The Best Diet for Depression

Depression affects more than 150 million people worldwide, making it a leading cause of losing healthy years of life as a result of disability. By 2020, depression may be second only to heart disease as the leading cause of healthy years of life lost. Why is depression so common? Well it’s said, “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Why would we evolve to get depressed?

Depression presents a baffling evolutionary puzzle. Despite its negative effects, it remains common and heritable, meaning a large part of the risk is passed through our genes. Presumably, there must be some kind of adaptive benefit or it would have been naturally selected against. Could depression be an evolutionary strategy to provide a defense against infection? Infection has been the leading cause of mortality throughout human history, making it a critical force in natural selection. Indeed, because of infections, our average life expectancy before the industrial period was only 25 years, and it was not uncommon for half of our children to die without reaching adulthood.

When we become infected, there is a surge of inflammation as our body mounts a counter-attack. Our body responds by feeling lousy, sick, weak, tired, and slow. We don’t want to socialize. The only thing we do want to do is sleep. These symptoms are similar to the ones we experience during depression and are great for fighting infection. Slowing down not only helps us conserve energy to put up a good fight; it also reduces social contact so we don’t infect others. We see this protective phenomenon in other social animals, like honeybees and mole rats, who feel compelled to crawl off and die alone to reduce the risk of infecting the rest of their community. Humans have even evolved to think poop and decaying flesh don’t smell particularly good to keep us safe from infection.

To explore the relationship between inflammation and mental health, we have to look back to 1887, when this connection was first noted by Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg, the only psychiatrist to ever win the Nobel Prize. What evidence have we accumulated in the past century that inflammation causes depression? We know that people who are depressed have raised inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein and that inflammatory illnesses are associated with greater rates of major depression. Indeed, we find depression in even more benign inflammatory conditions such as asthma and allergies. This is important as it suggests that the mood symptoms may be directly tied to the inflammation and are not simply the result of “feeling bad about having a terrible disease.”

We also know that you can induce depression by inducing inflammation. For example, when we give interferon for certain cancers or chronic infection, up to 50 percent of people go on to suffer major depression. Even just giving a vaccine can cause enough inflammation to trigger depressive symptoms. Taken together, these studies “are strongly suggestive of inflammation being a causative factor of mood symptoms.”

Can an anti-inflammatory diet help prevent depression? We didn’t know until researchers followed the diets of about 43,000 women without depression for approximately 12 years. Those who ate a more inflammatory diet, characterized by more soda, refined grains and meat, became depressed. “This finding suggests that chronic inflammation may underlie the association between diet and depression.”

Normally, we think of omega-3s as anti-inflammatory, but researchers found fish to be pro-inflammatory, associated with increased C-reactive protein levels. This is consistent with recent findings that omega-3s don’t seem to help with either depression or inflammation. As I discuss in my video Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Depression, the most anti-inflammatory diet is a plant-based diet, which is capable of cutting C-reactive protein levels by an impressive 30 percent within two weeks, perhaps because of the anti-inflammatory properties of the antioxidants found in plants. I talked about this in my Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants video, but never explained why antioxidants are anti-inflammatory.

When free radicals cause oxidative damage, it may cause an autoimmune response in the body by changing the chemical structures of otherwise ubiquitous molecules to generate new structures that the body attacks as foreign. For example, when LDL cholesterol gets oxidized, our body creates antibodies against it that attack it. Likewise, clinical depression can be accompanied by increased oxidative stress and the autoimmune inflammatory responses it creates. Free radicals may thus lead to autoimmune inflammation.

Where else does inflammation in our diet come from? Endotoxins. It’s worth reviewing my videos on the subject—The Leaky Gut Theory of Why Animal Products Cause Inflammation, Dead Meat Bacteria Endotoxemia, and The Exogenous Endotoxin Theory—to see how the endotoxins in animal products can cause a burst of inflammation within hours of consumption. What does this burst do to our mood? Within a few hours of injecting endotoxin, inflammation shoots up, increasing feelings of depression and social disconnection.

Although previous research has demonstrated that inflammatory activity contributes to depressive symptoms, only recently did research show the effect of experimentally induced inflammation on anhedonia, the lack of reaction to pleasurable stimuli. In the study, subjects were injected with endotoxin. Within hours of the endotoxin hitting their bloodstreams, they began feeling depressed and had significant activity reductions in the reward center of the brain. The subjects, for example, were less excited about winning money playing video games. But as I discuss in my Plant-Based Diets for Improved Mood and Productivity and Antioxidants and Depression videos, we may be able to treat or even prevent depression by eliminating animal products and eating antioxidant-rich diets.


If you’re as much of a sucker for evolutionary biology theory as I am, you can learn more about it by checking out my High Blood Pressure May Be a Choice, The Problem with the Paleo Diet Argument and Why Do We Age? videos. 

I have several videos on inflammation, including: 

And in Biblical Daniel Fast Put to the Test, I discuss a study that shows a dramatic decrease in inflammation within weeks on a plant-based diet.

For more information on the effect diet can have on mental health, check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Foods to Avoid to Help Prevent Diabetes

We’ve known that being overweight and obese are important risk factors for type 2 diabetes, but, until recently, not much attention has been paid to the role of specific foods. I discuss this issue in my video, Why Is Meat a Risk Factor for Diabetes?

A 2013 meta-analysis of all the cohorts looking at the connection between meat and diabetes found a significantly higher risk associated with total meat consumption––especially consumption of processed meat, particularly poultry. But why? There’s a whole list of potential culprits in meat: saturated fat, animal fat, trans fats naturally found in meat, cholesterol, or animal protein. It could be the heme iron found in meat, which can lead to free radicals and iron-induced oxidative stress that may lead to chronic inflammation and type 2 diabetes, or advanced glycation end (AGE) products, which promote oxidative stress and inflammation. Food analyses show that the highest levels of these so-called glycotoxins are found in meat—particularly roasted, fried, or broiled meat, though any foods from animal sources (and even high fat and protein plant foods such as nuts) exposed to high dry temperatures can be potent sources of these pro-oxidant chemicals.

In another study, researchers fed diabetics glycotoxin-packed foods, like chicken, fish, and eggs, and their inflammatory markers––tumor necrosis factor, C-reactive protein, and vascular adhesion molecules––shot up. “Thus, in diabetes, environmental (dietary) AGEs promote inflammatory mediators, leading to tissue injury.” The good news is that restriction of these kinds of foods may suppress these inflammatory effects. Appropriate measures to limit AGE intake, such as eliminating meat or using only steaming and boiling as methods for cooking it, “may greatly reduce the already heavy burden of these toxins in the diabetic patient.” These glycotoxins may be the missing link between the increased consumption of animal fat and meats and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Since the 2013 meta-analysis was published, another study came out in which approximately 17,000 people were followed for about a dozen years. Researchers found an 8% increased risk for every 50 grams of daily meat consumption. Just one quarter of a chicken breast’s worth of meat for the entire day may significantly increase the risk of diabetes. Yes, we know there are many possible culprits: the glycotoxins or trans fat in meat, saturated fat, or the heme iron (which could actually promote the formation of carcinogens called nitrosamines, though they could also just be produced in the cooking process itself). However, we did learn something new: There also appears to be a greater incidence of diabetes among those who handle meat for a living. Maybe there are some diabetes-causing zoonotic infectious agents––such as viruses––present in fresh cuts of meat, including poultry.

A “crucial factor underlying the diabetes epidemic” may be the overstimulation of the aging enzyme TOR pathway by excess food consumption––but not by the consumption of just any food: Animal proteins not only stimulate the cancer-promoting hormone insulin growth factor-1 but also provide high amounts of leucine, which stimulates TOR activation and appears to contribute to the burning out of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, contributing to type 2 diabetes. So, it’s not just the high fat and added sugars that are implicated; critical attention must be paid to the daily intake of animal proteins as well.

According to a study, “[i]n general, lower leucine levels are only reached by restriction of animal proteins.” To reach the leucine intake provided by dairy or meat, we’d have to eat 9 pounds of cabbage or 100 apples to take an extreme example. That just exemplifies the extreme differences in leucine amounts provided by a more standard diet in comparison with a more plant-based diet.

I reviewed the role endocrine-disrupting industrial pollutants in the food supply may play in a three-part video series: Fish and Diabetes, Diabetes and Dioxins, and Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat. Clearly, the standard America diet and lifestyle contribute to the epidemic of diabetes and obesity, but the contribution of these industrial pollutants can no longer be ignored. We now have experimental evidence that exposure to industrial toxins alone induces weight gain and insulin resistance, and, therefore, may be an underappreciated cause of obesity and diabetes. Consider what’s happening to our infants: Obesity in a six-month-old is obviously not related to diet or lack of exercise. They’re now exposed to hundreds of chemicals from their moms, straight through the umbilical cord, some of which may be obesogenic (that is, obesity-generating).

The millions of pounds of chemicals and heavy metals released every year into our environment should make us all stop and think about how we live and the choices we make every day in the foods we eat. A 2014 review of the evidence on pollutants and diabetes noted that we can be exposed through toxic spills, but “most of the human exposure nowadays is from the ingestion of contaminated food as a result of bioaccumulation up the food chain. The main source (around 95%) of [persistent pollutant] intake is through dietary intake of animal fats.”


For more on the information mentioned here, see the following videos that take a closer look at these major topics:  

AGEs: Glycotoxins, Avoiding a Sugary Grave, and Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer’s.

TOR: Why Do We Age?, Caloric Restriction vs. Animal Protein Restriction, Prevent Cancer From Going on TOR, and Saving Lives By Treating Acne With Diet

Viruses: Infectobesity: Adenovirus 36 and Childhood Obesity

Poultry workers: Poultry Exposure and Neurological Disease, Poultry Exposure Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer, and Eating Outside Our Kingdom

Industrial pollutants: Obesity-Causing Pollutants in Food, Fish and Diabetes, Diabetes and Dioxins, and Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat

The link between meat and diabetes may also be due to a lack of sufficient protective components of plants in the diet, which is discussed in my videos How May Plants Protect Against Diabetes?, Plant-Based Diets for DiabetesPlant-Based Diets and Diabetes, and How Not to Die from Diabetes.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

 

The Best Diet for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic systemic autoimmune disease affecting millions. It is characterized by persistent pain, stiffness, and progressive joint destruction leading to crippling deformities, particularly in the hands and feet. What can we do to prevent and treat it?

In my video Why Do Plant-Based Diets Help Rheumatoid Arthritis?, I show a famous 13-month randomized controlled trial of plant-based diets for rheumatoid arthritis where patients were put on a vegan diet for three and a half months and then switched to an egg-free lactovegetarian diet for the remainder of the study. Compared to the control group (who didn’t change their diet at all), the plant-based group experienced significant improvements starting within weeks. Their morning stiffness improved within the first month, cutting the number of hours they suffered from joint stiffness in half. Their pain level dropped from 5 out of 10 down to less than 3 out of 10. Disability levels dropped, and subjects reported feeling better; they had greater grip strength, fewer tender joints, less tenderness per joint, and less swelling. They also had a drop in inflammatory markers in their blood, such as sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein, and white blood cell count. As a bonus, they lost about 13 pounds and kept most of that weight off throughout the year.

What does diet have to do with joint disease?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, in which our own body attacks the lining of our joints. There’s also a different autoimmune disease called rheumatic fever, in which our body attacks our heart. Why would it do that? It appears to be a matter of friendly fire.

Rheumatic fever is caused by strep throat, which is itself caused by a bacterium that has a protein that looks an awful lot like a protein in our heart. When our immune system attacks the strep bacteria, it also attacks our heart valves, triggering an autoimmune attack by “molecular mimicry.” The protein on the strep bacteria is mimicking a protein in our heart; so, our body gets confused and attacks both. That’s why it’s critical to treat strep throat early to prevent our heart from getting caught in the crossfire.

Researchers figured that rheumatoid arthritis might be triggered by an infection as well. A clue to where to start looking was the fact that women seem to get it three times more frequently than men. What type of infection do women get more than men? Urinary tract infections (UTIs). So, researchers started testing the urine of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers and, lo and behold, found a bacterium called Proteus mirabilis. Not enough to cause symptoms of a UTI, but enough to trigger an immune response. And indeed, there’s a molecule in the bacterium that looks an awful lot like one of the molecules in our joints.

The theory is that anti-Proteus antibodies against the bacterial molecule may inadvertently damage our own joint tissues, leading eventually to joint destruction. Therefore, interventions to remove this bacterium from the bodies of patients, with consequent reduction of antibodies against the organism, should lead to a decrease in inflammation.

As we saw in my video Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections, urinary tract infections originate from the fecal flora. The bacteria crawl up from the rectum into the bladder. How might we change the bugs in our colons? By changing our diet.

Some of the first studies published more than 20 years ago to fundamentally shift people’s gut flora were done using raw vegan diets, figuring that’s about as fundamental a shift from the standard Western diet as possible. Indeed, within days researchers could significantly change subjects’ gut flora. When researchers put rheumatoid arthritis sufferers on that kind of diet, they experienced relief, and the greatest improvements were linked to greatest changes in gut flora. The diet was considered so intolerable, though, that half the patients couldn’t take it and dropped out, perhaps because they were trying to feed people things like “buckwheat-beetroot cutlets” buttered with a spread made out of almonds and fermented cucumber juice.

Thankfully, regular vegetarian and vegan diets work too, changing the intestinal flora and improving rheumatoid arthritis. However, we didn’t specifically have confirmation that plant-based diets brought down anti-Proteus antibodies until 2014. Subjects that responded to the plant-based diet showed a significant drop in anti-Proteus mirabilis antibodies compared to the control group. Maybe it just dropped immune responses across the board? No, antibody levels against other bugs remained the same; so, the assumption is that the plant-based diet reduced urinary or gut levels of the bacteria.

A shift from an omnivorous to a vegetarian diet has a profound influence on the composition of urine as well. For example, those eating plant-based had higher levels of lignans in their urine. Up until now, it was thought that they only protected people from getting cancer, but we now know lignans can also have antimicrobial properties. Perhaps, they help clear Proteus mirabilis from the system. Either way, these data suggest a new type of therapy for the management of rheumatoid arthritis: anti-Proteus measures including plant-based diets.


I have to admit I had never even heard of Proteus mirabilis. That’s why I love doing work—I learn as much as you do!

I explored another unconventional theory as to why plant-based diets are so successful in treating inflammatory arthritis in Potassium and Autoimmune Disease.

There’s another foodborne bacteria implicated in human disease, the EXPEC in chicken leading to urinary tract infections—another game-changer: Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections.

I have a bunch of videos on gut flora—the microbiome. They include: 

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.