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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Nutrition for Depression

Q. I am trying to find some nutritional aspects towards depression can you help?

A. There certainly is a connection between depression and nutrition, but it's not likely to be a factor in most seriously depressed individuals living in the U.S. and getting adequate nutrition. For example, people with too little thiamine, folate, iron, vitamin B6, or vitamin B12 in their bodies may become depressed. But that doesn't mean that eating foods rich in these nutrients will cure the blues. A diet low in omega-3 fatty acids (found in tuna and other fish) has also been linked with depression or mood swings. According to research by Dr. Andrew Stoll and colleagues (May 1999 Archives of General Psychiatry), high doses of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are helpful in patients with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. But again, that doesn't mean you'd notice an upswing in your mood after eating a tuna fish sandwich.

It's unwise to draw conclusions about normal nutrition from studies of medical or mental illness. For example, iron deficiency anemia may lead to feelings of depression, but taking mega-doses of iron can actually cause health problems. So can high doses of vitamin B6. By the way, research at the University of Arizona (October 1999 Journal of the American Dietetic Association) suggests that chocolate may have drug-like effects on mood.

Women, in particular, may find that chocolate lifts their spirits just before or during their menstrual periods-maybe because hormonal changes at that time are off-set by chemicals contained in chocolate. Caffeine, too, may have mild mood-elevating effects, though it can also leave some people feeling anxious. The bottom line: if you are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, depression is very unlikely to stem from nutritional factors.

April 2001

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