The No. 1 Antidepressant – Your Gut

I'm tired of all the headline nonsense.

You've likely seen stories about a diet that lowers heart-disease risk along with depression risk. It's called the DASH diet (it stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This new link discovered by researchers even got a feature on Good Morning America.

That link is suspicious at best.

You see, the study consisted of a survey sent out to folks asking about their dietary and mental health backgrounds.

The researchers discovered those who ate a diet consistent with a doctor-recommended heart-healthy diet had an 11% lower risk of depression compared with those who followed a traditional Western diet. A Western diet, in this sense, means one that's high in carbohydrates, added sugars, and processed foods.

Here's the thing... They failed to explain the fact that:

1. Many folks have depression for years before getting a diagnosis (if ever).

2. Depression also leads to eating more comfort foods... which make up a large part of the Western diet.

So, you could argue those with depression gravitated toward a sugar and high-processed food diet because they had depression, not the other way around.

Surveys are also less than accurate when it comes to studies. We have to take the results cautiously, as folks are more likely to lie about their diet and health habits on a form. In fact, one study from Obesity Society found that obese people underreport how much they eat by as much as 47%.

One redeeming point of the study... the longevity. It sent follow-ups each year for a period of six years, meaning some trends may have appeared. It's better than most survey-based studies we've seen.

However, many Americans with major depressive disorder (MDD) don't receive a diagnosis for years... if at all. This means some in the Western-diet group could have had depressive symptoms (and therefore poorer dietary choices) for years.

Although the study leaves us with all of these questions, there's one thing we do know. We expect future research to keep plugging away at the definite connection between our minds and our guts.

Other research studies have focused on why our gut influences our mood.

For starters, eating carbohydrates – as those following the Western diet tend to do – releases serotonin.

Serotonin in turn promotes happy feelings, so many folks faced with stress or depression may overeat carbohydrates to elicit these feelings.

In addition, several gastrointestinal disorders require antidepressant medications. It's not because it's "all in your head"... Our guts have the same dopamine receptors that the drugs activate.

What's more, we're also seeing recent reports on the role of our gut microbiota. These gut bugs live in our intestines and do everything from breaking down our food to regulating our immune system. There's also evidence they influence our mood... When our balance is off, inflammation happens. That means we have too many bad bugs or not enough healthy ones. This leads to stress and increased problems with depression and anxiety.

As for diets, some may offer great gastrointestinal benefits. Personally, we don't support the DASH diet for everyone because it's a low- to no-salt diet. Cutting back too much on salt sets you up for hyponatremia, a condition leading to an increased risk of falls.

We also don't like that they recommend low-fat products, including low-fat yogurt. Again, some fats are not only healthy, but extremely beneficial.

That's why we prefer the Mediterranean diet. If you haven't already tried it, give it a shot today. Start by focusing on fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meat, and whole grains, along with plenty of olive oil.

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But regardless of what diet you may follow, there are some simple rules for how to keep your gut (and your mind) happy...

Fatty fish like salmon and tuna contain plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which improve brain health. They also boost serotonin production.

Dark chocolate also boosts serotonin levels, plus it offers antioxidant benefits.

You can't manage depression with food alone, but it can help as part of a healthy plan. Make sure to also get plenty of sunshine and exercise. And focus on improving your sleep... As we've told you before, the relationship between mental health and sleep is cyclical, but making the effort to sleep better will only help improve your mind as well.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 1, 2018