Depression can be both over-diagnosed, and in some cases, under-diagnosed (some people deny having it)—but the statistic stands: one in five Americans is on an antidepressant. Moderate to light depression (the kind that doesn’t respond to medication) can be brought on by lifestyle choices—what we eat and drink, how much we move around in a given day. Certain foods can actually cause depression; what we ingest affects the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the body. Here are 10 foods that cause depression.
1. Refined sugar
Sugar dumps and crashes are a problem specific to the modern age—prehistoric humans didn’t have Twinkies. Refined sugar, which is pumped into sodas, candy bars, and grocery shelf baked goods, offer a happy sugar high for twenty minutes or so, then a crash to a deeper low that ruins a steady mood, sucks out energy, and can cause lasting damage to various organs, if sugar rushes and crashes become a habit.
2. Processed white flour foods
Refined or processed carbohydrates (cereal, fatty crackers, white bread), have the same effect on blood sugar levels as Halloween candy. Donuts, bagels, pretzels; all of these contain refined carbohydrates that offer an insulin boost followed by a crash—which is why they’re so bad for diabetics. The result is exhaustion, irritation, and depression.
3. Trans fats
Trans-fats and saturated fats are the fats to avoid if you want to stay healthy; monounsaturated fats, as in olive oil, are the good fats. A group of Spanish researchers followed the diet and living habits of over 12,000 men and women, across six years. At the start of the study, none had been diagnosed with depression; by the end, over 650 participants were diagnosed as depressed. The people who ate the most products with trans-fats (as in commercially produced baked goods and fast foods) had almost double the risk of depression, compared with people who did not. Participants who consumed more olive oil and lean fish (both contain omega-3 fatty acids), had a lower risk of depression.
4. Artificial sweeteners
Aspartame is a recent laboratory creation, an artificial alternative to refined sugar. But it’s got its own set of unpleasant side effects, especially for people predisposed to depression. Aspartame blocks the creation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that impacts mood and sleep, among other things. NutraSweet and Equal share similar properties with aspartame and should be avoided.
5. Foods high in sodium
A lot of foods are loaded up with sodium, for flavor and preservation: Packaged and canned soups, pickled products, condiments and seasoning packets are often high in sodium (not to mention chips and crackers). Excess sodium disrupts the nervous system, which can contribute to depression, and also interferes with the immune system—this leads to fatigue. Over-consumption of salt also causes bloating and fluid retention, and that’s depressing too.
6. Deli meats, fried foods, and dairy products
These are another source of hydrogenated oils (like trans fats and heavy saturated fats), and may add to depression. Fried chicken, French fries, fried seafood—all of these have chunky saturated fats that clog arteries, and prevent blood flow to the brain (and to the skin, causing blemishes and acne). High-fat dairy products, like heavy cream and ice cream, have a similar chemical makeup.
Caffeine is a tricky chemical; it increases mental clarity and reduces headaches, by dilating blood vessels, but it also disrupts sleep. For people prone to anxiety and depression (which are really two sides of the same coin), drinking too much coffee or soda may make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, which affects energy levels and mood the next day. Excessive caffeine causes nervous jitters and agitation. Worse than black coffee (which at least has healthful antioxidants) are energy drinks, which contain fourteen times the caffeine of one can of soda.
Although a drink or two brings on a pleasant buzz, alcohol is depressant that acts on the central nervous system. Besides coordinating the senses, motor function, thinking, reasoning, and understanding, the central nervous system also controls emotion. Alcohol slows down the nervous system, and intensifies the symptoms of depression. The detox from alcohol also interrupts a good night’s sleep.
9. Not enough water
Many people are walking around slightly dehydrated. Eight 8-10 ounce glasses of water should be considered a starting point; if you can drink ten a day, even better. Dehydration causes fatigue and irritability, and, in severe cases, can hamper respiratory and immune system health.
10. Rapid changes in diet
Lastly, a word of caution; although it’s a good idea to change your diet if you’re eating a lot of sugar and salt, do so gently. Radically cutting out everything you like to eat can cause depression too—it starts to feel like a punishment. A study at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Medicine, found that sudden nutritional changes in the body are tied to symptoms of depression. If you have a sweet tooth, try dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate (the cocoa in dark chocolate contains healthy antioxidants, called flavonoids). Many whole wheat breads are a delicious alternative to white flour products—but you don’t have to give up bread altogether. It’s not a bad idea to keep a food journal, if you’re about to drastically alter your diet; record what you eat and when, and how you feel afterwards.