shira burstein

Nutrition & Depression

After discussing the connection between nutrition and mental health with Shira Burstein, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I've asked her to help explain how nutrition can help with treating depression and other mental disorders. Following Shira's post, I will recommend some diet changes for the upcoming winter months.

- Allison


I was not sure whether it was my recent e-mail blasts for “Fall Fashion Finds” or the obvious fading of my summer tan that caused me to start feeling that impending gloom of our everlasting NYC winter months. Even with all the weekends I spent on the beach, I knew that according to science I would have had to stand completely naked for one hour, every day  (the sun hitting both front and back) in order to absorb the needed levels of vitamin D to prevent me from being deficient.  Although that tactic might seem exciting to some, I opt to take a more conservative route by including vitamin D supplements and other important foods in my daily diet.

As a psychotherapist, I am constantly curious as to how the mind and body are connected as one. In particular how our diet impacts our moods both positively and negatively. You might ask why I bring up vitamin D when I’m groaning over images of women wearing cashmere cowl necks and knee high boots. Some of the signs of vitamin D deficiency include general malaise, lack of motivation, lethargy and even symptoms that mimic clinical depressions, anxiety and other mental disorders.  In a world where psychotropic drugs are easily accessible and the inclinations for ‘quick fixes’ become paramount, many of us can be mistaking nutrient or physiological deficiencies for chronic and serious mental illness.

Whenever you start feeling depressed, anxious or upset, typically our routines begin to unravel. Although everyone uses their own methods of self-soothing, those that use food often consume items that only exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety further. The relationship between nutrient deficiencies and issues such as depression then become a revolving door. If you are feeling depressed and anxious, you then see behaviors increase such as staying indoors, not exercising and having unhealthy eating patterns.

The question is then, how do we know what foods we need to consume to promote better mental and physical health, and what exactly are we trying to achieve by what we decide to chomp on? Healthy brain functioning is highly correlated with proper balance of neurotransmitters and ultimately the goal is to consume foods that produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine, tryptophan, GABA and the ‘feel good’ serotonin, which is a chemical that many antidepressants for example act on.

Our brain is the most complex organ in our body, which includes receptors for things such as vitamin D. Research shows that this directly helps us regulate emotion. Often enough, clients are treated with psychotropic drugs right off the bat in an attempt to manipulate our brain neurotransmitter functioning without considering lifestyle choices.  When I start to feel the ‘winter blues’ I first ask myself how I can address these symptoms holistically, adding in healthy food as the nuts and bolts to naturally improve my mood and affect.  

The mentality of ‘ruling out’ medical causes first, can easily be addressed with simply swapping out your morning chocolate muffin and caffeinated double espresso, causing a greater shift then you could have even imagined.  To make note, there are certain medical conditions that medication may be needed, please check with your licensed medical provider.

Allison will explain how to make changes in your diet that ultimately will improve moods such as sadness, low energy, anxiety and even low-grade depressive symptoms. 

- Shira Burstein, LCSW 


Nutrition For Depression

Vitamin D

As Shira mentioned, the number one source for Vitamin D is pure sunshine. Vitamin D is actually a hormone, converted by the body from cholesterol. If you aren't getting enough sunlight, you can quickly become Vitamin D deficient. Unfortunately, most of us don't spend our lives lounging by the Mediterranean Sea, therefore we have to rely on our diet. With winter quickly approaching, it's important to start increasing our intake before the days get shorter. Strong food sources of Vitamin D are cheese, sardines, salmon, sole, flounder, egg yolks, mushrooms, herring, liver, tuna and cod. In order to maximize absorption, D should be increased along with calcium and omega 3s. A simple blood test can test levels of Vitamin D. If extremely deficient, check with a medical doctor to verify the need for supplementation--but it's recommended to take 2000 to 5000 IU of Vitamin D3 per week.


It's not only found in milk! Calcium can be found in collard greens, spinach, kale, okra, soybeans, white beans, rainbow trout and yogurt. Many Vitamin D supplements already include Calcium.

The Omega 3s

ALA, EPA, DHA are essential fatty acids; meaning our body does not produce them and they must be consumed via diet.  ALA is found in plants, while EPA & DHA are found in fish & meat sources. The problem with American livestock is that most are fed corn, causing an increase in omega 6s causing a pro-inflammatory response, which is associated with depression and acts of violence. When purchasing meat, make sure it is labeled 'grass fed.' Pescatarian sources of EPA & DHA are anchovies, herring, sardines, mackerel, trout & salmon.  Notice most of these sources also are full of Vitamin D.  Sources of ALA are flax seed, walnuts, butternuts, beechnuts, chia seed, dried soybeans, oats, seaweed, pecans and almonds. 


Serotonin will not only promote overall well being, but it's also been linked to decreasing the urge to overeat. The amino acid, tryptophan, is needed to produce this "feel-good hormone." Tryptophan is one of eight essential amino acids and must be consumed via the diet. Sources of tryptophan include turkey, chicken, venison, halibut, cod, snapper, scallops, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, mung beans, kidney beans, soy beans, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, oats, eggs, apples, avocados, figs, peaches and berries. 

Folic Acid

Folic acid (folate) will aid in maintaining normal levels of serotonin in the brain, preventing depression and reducing lethargy. Sources of folic acid include all dark leafy greens, asparagus, citrus fruits, lentils, pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, avocado, okra, brussel sprouts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds and beets.

Lifestyle Change

Proper nutrition should accompany adequate sleep & regular exercise. It's important to note that lifestyle changes must be implemented in order to see long lasting results in mood and health.  Poor sleep patterns are associated with depression and other mood disorders. You should set up a sleep schedule and TRY to stick with it as much as possible. Exercise will increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a “natural” antidepressant for your brain. Personally, I have seen the amazing benefits that exercise has in creating a balanced mood--as does Shira--we were often side by side in the fitness center at Clark University.


  • High sugar foods will cause a quick rush, leading to a "crash" and energy dip that can cause a depressive mood. A 30 minute "high" off of that Kit Kat Bar isn't really worth it, is it?
  • Caffeine in moderation may increase mood, but excessive caffeine can interfere with sleep.
  •  Both large portions & saturated fat take longer to digest, diverting the blood from the brain and muscles, causing a "fog-like" feeling leading to lethargy.  Try to practice portion control and to decrease saturated fat intake, if not only for depression, but for long-term health.