in Healthy Eating

6 min read

There are many treatments for depression. The two most widespread treatments are antidepressants and psychotherapy. However, research has shown the therapeutic potential of different food nutrients as well. Zinc seems to be one of the more promising ones.

Article guide:

Depression

Depression is a horrible disease. If we would take a closer look at the brain of a person suffering from depression, we would witness a dysfunctional brain chemistry. That’s something many people are not aware of. Mental disorders reflect dysfunctional brain changes, and not the possession of a demon. I’m not going to reference that, you’ll have to trust me on this one.

But there’s more to depression than just a dysfunctional brain chemistry. It affects you as a whole being, you have less motivation, you lose your appetite*, you have a lower self-esteem, don’t have any interest in things which you used to enjoy etc. Your life as you knew it before starts to slowly crumble or fall apart, so to speak. There are, of course, individual differences which are a major factor when it comes to coping with this disorder.

*your appetite is increased for increased intake of carbs

In any case, I’ve mentioned the two most common treatments for depression: psychotherapy and antidepressants. However, not everyone responds well to either of them. For some people, psychotherapy just “doesn’t work”. The reasons for this are many. They range from the quality of a particular psychotherapist and the methods he uses, down to the willingness of the patient himself to be helped.

For others, antidepressants can have a variety of negative side effects. Or, as before, they just don’t seem to work as intended. In some cases, people even have more than one disorder; night eating syndrome, emotional eating, anorexia, and bulimia are a few which are often present, if we’re talking about food-related disorders. This requires more specialized treatment, but it’s out of the scope of this article.

 

Zinc

In a previous article, I’ve covered how depression can be partly, or even fully, treated with food nutrients.

Today, I’m devoting this whole article to zinc.

Zinc is a micronutrient that is essential for our ideal functioning. It plays an especially vital role for our brain and its neural structures. For example, the highest concentrations of zinc can be found in the hippocampus and the amygdala, these are two crucial components of the brain. Well, truth be told, all of them are [1]. The hippocampus is very important for the formation of our memories, and the amygdala is important for emotional processing, particularly negative emotions such as fear and anxiety.

But those aren’t their only roles though. Recent research suggests the hippocampus has an important role when it comes to depression as well; brain-scan studies show there is a significant reduction in its size [2]. With this reduction, less neurons are probably being formed in this part of the brain.

Another important observation which has come up in the past few years of research are low levels of BDNF in brains of patients with depression. BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein which supports existing neurons and helps with the growth of new ones.

Interestingly, antidepressants return BDNF levels back to normal in patients with depression. This is interesting because antidepressants usually have another mechanism of action, affecting serotonin-reuptake. Hence the name SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Because of the before mentioned role of zinc in our brain, there has been an extensive amount of ongoing research. Zinc supplementation seems to increase BDNF gene expression in our brain. [3, 4, 5]

Moreover, research shows that a low zinc status is correlated with high scores on depression scales among elderly people. Higher levels of zinc was found to be negatively connected to postnatal depressive symptoms in pregnant women. Furthermore, people with depression also show lower zinc levels compared to a healthy population. [6, 7, 8, 9]

There is an apparent connection between zinc and depression. However, correlational studies cannot be decisive when we’re talking about firm evidence. That is why I’m about to present some randomized controlled trials, the best type of available evidence as of yet.

There are two major possible uses of zinc supplementation for depression.

  • Zinc supplementation taken with antidepressants to further enhance their effectiveness
  • Zinc supplementation as a preventive strategy against depression

Zinc supplementation taken with antidepressants

When zinc supplementation is used as a treatment for depressive symptoms together with antidepressants, people report an important improvement in their symptomatics after 12 weeks. [3]

And if you’re thinking:

“Well, that were just the antidepressants working their magic.”

I have some news for you.

People who were supplemented with zinc during this study were compared to people who were supplemented with a placebo drug, a dummy pill. They only received antidepressants and the placebo, the subsitute for zinc in this case.

Moreover, another study tested the effectiveness of zinc supplementation for people who respond badly to antidepressants. They didn’t work as intended, rendering them more or less useless for them. Surprisingly, zinc supplementation was very effective for these people as well. [11]

This shows us that zinc is a useful supplement when it comes to depression. Either as an addition to antidepressants in patients suffering from depression, or, more importantly, it can be used as a supplementation for people who suffer from antidepressant-resistant depression.

 

Zinc supplementation for the prevention of depression

We see that zinc is useful when people already have depression. However, the question poses: is it useful as a preventive strategy as well?

According to the study done by Sawada and Yokoi, zinc supplementation improves depressive symptomatics and negative mood states such as anger, anxiety, and tension in women. This was a randomized controlled trial as well; the group which received the placebo treatment didn’t report any improvements. Therefore, we can be pretty sure the improvements were due to zinc supplementation.

There is a major caveat here though. These women were reported only depressive symptomtics and negative mood states, this cannot be equalled to a clinical diagnosis of depression. Then again, it is a good indicator of them possibly being more prone to an episode of depression in the future.

Moreover, a study done by Nguyen et al. failed to witness such improvements. Worth noting is that they used an array of micronutrients, possibly affecting the positive effects of zinc supplementation.

There is limited evidence for zinc being used as a preventive strategy. The available one is inconclusive. However, future research is needed to find what’s up with this.

 

Summary

Zinc supplementation definitely has a place as a supplement when it comes to treating depression, either as an extra therapeutic approach together with antidepressants, or in the possible prevention of depressive symptomatics. Good sources of zinc include beans, almonds, whole grains, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

 

 

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