How to treat depression with foods and lifestyle choices

tofuDepression is a multi-factorial disease.

That means, it can be caused by many potential causes. That being the case, you have to go about treating it on many fronts.

Part 1 of this guide will discuss treating depression through diet. Part 2 will discuss other lifestyle choices that treat depression.

Part 1: Treating depression through dietary choices

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe. This is an area that needs to be vitally enhanced in depressed patients. The brain can not make any serotonin unless tryptophan is first present.

Since appetite is normally lessened in depressed individuals, the foods they do eat need to be high in tryptophan.

Foods that are high in tryptophan are:

  • tofu (747mg)
  • flax seeds (644mg)
  • roasted pumpkin seeds (578mg)
  • gluten flour (510mg)
  • almonds (322mg)
  • black walnuts (290mg)
  • whole milk (46mg)

Many people believe that milk is the best source of tryptophan, but you can see that it is very low. Five large amino acids compete against tryptophan in traveling to the brain. Thus, you can still be deficient in tryptophan if you are eating a diet high in these amino acids. Foods high in these five amino acids are chicken, beef, salmon, and whole milk.

Omega 3 fats are emerging as an important nutritional element in brain science. There are actually two types of fats that are absolutely essential in our diets – omega 6 and omega 3 fats.

The omega 6 fats are abundant in many foods, so it is extremely rare to see mental or physical problems develop due to shortage. Omega 3 fats are not so abundant, so it is more common to see adverse effects from a diet too low in omega 3.

The lower the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio, the higher the rate of depression. Recent research demonstrates that bipolar disorder, in addition to major depression, can be helped by a diet high in omega 3.

The best sources for omega 3 are plant based. A lot of people use fish to get their omega 3, which is gotten from seaweed.

Sources for omega 3 are:

  • flaxseed oil (7520mg)
  • walnuts (2043mg)
  • soybean oil (927 mg)
  • spinach (343mg)
  • almonds (127mg)
  • strawberries (90 mg)
  • banana (39mg)

There are many other foods that have omega 3s in them. It is recommended to take at least 9 g of omega 3 a day.

A folic acid deficiency can be a direct cause of depression. The RDA for folate (folic acid) is 400 micrograms). In a meat based diet, it is very hard to reach the recommended amounts. In a plant based diet, it is very easy to reach the recommended amounts.

Some sources of folate are:

  • chickpeas (1114mcg)
  • lentils (1057 mcg)
  • navy beans (255 mcg)
  • spinach (109 mcg)
  • orange juice (75 mcg)
  • sirloin steak (16)

Patients depressed due to folate deficiency tend not to get better with antidepressants. It is diet that needs to be change.

Another nutrient that is vital for optimal brain functions, including avoidance of a depressed mood, is Vitamin B12.

Plant sources that are not fortified do not contain B12 unless they are grown in soils with organic fertilizers that are very rich in B12.

Sources of B12 are:

  • dry cereal (6mcg)
  • steak (2.85mcg)
  • egg (1 mcg)
  • soy milk (1 mcg)
  • whole milk (.36 mcg)
  • spinach (.02 mcg)

Outside of foods, there are many other ways to deal with depression.

For some, specific mineral and vitamin supplements were enough to help them overcome issues.

For others, simply changing up their lifestyle and habits yielded better results.

Part 2: Treating depression by lifestyle

Nutrition is a very important part in treating depression. There are other treatments that are more important.

These are general lifestyle changes:

Physical exercise

Studies show that regular exercise keeps women from suffering from depression. Those who do not exercise are twice as prone to major depression within a span of eight years as those who exercise at least 3 times a week. Exercise also helps those who suffer from anxiety and panic disorder.

Researchers found that 30 min of exercise 3 times a week reduced depression as much as medication. Medication works quicker, but after 4 months the exercise benefits caught up. Exercise increases the serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Any type of exercise was found to alleviate mild to moderate depression. It also helps with anxiety, substance abuse issues, body image disorders, and ADHD. Exercise brings better results than a lot of counseling theories. Even 8 minutes a day of intense exercise to the point of exhaustion can reduce symptoms of depression, stress, anger, and fatigue.

Kinds of exercise needed:


  • Requires synchronized movement of large muscles.
  • Examples: walking, running, swimming, bicycling
  • Minimum – 30 min 3 x week
  • 30 min 6 x week is better

How aerobic exercise improves depression:

  • Raises serotonin levels in brain
  • As effective as medication
  • Better than counseling
  • Lessens anxiety, ADHD, and substance abuse issues
  • Prevents and lessens depression

Sustained, regular exercise also improves memory and other mental activities. These benefits are also applicable to the elderly.

Other benefits:

  • Increases good cholesterol
  • Decreases blood pressure
  • Increases insulin balance
  • Makes bones stronger
  • Helps manage weight, controls obesity
  • Lessens risk of gallstones
  • Helps improve osteoarthritis
  • Improves fibromyalgia
  • Lessens risk of some cancers

Deep breathing exercises

Exercise increases the need of oxygen for optimal physical performance. Deep breathing also affects the mental status. In the doctor’s office, a simple test can determine oxygen levels. A score of 95 or less means a decrease in ability for mental acuity. This often happens even with health lungs simply because the person does not breathe deep enough. Low oxygen level can affect mood, but also muscle function, and metabolic state. If a person has low oxygen levels on a continual basis, they can lose muscle mass and become unable to exercise.

Ideal oxygen levels can be reached with controlled breathing of 3-6 breaths per minute. It is very important for the breaths to be very deep. Since controlled breathing throughout the day is not very realistic, Dr. Bernardi suggests that one practice deep breathing one hour a day.

Classical music

  • Research proves benefits of music therapy
  • Not all music gives a benefit
  • Classical music gives the most improvement.

It is most beneficial if the person practices guided imagery while listening to classical music. This improves depression, lessens fatigue. Even the blood levels of cortisol were improved.

Regular sleep

Inadequate sleep can lead to depression. Chronic insomnia increases rate of mental disorder by 40%. Sleep issues can also increase risk of memory disorders. Insomnia can be affected by circadian cycling. Exercise can increase metabolism. Therefore it is not recommended to exercise right before bed. Late afternoon or early evening is the best time to exercise to improve sleep.

There is a natural drop in our body’s level of melatonin as we age. This affects our sleep cycle. Lifestyle habits also affects our sleep patterns such as staying up late, exposure to artificial light late at night (burning midnight oil), and not getting enough sun during the day.

Nicotine withdrawals also affect sleep. This should go away after about 3 weeks.

Drinking stimulants like soda or coffee can make it hard to fall asleep at night. Some medications affect sleep patterns. Eating late meals can cause acid reflux and affect quality of sleep.

Sleeping with a full stomach will keep the body from getting the rest it needs. The last meal should be eaten at least 3-4 hours before bed in order to allow the body time to process it. This will give the body more restful sleep. Eating heavier meals in the morning and lighter meals at night is also beneficial. Creating a helpful, peaceful routine helps induce sleep.

Bright light therapy

Many people living up north suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder). This is identical to signs of depression but improves if the person is exposed to bright light (2,000-10,000 lux) for 30 min a day. Bright light increases serotonin production. It can improve normal sleep cycle.

Avoid negativity

This requires retraining the thought process in which one does not dwell on the bad in life. Research has shown that an attitude of gratitude and counting one’s blessings helps improve mood.

Daily spiritual activity

  • People with high inner spiritual activity recover faster than those with no religious beliefs.
  • Acting religious without inner beliefs give no benefit.
  • Daily Bible reading is recommended for improved mental health.

6 other options that can help depression

  • Social connection
    • Isolation results in depression/withdrawal
    • Having family and friends to support a person can be lifesaving
    • Need to feel the sense of belonging, not just being part of a group.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
    • Counseling combined with psychotropic medications can reduce chronic depression.
  • Codependency therapy
    • Should focus on increasing sense of self-worth (different than self-esteem)
  • Pet ownership
    • Need to be needed
    • Can help if one does not have close family or friends
  • Water therapy
    • Often used to treat depression, delirium, anxiety, sleeplessness, stomach upset, and pain.
    • Improves quality of sleep if warmed before bed (warm bath before bedtime).
  • Practice stress control
    • Integrate the stress control methods in chapter 8.
    • Often occurring in conjunction with depression
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