How a Healthy Diet Can Help Manage Depressive Symptoms

How a Healthy Diet Can Help Manage Depressive Symptoms

Published on April 3, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Depression is a major risk factor for addiction and relapse. One study found that among people with major depressive disorder, 16.5 percent developed alcohol use disorders and 18 percent developed drug use disorders at some point in their lives — significantly higher than average. If you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, managing co-occurring depression should be a top priority. 


There are many things that go into managing depression, including psychotherapy, medication, and exercise. One thing that is not talked about as often is diet. Our minds and bodies are closely connected, and as a result, what we eat affects our mood — even to the point where it affects our depression risk. 



A number of studies have now found a strong correlation between diet and depression. For example, a 2018 meta-analysis published in Nature looked at 41 studies on diet and depression and found that people who followed a strict Mediterranean diet were 33 percent less likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who were considered the least likely to follow this diet. The most important feature of the Mediterranean diet, according to this study, is that it is rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts while being low in processed meats, trans fats, and alcohol. If you’re recovering from addiction, it should be a given that you’re abstaining from alcohol entirely. 


The researchers mainly attribute the anti-depressive effects of this diet to reduced damage to the brain from oxidative stress, insulin resistance, inflammation, and vascular changes in the brain; all of which have been associated with depression in other studies. 


Correlation or Causation?

As compelling as these results (and others like it) are, they only show correlation — not causation. It’s often the case that depression leads to poor eating habits. One common symptom of depression is changes in appetite. Many don’t eat enough, while others eat too much; often sweet or high-carb foods. Healthy food also takes a bit more effort to prepare, which can feel overwhelming when you are depressed. As a result, you will likely end up eating more fried and processed food because it’s easier to get. So, how do we know diet actually makes a difference?


One way we know is that there are several plausible mechanisms connecting diet and depression. The study above, cited oxidative stress, insulin resistance, inflammation, and cardiovascular changes. Insulin resistance and cardiovascular changes are often related to obesity, which other studies have found also correlates with depression. With that in mind, it makes sense that a healthier diet should lead to weight loss and fewer depressive symptoms. 


The Role of Inflammation

Inflammation is another significant factor. It has only been in the past few years that researchers have started looking into the connection between inflammation and depression. The association between inflammation and depression is perhaps not obvious. Researchers speculate that the link is a holdover from our evolutionary past. When our ancestors felt stressed, it was typically because of a physical threat — perhaps a dangerous animal or conflict with another human. An injury carried with it a relatively high likelihood of infection and our immune systems automatically geared up to deal with an infection when we were stressed. If you think about it, much of our behavior when we’re sick is very similar to depression. We isolate ourselves, we have no energy or motivation, we are slightly paranoid, we don’t eat, and so on. These symptoms are meant to keep us immobile while our bodies fight infection. 


In the modern world, fewer of our perceived threats are physical and infections are less often fatal, but the connection between stress and inflammation persists. Certain foods, especially fried foods (which are high in omega-6 fats), processed meats, and foods high in sugar trigger this same inflammatory response, for a variety of reasons. You can have both stress and inflammatory foods contributing simultaneously to feelings of depression.


The Role of Gut Bacteria

Another relatively new connection between diet and depression has to do with the microbiome, or gut bacteria. It has only been recently that we’ve begun to understand how much the bacteria in our digestive tracts affect our mood and thinking. Since this is a new and complex line of research, we don’t fully understand how the microbiome affects mental health. The inflammatory response, as noted above, appears to play a role, with some kinds of bacteria increasing inflammation and other kinds of bacteria reducing it. We also know now that a significant portion of our serotonin — sometimes called the “feel-good neurotransmitter” — is produced in the gut and not the brain. There appears to be some consensus that the more beneficial kinds of gut bacteria really love fiber, especially the kind found in vegetables like asparagus and artichokes. 


Diet as Intervention

We know about some plausible ways that diet might affect depression symptoms, but has anyone actually tried to treat depression with diet? There have been several such studies. A 2019 study published in the journal PLOS ONE performed a randomized controlled trial, in which some participants were asked to follow a special Mediterranean-style diet for three weeks. This diet included increased servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans, and at least three servings of fish per week. The study found that participants who followed this diet for three weeks reported their depressive symptoms dropped from “moderate” to “normal,” while participants who continued eating as usual reported no change. 


For first responders, this is a change to daily life that can be made immediately and may yield impactful results for the way we deal with mental illnesses. Our bodies are like cars. With a ton of moving parts, if you fail to properly fuel and maintain the vehicle, the engine will surely fail. Likewise with our brains; if we fail to properly fuel our bodies, our brains (the “engine,” so to speak) will fail us eventually. Taking small steps that can positively impact our lives is a crucial step in recovering from any mental illness, and can prove to be the key factor in pushing us forward into a life free from our struggles.


Diet alone can’t cure depression. The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigma may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships. By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their communities, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and/or mental health issues, call us now at 888-743-0490