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Nutrition, Fitness and Lifestyle Choices for Depression

By William Marchand, M.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

A healthy lifestyle is beneficial in many ways. Furthermore, there is research indicating that certain nutrition and lifestyle changes may be beneficial for depression.


Some research indicates that maintaining a healthy diet over time reduces the risk of developing depression. There is also emerging evidence that implementing a healthy diet may help with the reduction of depressive symptoms as well. Since a healthy diet has many health benefits, this approach can be strongly recommended for those with depression as one component of a strategy to feel better.


Folate is a B vitamin found in some vegetables and fruits. It is necessary for the brain to synthesize some of the neurotransmitters (norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine), which are involved in depression. Folate deficiency may be associated with the occurrence of depression as well as poor response to antidepressants and relapse of illness. Folate supplementation has been studied for major depression. These studies have a number of limitations but suggest possible benefit, particularly for those with low folate levels. Recent studies suggest short-term treatment is not beneficial, but more prolonged consumption (several weeks to years) may decrease the risk of relapse and the onset of symptoms in people at risk for depression. However, there are some potential side effects of folate supplementation, and the decision to take folate supplementation should only be made in consultation with a medical provider.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of unsaturated fatty acids that are essential for normal growth and health. These substances are not manufactured by the body and must be taken in as part of the diet. Two omega-3 fatty acids that have been studied are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The most efficient natural diet source for EPA and DHA is the consumption of fish and shellfish.

Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids have a number of medical benefits involving the health of the heart and circulatory system. There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may have benefits for the prevention of depressive disorders as well as symptom reduction for those who are depressed. Most of these investigations have assessed whether these substances might contribute to symptom reduction when used as adjunctive treatment along with a conventional treatment, such as antidepressants. The results are not conclusive, but there is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may help treat major depression. However some studies have found no benefit. The risk of side effects appears low, but a decision to add omega-3 fatty acids to your treatment should be discussed with your health care provider.


Exercise is clearly beneficial for health in general, and studies have shown that higher levels of physical activity are generally associated with lower levels of depression. Furthermore, many studies indicate that aerobic exercise can help reduce depressive symptoms. There is also some evidence for benefits of non-aerobic exercise. It is unclear how effective exercise is, but there is some indication that aerobic exercise may be similar in effectiveness to treatments with either antidepressants or psychotherapy, at least for some people. Implementation of an exercise program is definitely worth trying for depression. It may be reasonable to try alone for mild depression, but it should be considered as an adjunctive treatment, along with conventional treatments, for more severe episodes of depression. Always consult your physician before starting to see if you are healthy enough for exercise.

Alcohol and Substance Use

Use of alcohol and substances of abuse can cause and worsen depressive symptoms. Use of these substances should be avoided as part of an overall strategy to decrease depressive symptoms.

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