Influence of diet on depression risk

Photo credit: Dan Gold | Unsplash

According to YouGov, an estimated 27% of UK university students experience a mental health condition, depression being an example. The symptoms of depression involve being in a continuously low mood or anxious state and lacking an overall interest in activities and confidence. In students, it can be caused by a number of factors including the stress of studying, family, relationships, and even a high alcohol intake.

There are new scientific studies emerging searching for links between lifestyle and the risk of depression. These have been conducted in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of such conditions, and to break down the stigma surrounding mental health. One such study, published in The Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, carried out a meta-analysis investigating possible links between depression and diet. This involved combining and reanalysing data from many previous studies to come to a logical conclusion. The results from the meta-analysis suggested that a predominantly Mediterranean diet with a high intake of fruits, vegetables, and nuts was associated with a lower risk of depression.

These outcomes were also similar in populations who had a diet low in pro-inflammatory foods, which are, as the name suggests, foods that cause inflammation and are strongly associated with cancer and diabetes. These foods include processed meats, deep fried foods, and many baked goods.

Components of a Mediterranean diet all share anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which are thought to protect the brain from neuronal damage, and inflammation in the brain. The latter is seen in patients with depression and results in the uncontrolled regulation of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers between neurons) such as dopamine and serotonin which are all involved in modulating emotions.

Interestingly, components of a Mediterranean diet are similar to those in the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) which aims to prevent and reduce high blood pressure. According to the British Heart Foundation, such diets also promote cardiovascular health by lowering the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and type II diabetes. Therefore, adhering to such a diet can be beneficial for not only your mental wellbeing, but also your physical health.

There are, however, other small changes in our lifestyle that we can take to improve our overall mental wellbeing. It may sound simple, but even going for walks, daytrips or taking up new hobbies can promote a healthy mind and give people a sense of escapism. These are excellent opportunities to meet new people, increase your creativity and confidence. Be sure to get involved with the social aspects of university and talk about any issues you experience with either friends, family or even the university’s Wellbeing Services that offer confidential appointments and counselling.

Of course, being a student, it can be difficult to continuously adhere to a healthy lifestyle and diet but knowing that there are foods promoting a healthy mind is something we should all consider on our next grocery shop.