A recent study published in the Public Library of Science Medicine, and reported widely in the press recently, showed that a number of anti-depressant drugs including Prozac, Seroxat and Efexor were little more effective than a placebo for treating depression. Yet, with more people than ever seeking help for depression – and current prescriptions for anti-depressants at record levels – is there any alternative?

In fact, there is much that can be done nutritionally to tackle depression. The conventional approach is to give a drug that alters the body’s biochemistry – typically to increase levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, that helps keep us happy, or adrenalin/noradrenlin, that helps us stay motivated. But brain health and neurotransmitter production can also be improved with nutrition:

Balance your blood sugar

There is a direct link between mood and blood sugar balance – your brain runs on glucose and the more uneven your blood sugar supply the more uneven your mood. For balanced blood sugar levels:

  • Avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates such as white rice, white bread and processed breakfast cereals
  • Eat whole foods such as whole grains (especially oats), lentils, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Combine protein foods with carbohydrates – for example, have fish with your pasta, or nuts and seeds with your cereal or fruit
  • Cut right back on stimulants such as tea, coffee, chocolate and cigarettes as these increase levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn increase blood sugar levels.

Consider supplementing chromium

Chromium is vital for keeping your blood sugar level stable because insulin can’t work properly without it. Chromium is highly effective in relieving atypical depression characterized by sugar cravings, gaining weight and feeling tired all the time – in fact just taking proper levels of chromium can make a big difference to certain depressed people.

Ensure optimum levels of omega-3 fish oils

The higher your blood level of omega-3 fats, the higher your levels of serotonin are likely to be. This may be because omega 3s help to build your brain’s neuronal connections as well as the receptor sites for neurotransmitters; therefore, the more omega 3s in your blood, the more serotonin you are likely to make and the more responsive you become to its effects.

A recent trial by Jazayeri et al published in the Australian and New Journal of Psychiatry (March 2008) showed EPA to be slightly more effective than the anti-depressant fluoxetine. The richest dietary source of omega 3 fats is from carnivorous cold water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. The best seeds are flax and pumpkin seeds. If supplementing omega 3 fish oils you are aiming for about 1000 mg of EPA a day for a mood boosting effect. That means supplementing a concentrated Omega 3 Fish Oil capsule providing 500mg, once or twice a day and eating a serving of fish three times a week.

Check your homocysteine level and get enough B vitamins

People with either low blood levels of the B-vitamin folic acid, or high blood levels of the protein homocysteine, (a sign that you are not getting enough B6, B12 or folic acid) are both more likely to be depressed and less likely to get a positive result from anti-depressant drugs. Eat foods rich in these nutrients such as whole foods, fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts and supplement a good multivitamin.

Boost your serotonin with amino acids and consider supplementing 5-HTP

Serotonin is made in the body and brain from an amino acid 5-Hydroxy Tryptophan (5-HTP); which in turn is made from another amino acid called tryptophan which is found in the diet in many protein rich foods such as meat, fish, beans and eggs, while the richest source of 5-HTP is the African Griffonia bean.

Just not getting enough trpytophan is likely to make you depressed so consider supplementing it if you are not getting enough in your diet. 27 studies have shown conclusively that 5-HTP is effective in treating depression. However do not take 5-HTP without your doctor’s permission if you are currently taking anti-depressant tablets.

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