. They reduce our risk of depression and reduce cognitive decline. They also lower aggression in normal and prison populations, and may reduce aggression and ADHD in children.

When we eat less fish, it’s associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety, and worse symptoms with affective and schizophrenic disorders – consistent with inflammation playing a role in these. In contrast, higher levels of omega-3s may help bipolar disorder and prevent progression to first episode psychosis in high-risk youth.

This is a big deal. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorders have been some of the most difficult psychological troubles to help with. Medication can help, but it also can have nasty side effects, and therapy is challenging and heroic work for the sufferer. This isn’t anything like a cure, but to have something simple that can improve things even a little bit can offer hope that’s been sorely lacking.

Our brains consume about 420 calories a day. They need omega-3 fatty acids, folate, fiber, choline, iron, zinc, and vitamins B12, E and D, among other nutrients. Vitamin D is actually a hormone with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it also benefits our nerve function.

Then there’s our friends the bacteria…

There are more bacteria cells in our bodies than cells of our bodies themselves – they’re much smaller, so they take up a lot less space. But we’re finding more and more the importance of the friendly bacteria in our guts.

The vegetables we’ve already talked about are prebiotics; these are what the helpful bacteria in our systems need to flourish.

After we eat prebiotics, we have significantly lower levels of cortisol when we wake up in the morning – high cortisol is linked to stress, anxiety and depression. We also pay less attention to negative information and more attention to positive information; so we have less anxiety about negative or threatening things.

That could be a problem if we lived in the kind of very dangerous environment that our more distant ancestors did. But for most of us, most of the time, our troubles come from overreacting to things that look negative or threatening, but actually are not.

Probiotics are the friendly bacteria themselves. We can get these through eating things like yogurt, sauerkraut and miso soup. Probiotics are connected to how we process information related to anxiety and depression, and they influence the stress response. There have been cases of deep, intractable depression being lifted through eating probiotics. This isn’t a common occurrence, but it does show how severe the absence of these friendly bacteria can be.

In my office, I have shelves full of books on psychology. I could never have guessed 20 years ago that a cookbook would compete with them in importance. But with all the research coming out on lifestyle, happiness and psychological health, it may be that what’s in our refrigerator is as important as what’s going on in our heads.

P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. For a limited time, I’m offering this to TTPers at a special discounted rate of $39 a month.