Nutrition: A Holistic Approach to Treating Depression

Sadness is a part of life, something that ebbs and flows with the ups and downs of living in a world filled with both tragedy and triumph, success and failure, sickness and health. None of us can escape experiencing sadness at times, but it is almost always something we can recover from and get over. 

Depression, however, is entirely different. 

As the protagonist in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees expresses, “There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold—with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer” (1988, 232). 

Famed author J. K. Rowling, who has spoken frequently about her own battle with depression, called it “the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”

Major depressive disorder is diagnosed when a person experiences all three of the following for more than two consecutive weeks: a depressed mood, loss of interest or enjoyment in things previously enjoyed, and reduced energy. 

These symptoms may also be accompanied by weight fluctuations, sleep disturbances, feelings of guilt and low self-worth, and even physical symptoms such as headaches and unexplained nausea. 

Worldwide, more than 300 million people live with depression. In the United States, 6.7 percent of Americans have had at least one major depressive episode in a given year. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide. Statistics show that fewer than half of those with depressive symptoms seek help. 

Of those who do seek help, most receive prescriptions for antidepressants which, on their own, are effective only 50 percent of the time and take several weeks to kick in—often with a slew of side-effects. When antidepressants are paired with psychological treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, however, relief comes more quickly and to a larger percentage of patients. 

Still, the numbers are discouraging. And it’s certain that the ability to effectively treat depression through medical means is lacking; otherwise, the problem of depression would be shrinking.

We need alternatives—or means within our own control—that complement our drugs and therapy. Ideally, we need alternatives that provide whole-body, preventative treatment while also relieving present symptoms. I have yet to find any medication that does this, but I have found one amazing thing that has the potential to if used correctly: Mother Nature.

In my research and work with clients on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I have had surprising success in using a three-pronged holistic approach. My approach involves focusing on nutrition, lifestyle, and relationships. Here, I share a small glimpse of what I’ve learned about the first approach—nutrition. 

In with the Good, Out with the Bad

I don’t recommend that my clients “go on a diet” in the traditional sense. Rather, I help clients change their diets to make sure they eat lots of foods with the right nutrients and avoid the foods that are likely harming both their mood and their physical health.

A detailed discussion of specific foods to add to and eliminate from your diet can be found in the pages of my book Essentially Happy: 3 Simple Answers from Mother Nation for Overcoming Depression and in the course of the same name. 

Below is a quick list of what makes up what I call a “happy diet.”

1. Focus on this trio of amino acids. 

For example, tryptophan (helps regulate blood sugar and blood pressure), tyrosine (vital to the adrenal, pituitary, and thyroid glands), and glutamine (critical to the immune and digestive systems). 

2. Look at the minerals zinc, copper, iron, and magnesium. 
These minerals are involved in enzymatic reactions in the brain that effect everything from irritability to anxiety and oxygen uptake to blood pressure. 

3. Take a look at how much vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid (folate) are in your diet. 

The B vitamins are particularly critical for older adults, vegetarians, and people with malabsorption issues in the gut and liver. Folic acid is perhaps the most important of the B vitamins and plays such a critical role in the development of the fetal brain that OBGYNs give every expectant mother a prescription for a folate supplement. 

4. Evaluate your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. 

In particular, take note that DHA accounts for up to 97 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain. It ensures that the cells in the brain and other parts of the nervous system develop and function properly. Frequently, people report getting relief from depression while taking a DHA supplement.

5. Make sure you’re drinking enough water. 

Electrolytes—mineral molecules that dissolve in water—such as potassium, calcium, and sodium, are critical to our well-being. When we don’t have enough water, we often feel lethargic and grumpy, and we can get headaches and have all kinds of other health complications.

Once you’ve worked on adding the good stuff to your diet, try eliminating the bad stuff, which includes processed food, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. A note on processed food: a landmark study out of Spain recently found that eating commercially baked goods (cakes, croissants, doughnuts, and so on) and greasy fast food (hamburgers, hotdogs, and pizza) can be linked to depression. 

The report of this six-year study revealed that consumers of fast food (compared with those who eat little or no fast food) are 51 percent more likely to develop depression than those who don’t. Furthermore, the more fast foods people consume, the more at risk they are for depression.

Essential Oil Tips

When working with clients to change their nutrition habits, I often recommend adding a few essential oils protocols to their efforts. Here are 3 of my favorites.

To support the liver and calm your mood: blend equal parts geranium, helichrysum, and thyme in a glass roller bottle. Apply topically over the liver twice a day—and don’t forget to drink lots of water.

To stimulate a sluggish thyroid gland: dilute 2 drops each of clove, lemongrass and myrrh in 1 tablespoon almond oil. Apply to the base of the throat and the soles of your feet. 

To clear your head: blend equal parts frankincense and wild orange in a glass roller bottle. Rub between hands and inhale; apply to the bottoms of the feet and to the chest 3 to 4 times a day.

Best wishes, 
Rebecca Hintze

PS. Like I mentioned earlier, Essentially Happy has some amazing tips and information for your diet and emotions. 

Check it out ---> Essentially Happy: 3 Simple Answers from Mother Nature for Overcoming Depression