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Biology 202
2006 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Mood Foods

Courtney Moore

The latest national epidemic can't be cured with antibodies or prevented with immunization-it's depression, and it's sweeping the country. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly ten percent of the country suffers depression each year (8), and predicts further increases in the near future. The causes of depression are unclear at best and certainly highly controversial, but the latest technology invariably links mental illness with neurochemical levels. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are chemical messengers in the brain that affect emotions, behavior, and thought, and are therefore immediately associated with depressive disorders (9). In response to this information the medical world has responded with a host of pharmaceutical treatments designed to affect neurochemical levels with the ultimate hope of restoring a "normal" balance. However, these chemical treatments are often even more controversial than the dysfunction they are purported to treat, causing a range of detrimental side effects while exhibiting questionable efficacy: "anti-depressant medications, such as Prozac, are used to mimic or interfere with our natural biochemical processes, but there are problems with these. Individuals respond very differently to the exact same medication, so finding the right one is often by trial-and-error. Also, because they are synthetic as opposed to natural chemicals, these medications have a variety of side effects associated with them," potentially creating problems even more threatening than the initial complaints (4). In light of this, certain groups of health care professionals emphasize the plenitude of chemicals we consume or to which we are exposed on a daily basis, which may significantly affect neurochemistry. Natural chemicals found in food products, for example, may alter neurotransmitters in such a way that depression is either caused or relieved. These "mood foods" may therefore be considered one possible treatment for depressive disorders.

To explore depression one must explore the very notion of the brain, and the connection between the brain and nutritional factors is a central contribution to brain activity. "The brain is basically a chemical factory that constantly produces dozens of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which act as messengers to start, continue or stop biochemical processes" (4). The nutrients garnered from food intake are the building blocks for these processes, thus explaining the link between food and mood. Complex carbohydrates and nutrients such as folate, magnesium, niacin, selenium, and tryptophan are particularly influential on brain processes, and thus may be used to decrease symptoms of depression (7). For example, many of the B-vitamins are associated with brain functioning, such as vitamin B6, which is vital in the formation of many neurotransmitters. High levels of vitamin B6 occur in cauliflower, watercress, spinach, bananas, okra, onions, broccoli, squash, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, peas and radishes, and a deficiency of vitamin B6 often results in agitation, irritability, depression, and impaired intellectual function (6). Zinc may actually function as a brain neurotransmitter, hence low levels of zinc may result in irritability, anger, poor memory, reduced intellectual function, impaired immune function, and an inability to deal with stress. Similarly, copper is involved in the process of converting dopamine to norephinephrine, and an excess of this nutrient can lead to over stimulation and ultimately depression.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are critical in brain development and nerve transmission, and imbalances of EFAs can hence lead to depression, aggression, or a number of additional extreme feelings or behaviors (4). It is thought that they affect fats in the brain, perhaps by making membranes more resilient and easing the flow of neurotransmitters (6), which would involve affect depressive disorders. Fatty acids can be found in avocados, ground flax seeds, raw nuts and seeds, almond or peanut butter, soy nuts, dark green veggies, deep-water fish, extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil, and other pure properly processed oils. The Pfeiffer Treatment Center, which specializes in nutritional therapy for depressive disorders, has observed that most victims of depression fall into one of five biochemical classes: high histamine, low histamine, pyroluria, high copper, and toxic overload. Using food-based treatments, and cater their treatments based on this sort of diagnostic. The Treatment Center performed an outcome study of 200 depressive patients: 92% reported improvement, with 60% reporting major improvement and 32% reporting partial improvement. Additionally, after beginning nutritional therapy roughly two-thirds of the Pfeiffer patients reported that their antidepressant medications were no longer necessary (4).

Depression has additionally been associated with a high intake of caffeine, but there is some question as to whether caffeine consumption incites depression or depressed individuals tend to turn to caffeine to boost their mood (3). Refined sugar is also said to aggravate depression, but it is difficult to ascertain what sugars can be constituted as healthy and necessary, and what sugars ought to be avoided. While the combination of caffeine and refined sugar is purported to be even worse for depression than either substance consumed alone, the same dilemmas apply to this assumption.

Some professionals offer a "psycho-nutritional model" suggesting that depression and other mood disorders are diseases of energy production (5), linking depression to hypoglycemia and other sugar-related disorders. Hypoglycemia, while rarely recognized as a medical "illness," is characterized by unstable blood sugar levels, which feed the brain inadequately and consequently cause excess stress hormones to flood the body (5). This model would indicate depression as a nutritional disorder, instigated by excess or deficient blood sugar levels. Most cells require about 2 million molecules of energy (ATP) per second to fuel biochemical reactions inside the cell, and this energy is entirely derived from glucose in our food. In the absence of this energy, the brain cannot synthesize neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine that normally bring about feelings of happiness and relaxation (5). Therefore blood sugar levels would seem to have a direct and vital impact on mood and mental health, and nutrition cannot be ignored in the battle against depression.

Depression exists as an enigma-it stems from a range of causes and manifests in a variety of symptoms. There are scores of treatments yet, as in the case of most mental "illnesses," no single and reliable "cure." Pharmaceutical medications attract many sufferers with the appeal of a simple and successful treatment, but in truth these treatments are fickle and fallible, and may even be dangerous to the patient. Nutritional therapy therefore offers an alterative method of understanding and treating depression, providing a more holistic view of the patient and therefore catering to both the physical brain and the mental self.

1) "Depression a Nutritional Disorder," , posted by Jurriaan Plesman

2)"Dealing with the Depths of Depression," , By Liora Nordenberg

3)Holistic health remedies, Information on treating depression holistically

4)"Nutrients and Depression: Food for Your Mood" , by Constantine Bitsas, Executive Director Health Research Institute and Pfeiffer Treatment Center

5) "Depression a Nutritional Disorder" , By Jurriaan Plesman

6) "'Mangia, Mangia!' -- Certain Foods Fight Depression,", Harvard University study: posted March 25, 2005

7) "Online holistic health advice" , Food remedies for depression

8) National Institute of Mental Health on depression

9) Medical Terminology , Information on neurotransmitters

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