Depression is a condition so common, the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it "... a leading cause of disability." It affects much more than mood. Sadness is a major sign, but it's far from the only symptom.
Early morning insomnia, loss of appetite, delusions of inferiority and loss of ability to concentrate are just a few of the other effects of depression. WHO estimates that worldwide, at any one time, 350 million people suffer from the condition. While life events such as the loss of a spouse or a job may create an episode of depression, many cases are endogenous – meaning those cases come from within, and are not caused by a life event.
Antidepressants can help relieve the symptoms of this condition, but now scientists are working on a new aspect of cure: nutrition. India is perhaps the world's leader in researching the connection between diet and depression. The Indian Journal of Psychiatry states, "Few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression while they easily understand the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness."
The Journal goes on to report that both before and during an episode of depression, those with the condition will show a "poor appetite, skipping meals and a dominant desire for sweet foods." Skipping meals itself can create a depressed mood, just as hunger often causes people to be irritable.
So what does protein have to do with all this? It all comes down to amino acids. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids are chemicals known as the "building blocks of life." There are 20 different amino acids. Many of them are made by the human body, but nine others, known as the "essential" amino acids, must be eaten in ones diet.
Both the human brain and nervous system use amino acids as neurotransmitters. A neurotransmitter is a substance that creates a signal that goes from one brain cell to another or one nerve cell to another. It travels across the "synapse," which is the space between cells, thus relaying information between the cells. The ultimate effect is how we think.
Since amino acids are made from protein, a diet which is deficient in protein will cause weaker communication between the brain cells. This lessens the signal being sent from one brain cell to the next during a thought. The process can lead to distorted signals, which can not only lead to depression, but also, according to many scientists, aggression. This is why depression can often express itself as anger or aggression.
Many cases of depression, if not most cases, affect those who don't eat properly; but rely mostly on alcohol or junk food. A bag of potato chips, crisps or a slice of bread is mostly made up of carbohydrates, which the body breaks down into a kind of sugar. Sugar, like fat, is necessary for life and even for brain function. But it's not a neurotransmitter. It won't pass a signal from one brain cell to another.
Foods that are highest in amino acids include red meat, poultry and fish. These foods are also known as "complete" proteins – they have a complete supply of all the amino acids. While plant foods such as brown rice contain some proteins, they don't contain all of them. Vegetarians have to plan their diets carefully to be sure to consume enough complete proteins for continued good health.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly , which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.