The relationship between diet, inflammation and depression

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A new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found that the measure of brain inflammation in people who were experiencing clinical depression was increased by 30 per cent. The findings, published in JAMA Psychiatry, have important implications for developing new treatments for depression.

A growing body of evidence suggests the role of inflammation in generating the symptoms of a major depressive episode such as low mood, loss of appetite, and inability to sleep. But what was previously unclear was whether inflammation played a role in clinical depression independent of any other physical illness.

More research has come out which supports the link between inflammation and depression. While this link hasn’t been confirmed my experience has piqued my interest in the topic. For about fifteen years I have been experimenting with Ayurveda which is a form of medicine which originated in India a thousand years ago. In Ayurveda the world is divided up into three different categories(doshas in human body), Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata is associated with air, Pitta with fire/water and Kapha with water/earth. In the human body the various categories govern certain functions and areas. Pitta governs metabolism, heat regulation and the immune system. It is located in the eyes and small intestine. Various tastes/qualities are said to balance the doshas. Pitta is said to be balanced by sweet, bitter, astringent and coolness.

For many years I have experimented with Ayurveda and discovered that balancing Pitta was very helpful, even more than balancing Vata which is associated in Ayurveda with the nervous system. Balancing Pitta is helpful especially in regards to anxiety, irritability and depression. Perhaps Pitta’s association with inflammation in Ayurveda might explain this. In addition, Ayurveda recommends a vegetarian diet for a Pitta type of imbalance, a vegetarian diet has been shown in western medicine to help with inflammation.

Balancing Kapha, which is said to be localized in the stomach, has been helpful in regard to lack of motivation and energy. Balancing a dosha can aggravate another. Whenever I balance Kapha I notice Pitta becoming imbalanced. Balancing or pacifying Kapha can increase irritability which is a Pitta imbalance. In Ayurveda there are different methods of balancing more than on dosha. One way is to balance Vata which is believed to govern the other doshas. The second method is to balance the two using the qualities that balance the two doshas. In the case of Pitta and Kapha they are both balanced by bitter and astringent tastes. While this balancing act can be consciously performed I think it is also subconsciously performed when we have desert after a meal that has had too much salty and sour taste to it.

Somewhat interestingly healthy food tends to be higher in bitter and astringent qualities while junk food is higher in salty, sour and sweet tastes. According to Ayurveda salty, sour and sweet all balance Vata which is associated with the nervous system and stress. Perhaps this preference is one reason why western cultures seem to have more problems with inflammation and depression.

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Meditation regulates genes involved with inflammation

Dr. Khalsa and a group out of UCLA have shown that KKM resulted in different patterns of brain metabolism compared meditationto other general relaxation methods. Using PET scanning, they saw that KKM resulted in 19 genes being up-regulated and 49 genes being down-regulated, resulting in the production of fewer inflammatory mediators, and increased telomerase activity by almost 50%. Why do we care about telomeres? Well, for starters, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was recently awarded to another research group, which found a connection between increased telomerase activity and greater longevity. Finally, the group taught KKM also had higher scores of mental health and lower depression.

KKM is a type of meditation. Inflammation is thought to be involved in depression and telomere activity is relevant  since depression is thought to accelerate the aging process. Due to the small number of people in research studies, more research is necessary.

Personally I find that meditation immediately helps with my fatigue, irritability and ability to focus. I’m not so sure about the long term effects.

Green tea improves symptoms of depression

some of that tea
some of that tea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A just came across a recent study that demonstrated that green tea could significantly improve depression symptoms, in particular anhedonia.

Green tea (Camellia sinensis) extracts, as well as their main component, the polyphenol
epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), reportedly have antistress, anticancer, and
antioxidant effects. Recent studies suggest a beneficial association between green tea
consumption and symptoms of depression; however, the underlying mechanism behind
that association is unclear. Anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, is a
characteristic of depression, marked by reduced pleasure, altered motivation, and
disturbed reward learning.1,2 A reduced reward-learning function has been linked to
persistent anhedonia in depressed patients.3

“It has been evidenced that reduced dopamine neurotransmission might
contribute to the anhedonia and loss of behavioral incentive in depressive disorder,
therefore it is important to examine the regulatory role of green tea on the brain circuitry
activated by reward learning,” write the authors.

Compared with the control treatment, the green tea produced significantly greater
improvements in the MADRS (P<0.01) and HRSD-17 (P<0.001) total scores.

I’ve been drinking green tea occasionally and noticed that it seemed more stimulating than regular tea. This seemed odd to me since green tea has approximately half the amount of caffeine compared to black tea. According to this study and others the stimulating effects could be due to an increase in dopamine activity in the reward center of the brain.

Green tea is recommended for Pitta and Kapha types in Ayurveda. Pitta types are said to have more problems with inflammation so green tea, which has an astringent quality to it, would be recommended. Inflammation has been shown to in turn to be associated with depression. I found one recent journal article in addition that supports the idea that tea, black or green, has anti-inflammatory properties.

Diet could possibly affect mood via bacteria in gut

Lord of Ayurveda,Dhanvantari
Lord of Ayurveda,Dhanvantari (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have tried a number of diets in order to improve my mood and one that seemed to help the most was the Pitta diet of Ayurveda. This diet consists mainly of food that has the flowing qualities: bitter, astringent,  and sweet. Additionally the diet specifies eating little to no meat,no eggs, and avoiding certain oils. The Pitta dosha is associated with inflammation in Ayurveda.

Recently I read in NPR that a diet consisting of just meat, eggs and cheese increases a type of bacteria your gut that could lead to inflammation and inflammation has in turn been associated with depression. A vegetarian diet on the other hand increased other types of bacteria which haven’t been associated with inflammation.

Scientists are just beginning to learn about how our decisions at the dinner table — or the drive-through — tweak our microbiome, that is, the communities of bacteria living in our bodies. But one thing is becoming clear: The critters hanging out in our intestine influence many aspects of our health, including weight, immunity and perhaps even behavior.

“The relative abundance of various bacteria species looked like it shifted within a day after the food hit the gut,” David says. After the volunteers had spent about three days on each diet, the bacteria in the gut even started to change their behavior. “The kind of genes turned on in the microbes changed in both diets,” he says.

Not all fish supplements created equal

I have been taking a variety of fish oil supplements( Twinlab, Now) since 2003 and I believe, for the most part, that they were helpful, howevergel capsules I couldn’t say for certain. Recently I came across some information that is new to me. A website PsychEducation mentioned that if you purchase fish oil the amount of EPA should be 60 percent of the total amount of Omega-3 fatty acids per/pill.  A fish oil pill with less than that percentage acts more or less like a placebo. I found it difficult to discern this from some of the brands since some don’t give you much detail.

big review of all these studies and more suggests that the ratio of EPA to DHA (the two omega-3 fatty acids) really matters. Their analysis shows that of these two omega-3’s in each pill, at least 60%  must be EPA. Less than that and it does not work better than a placebo; in fact in several studies, less than 60% EPA was worse than a placebo.

The Mayo Clinic gives fish oil a grade of C due to the fact that results of various studies have been mixed. I’m not sure if the information from this latest review has been taken into account?