What Is It?

Depression affects nearly 1 in 4 Americans at some time in their lives. Although it can stem from a wide range of conditions, recent studies show that depression is often caused by physiological or biochemical imbalances in the body. Science is just now discovering that the foods we eat can have a powerful effect on our state of mind.

Are you depressed? Take the quick test below.

Depression Self-Test

The American Psychiatric Association says you are clinically depressed if you experience 5 of the following 8 symptoms for a month or longer. If you experience 4 out of 8, you are probably depressed. Are you experiencing:

  • Poor appetite with weight loss or increased appetite with weight gain?
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia?
  • Physical hyperactivity or inactivity?
  • Loss of interest in usual activities or a decreased sex drive?
  • Loss of energy and feelings of fatigue?
  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach or inappropriate guilt?
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate?
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide?


Depression can be the result of many factors, so we want to be sure not to over-simplify its causes or treatment. Depression has several broad origins:

  • Great loss coupled with an inability to grieve
  • Anger or aggression turned inward
  • Behavior learned as a child that produced desired results
  • To get attention
  • To control relationships
  • Amino acid imbalance, especially in the brain or other nutrient deficiencies
  • Drug-induced depression
  • Caffeine, oral contraceptives, and cigarettes

Heredity can play a significant role in depression. Up to 50% of people who suffer recurrent depression have one or both parents suffering from depression.

Amino acid imbalance in the brain is believed to be a major cause of depression. Amino acids are proteins that form neurotransmitters, which carry messages within the brain and also between the brain and the body. When there is a disturbance in these neurotransmitters, people can experience mood swings. Seratonin, melatonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline and norepinephrine are the neurotransmitters that can become unbalanced. Many of the drugs that are prescribed by doctors are designed to address these imbalances. Anti-depressant drugs can be useful to help you feel better while you address the possible underlying cause(s) of your depression.

Rule out poor thyroid function. A low thyroid can cause depression, especially if you are also fatigued. A medical doctor can check it or you can by taking your basal temperature. It should be between 97.6 and 98.2 degrees first thing in the morning. If your temperature is lower, the thyroid may be under-active. Take steps to rebalance the thyroid because even subtle decreases in thyroid hormone can cause depression.

Adrenal gland malfunction can also effect depression. Excess cortisol, an adrenal hormone, can cause depression, mania, nervousness, and insomnia by inhibiting tryptophan uptake by the brain. Corticosteroid drugs prescribed by dermatologists can have the same effect. Cortisol interferes with proper metabolism of tryptophan, which is necessary for seratonin synthesis.

Dietary Considerations

Our diets can cause or aggravate depression in many ways. Probably the worst dietary offender is sugar. The brain is very dependent on stable blood sugar levels. When we eat sugary foods, our pancreas becomes over-stimulated and produces excess insulin that pushes our blood sugar too low. This leads to a compensatory overproduction of the adrenal hormone cortisol and a disturbance of the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. In other words, sugar disturbs the delicate balance of brain chemistry. Oddly, sugar will sometimes temporarily relieve symptoms of depression. But in the long run, we do ourselves harm, as there is an inevitable crash in energy and depression in the wake of a sugary snack.

Hypoglycemia, chronically low or unstable blood sugar, is another common cause of depression. If this is a problem for you:

  • Eliminate all simple sugar, including honey, fruit juice, and alcohol
  • Avoid white bread and pasta, which turn to sugar too fast. Refined carbohydrates have no fiber to slow the rush of sugar into the blood.
  • Alcohol is chemically identical to sugar and will only make you more depressed.
  • Stimulants of all kinds weaken the adrenals. Stay away from nicotine, caffeine and sodas.

Fried and fatty foods can inhibit the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain by making blood cells sticky. They can also inhibit circulation to the brain. Stay away from whole milk, cheese, fried foods, and hamburgers.

Another common cause of depression is an overgrowth of candida (yeast). If you have one or more of the following symptoms, see Conquering Candida in the “Nutrition Connection” section for more information:

  • Powerful cravings for bread, sugar, pasta
  • In women, severe PMS, recurrent vaginal yeast infections
  • Prostititis in men
  • Bloating, gassy intestinal cramping
  • Fatigue, especially after eating

Food allergies can be one of the most common causes of metabolically induced depression. High levels of histamine in the blood can cause depression and mood swings. Cerebral allergy is caused by foods we are sensitive or allergic to. Symptoms of cerebral allergy include depression, fatigue, anxiety, dizziness, irritability, confusion, headaches, and dullness. Allergic responses are produced one of three ways:

  • Food particles are absorbed into the blood, partially digested creating a histemic (allergic) reaction
  • We eat a food on a daily basis and develop an allergy to it.(Rule of thumb – any food we eat every day is probably a problem)
  • We have an allergy to the food or food additive no matter how infrequently we eat it. Examples: MSG, chemical preservatives, milk, wheat, etc.)

Oral contraceptives deplete the body of nutrients that prevent depression, such as vitamin B12, folic acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and zinc. In addition, oral contraceptives disturb tryptophan and blood sugar metabolism.

Drinking too much coffee, tea and sodas with caffeine can bring on many of the symptoms associated with depression (headaches, nervousness, and irritability). Low levels of Vitamin C can cause depression. Smoking is famous for depleting Vitamin C (every cigarette destroys 25 mg). In addition, nicotine increases adrenaline and cortisol secretion and disturbs tryptophan uptake and can be a very real cause of depression.

Avoiding swings in blood sugar and controlling for allergic reactions to food seem to be the two most important nutritional things someone can do to relieve depression.

  • Start your day with protein – have protein at each meal
  • Eat no white flour – whole grains only, high-fiber foods, vegetables and fruits
  • Have small, frequent meals, never more than 4 hours apart

A low allergy diet should also produce positive results. Remove all the common allergens from your diet: Wheat, chocolate, milk, corn, soy (all associated with cerebral symptoms), cheese, alcohol, eggs, and citrus. Remove all of these foods for two weeks. Notice if you feel better. Then add one of them every two days to see if you have a negative reaction (this can take 12 to 24 hours after eating to appear). We crave the foods we’re allergic to, so don’t be surprised if you get some powerful cravings during this time. But don’t give in, the cravings mean you’ve got a problem with that food. Once you get all the metabolites of a problem food out of your system (can take weeks), the cravings will go away. Below is a list of foods that can be used as a foundation for an allergy-free diet:

  • All fruits except citrus
  • All vegetables except corn and tomatoes
  • Brown ricequinoa, spelt, barley, millet
  • Turkey
  • White fish, like halibut or sole, salmon
  • Almonds, walnuts, or sunflower seeds

Dietary balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins has an affect on the production of neurotransmitters.

  • Tryptophan, a seratonin seratonin precursor, is increased when we eat complex carbohydrates like beans, brown rice and vegetables. If you’re feeling agitated, eating a meal like that will help calm you down. When our brains produce enough seratonin we feel relaxed.
  • Protein promotes the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, which make us feel more alert.
  • Rule of thumb: Eat more complex carbohydrates if you are nervous and need to relax, eat more proteins if you are tired and need to be more alert.

Chocolate is high in phenylethylamine, a stimulating and anti-depressive substance that is associated with the feeling of love. Many people go for the chocolate when they break up with a partner or are having a relationship problem. The chocolate makes them feel loved and lifts their spirits.


Vitamin supplementation can have an influence on depression, especially if someone is deficient in them.

  • Folic acid, B12 and vitamin C are needed to stimulate the production of something called BH4, a co-enzyme involved in the synthesis of several neurotransmitters. People with low levels of BH4 are often depressed. People with vitamin C deficiency not only can be depressed, they can also become hypochondriacal. If you know a depressed hypochondriac, make sure they get a minimum of a 1,000 mg 1 of Vitamin C a day.
  • Niacin deficiency leads to a decrease in mental energy. Niacin improves circulation to the brain. Niacin supplementation can increase tryptophan levels which leads to more seratonin levels and better moods.
  • Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) is often low in depressed women who use oral contraceptives. B6 is needed for the synthesis of all neurotransmitters.
  • Estrogen in oral contraceptives disturb tryptophan and sugar metabolism. Women on oral contraceptives should make sure to supplement folic acid, B12, B2, B6, Vitamin C, and zinc, which they are often deficient in. Take a good B complex – 50 mg taken 2 to 3 times a day.
  • Tyrosine, an amino acid, can have a positive effect on depression. It boosts the production of adrenaline and dopamine, both of which influence our mood and mental energy. Tyrosine is especially good for people whose depression is related to prolonged stress. Note: All free-form amino acids need to be taken on an empty stomach otherwise they must compete with other protein for entry to the brain, reducing their impact.
  • Calcium and magnesium will also help to relax.
  • Choline and inositol (both part of the B complex) improve brain function and nerve transmission.
  • Phenylalanine, an amino acid, is converted into phenylethylamine, the stimulatory and anti-depressive substance in chocolate.
  • Saint John’s Wort is an herb that has been used for a long time as a mood elevator. One clinical study of depressed women showed a significant improvement in anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness. It also helped in cases of insomnia and hypersomnia.
  • Aromatherapy might help some people. The essential oils of jasmine, geranium, ylang ylang, and basil have been shown to lift people’s spirits.
  • Exercise improves most everyone’s mood and improves our ability to handle stress. Studies show that increasing exercise, sports and physical activities lead to a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Sunlight triggers melatonin production in the pineal gland, which helps prevent depression. Research has shown that two hours of morning sun is very effective in lifting depression. Staying in a brightly-lit room on dark days can also help.

Stress can trigger depression, so managing stress is important.

  • Relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation can definitely help. Chronic stress puts stress on the adrenal glands.
  • Nutritional support for the adrenals consists of supplementing pantothenic acid, Vitamin C, B6, magnesium, zinc, and perhaps an adrenal glandular. Siberian or panax ginseng are adaptogens that help protect the adrenals from the effects of stress.

The nutritional suggestions in this material are not offered to treat, mitigate or cure disease, and should not be used as a substitute for sound medical advice. This information is designed to be used in conjunction with the services of a trained, licensed healthcare practitioner.

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