How Inflammation Is Linked to Depression

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Many people might wonder how on earth inflammation and depression could be linked. After all, depression is a mood disorder commonly treated with medications that regulate the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Inflammation is more commonly linked with physical conditions like arthritis and autoimmune disorders. Nonetheless, the link between inflammation and depression seems very clear.

Numerous research studies have correlated systemic (body-wide) inflammation levels with higher incidences of depression in individuals, though that doesn’t mean inflammation causes depression. A healthy lifestyle helps reduce inflammation (and improves depression for some people), but before you make significant changes like an anti-inflammatory diet for depression, learn what the studies show.

What Is the Link Between Inflammation and Depression?

For decades, researchers have been investigating a potential association between inflammation and depression. The studies to date confirm people with depression often have elevated blood markers for inflammation. One recent study of more than 43,000 women concluded that eating an ‘inflammatory diet’ correlated with an increased risk of developing depression.

Although researchers still don’t know exactly why inflammation might cause depression, one hypothesis posits the association might be due to an immune system malfunction. Normally, the immune system sparks inflammation (such as a fever) when it detects a threat like a virus. But sometimes the immune system goes awry and maintains an elevated state of inflammation even when there is no threat present. Inflammation, in turn, opens the blood-brain barrier that normally keeps pro-inflammatory cells out of the brain and allows those cells inside. Once inside, these cells might be able to alter the way the brain works, triggering depression. Researchers don’t know for certain this is the case, but it represents one possible explanation for the link between inflammation and depression.

Adopting an Anti-inflammatory Diet to Treat Depression

As researchers learn more about the link between inflammation and depression, new treatments may include the use of anti-inflammatory drugs and, yes, diet to treat inflammation and possibly reduce symptoms of depression. The foods you eat play an important role in promoting or reducing inflammation within your body. The best thing about adopting an anti-inflammatory diet to treat depression is it’s unlikely to harm you, even if it doesn’t end up helping your mood significantly.

Using diet to alter inflammation levels in your body requires a two-pronged approach. First, eliminate or reduce foods known to promote inflammation. Second, eat more foods known to reduce inflammation.

Foods to Limit on an Anti-inflammatory Diet

These foods are known to promote inflammation:

  • Alcohol

  • Fast food and fried foods of all kinds

  • ‘Processed’ foods like lunch meats and hot dogs

  • Meats, especially red meats like beef and pork

  • Refined grains, such as breads or tortillas made with white flour

  • Snack foods like packaged chips and crackers

  • Sugar, including table sugar, sodas, candy and anything else that contains added sugar

  • Trans fats of all kinds, including margarine

Foods to Eat on an Anti-inflammatory Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is naturally anti-inflammatory, and you can easily access information on how to adopt this heart-healthy eating pattern that may also benefit depression. Alternatively, you can increase your consumption of these foods:

  • Beans and other legumes, such as peas and peanuts (dry roasted)

  • Fatty fish, including salmon, sardines and mackerel

  • Fruits of all kinds

  • Leafy greens, especially the dark types like collards, kale and spinach

  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds

  • Olive oil and other monounsaturated fats

  • Red wine in moderation

  • Tomatoes

  • Vegetables of all kinds, as long as they’re not battered, fried or processed

What about Anti-inflammatory Supplements to Treat Depression?

It’s true some herbs and other supplements demonstrate anti-inflammatory properties, but talk with your doctor before you take these capsules to treat your depression. Many of the supplements reputed to reduce inflammation also can interact with medications for depression and other medical conditions. Once you have medical approval, then you might try these supplements known to reduce systemic inflammation:

  • Curcumin or turmeric

  • Ginger root

  • Resveratrol

Eating whole foods represents a better approach to reducing systemic inflammation than taking supplements because your overall health benefits from the fiber and micronutrients contained in fresh foods. And according to ongoing research, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet to treat depression might be one of the smartest moves you can make.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Aug 27
  1. Lucas M, Chocano-Bedova P, et al. Inflammatory dietary pattern and risk of depression among women. Brain Behav Immun. 2014 Feb;36:46-53. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24095894
  2. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Derry HM, Fagundes CP. Inflammation: depression fans the flames and feasts on the heat. Am J Psychiatry. 2015 Nov 1;172(11):1075-91. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26357876
  3. Kohler O, Krogh J, et al. Inflammation in Depression and the Potential for Anti-Inflammatory Treatment. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2016 Oct; 14(7): 732–742. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5050394/
  4. Tolkien K, Bradburn S, Murgatroyd C. An anti-inflammatory diet as a potential intervention for depressive disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Nutr. 2018 Nov 20. pii: S0261-5614(18)32540-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30502975
  5. Foods that Fight Inflammation. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation
  6. Mediterranean Diet. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/mediterranean-diet
  7. Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/anti-inflammatory/anti-inflammatory-diet.php 
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