It was spring of 2017, and my depression had gotten worse despite being on plenty of meds. I decided that I needed to add in other elements to my treatment plan. I’d had some bloodwork done that showed I had elevated levels of inflammation as measured by something called C-reactive protein. I decided to talk to the naturopath who I’d first started seeing the year before. She recommended that I adopt an anti-inflammatory diet and supplement with omega-3 fatty acids and a combined vitamin/mineral/antioxidant supplement called Ultra-Preventive.
I’ve never been interested in doing any sort of diet, but I did some reading and was interested by what I found. Inflammation is involved in various physical health problems, and recent research has also suggested a link to mental illness. Depressed people with elevated levels of inflammation (as indicated by C-reactive protein and a few other markers) actually have differences in how well they respond to different types of treatment, and some studies have shown that anti-inflammatory medications can have a beneficial effect in depression. Some types of food are thought to promote inflammation while others reduce it, and the goal of an anti-inflammatory nutritional approach is to improve health by reducing inflammation. It’s quite similar to a Mediterranean way of eating. Weight loss is not the goal, so I prefer not to call it a diet.
Pro-inflammatory foods to limit:
- Sugar and refined carbs: Simple sugars (including high fructose corn syrup) and highly refined carbs (e.g. flour, white rice) cause spikes in blood sugar, leading to a cascade of reaction in the body that can increase inflammation. My naturopath wanted me to cut out bread entirely and as well as sugar-containing drinks. I managed to stop sweetening my tea and coffee by first switching from sugar to stevia (a plant-based zero-calorie sweetener) and then steadily decreasing the stevia.
- Grain-fed red meat: What the cow eats actually makes a difference in the resulting food product. Grass would naturally be a staple food for cows, but in modern farming, cows are sent to feedlots, where they’re given corn or soy-based feed. There are a number of adverse health effects that appear to be linked to high consumption of grain-fed red meat (i.e. the beef typically found in grocery stores), and it’s something that’s recommended to avoid in an anti-inflammatory diet. Grass-fed beef is considered a better choice, and butter from grass-fed cows contains significantly higher levels of healthy fats.
- Highly processed foods: As a general rule of thumb, the less a food product resembles simple, natural ingredients, the less likely it is to do good things in your body.
- Trans fats
Foods to look for:
Fibre, plant-based nutrients, and healthy fats are your best friends in the context of an anti-inflammatory diet. Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid is a useful place to start.
- Veggies (especially dark leafy greens and crucifers like broccoli and cauliflower): These are full of fibre, phytochemicals (i.e. nutrients found in plants), and antioxidants, which scavenge harmful free radicals. I tried to make myself like broccoli to no avail, but I did find a yummy way to cook cauliflower.
- Fruit: Berries in particular are packed with antioxidants. The fibre in fruit helps slow down the absorption of naturally occurring sugar to minimize spikes in blood sugar.
- Whole grains (eg brown rice, quinoa, steel-cut oats): The whole grain contains the nutritious parts that get stripped away during refining, and these nutritious bits, including fibre, also slow carbohydrate absorption, reducing spikes in blood sugar.
- Beans and legumes: These are protein- and fibre-packed nutritional powerhouses. Chickpeas are a favourite of mine.
- Pasta: Dr. Weil suggests 2-3 servings per week. I initially cut out pasta altogether, but I’ve since added whole wheat pasta back into the mix.
- Healthy fats: Yes, fat can be good for you! Fats found in extra virgin olive oil, nuts (especially walnuts, cashews, and almonds), seeds (including hemp seeds and flaxseeds), and avocados help to decrease inflammation.
- Wild-caught fish and shellfish: Fish like salmon and sardines have lots of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Wild-caught is preferable to farmed. Shellfish contain choline, which is a precursor in the production of neurotransmitters.
- Whole-soy foods: Tofu is a very versatile food with great nutritional value, but personally I’ve just never been a fan. It’s worth noting that processed soy-based products do not have the same benefits as whole soy.
- Cooked Asian mushrooms (eg shiitake and oyster)
- Other protein sources: The food pyramid includes occasional consumption of foods like dairy, eggs, poultry, and lean meat. I’ve never had any problems with lactose intolerance and had no interest in cutting out milk, but I did cut back somewhat on cheese. I’ve gone from being an ardent carnivore to eating very little meat. Eggs I like to include because they’re rich in choline.
- Herbs and spices: Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory superpower. Cinnamon, ginger, garlic, basil, rosemary, and thyme are also good choices.
- Tea (preferably white, green, or oolong)
- Treats: Red wine and dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao are yummy goodies with the benefit of antioxidants. 70% cacao chocolate isn’t very sweet, but gradually I’ve built all the way up to a preference for 85% cacao.
My experience with an anti-inflammatory diet
After a few months of sticking pretty closely to my anti-inflammatory diet plan, my bloodwork showed that my level of C-reactive protein had come back down to normal range. Despite not trying to lose weight, I did lose some of my medication-induced weight gain. Since then, I’ve eased up and don’t follow my nutrition plan as closely, but I’m still far more conscious than I used to be about what I’m choosing to put into my body, and I’ve cut way down on my intake of processed food. I use the MyFitnessPal app to track what I’m eating, and that was particularly useful when I was starting out as it helped me to understand what exactly I was putting into my body, including a breakdown of fat, protein, and sugar.
So, has the anti-inflammatory diet actually helped with my mental health? It’s hard to say, because there are so many different factors that influence my depression. Still, this approach to eating can’t hurt, it’s not the kind of weight loss diet that I’m very strongly against, and at least in theory bringing down inflammation is a good thing, so any little bit helps.