A new study from Harvard's famous McLean Hospital indicates that certain foods could have an antidepressant effect similar to that of prescription drugs such as Prozac and Celexa--at least if you're a rodent.
The results are very early--they have not even been validated in humans. Nobody should stop taking their Zoloft over this study. But they do hint that foods could have a potentially powerful effect on treating and preventing depression--basically a recapitulation of the old-school thought: "eat right, feel good."
"The things that we eat provide the raw fuel for our body," says Bill Carlezon, director of McLean's Behavioral Genetics lab, who led the study. "We know that neurotransmitters in the brain and the neurons and how they talk to each other is really important for how people act and feel so if you're getting low quality fuel, it shouldn't be surprising that people don't feel well. On the flipside, it shouldn't be surprising that these things can make you feel better."
Carlezon's methods were the same as those used to discover many treatments for depression. But keep in mind that these results have not been validated by the kind of rigorous testing that antidepressant pills have undergone. Often, what seems to work in animals eventually fails in humans. For instance, Merck (nyse: MRK - news - people ) and Pfizer (nyse: PFE - news - people ) spent years trying to develop drugs that worked on a mysterious brain chemical called substance P. Merck developed a drug that worked against nausea caused by chemotherapy, but it flopped as an antidepressant in humans.
What the researchers did was give rats two substances found in foods: Omega-3 fatty acids, a kind of fat that the body can't make enough of on its own, and uridine, one of the building blocks of DNA, which promotes a cell's energy-making process. The researchers gave a second group of rats a cocktail of antidepressants. The Omega-3 diet showed results after one month, and uridine was effective as long as the rats were fed enough of it. But when given both together, within ten days the rats who were eating the good foods behaved as well as those on medications.
The reasons lay in cell membranes. Dietary fats and cholesterols build up there, making the membrane rigid and impeding the fluid movement of chemicals within it. Omega-3s clear the buildup, allowing those chemicals to get where they're going easier. This is especially important in mitochondria, organs within cells that produce energy. Uridine fuels mitochondria, and paired with the lubricating effect of the Omega-3s, helps them make more energy more efficiently.
"Mitochondria are something we're going to hear about a lot more about in the future in terms of psychiatric diseases," Carlezon predicts.
The study has led Carlezon and his research team to ask new questions. Can uridine and Omega-3s together make people feel as well as giving them a standard antidepressant treatment? Is uridine safe for humans in large quantities? Should we be taking uridine supplements? It remains to be seen. For now, he says, "If people can get these things into their bodies more we will at least have them pointed in the right direction."
So what to eat? Foods high in both Omega-3s and uridine might be a good place to start. At the worst, you'll be eating a healthier diet. Omega-3s are clearly good for the heart.
Click here for the list of anti-depressant foods.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Gisquet