If you often feel down in the dumps, you’re not alone. Experts estimate that about forty million adults in the U.S. suffer from some sort of anxiety and depression.
But could help for these troubles be hiding in your meal? Some researchers believe so.
And an analysis of what we’re eating – and not eating – indicates that a small change in the foods and nutrients we consume could make a big difference in our ability to fend off gloomy moods that are all too common in today’s stressful world.
When researchers at Penn State University recently examined national statistics and surveys that recorded what Americans eat and how it correlates with their health, they discovered that people who eat one particular food have a lower risk of depression.1
I’m talking about mushrooms.
The Penn State study involved data on the diets and mental health of more than 24,000 Americans from the years 2005 to 2016. The statistics show that only about one in twenty of us eat any mushrooms at all. But those folks generally avoid depression more than others. Plus, the majority of the people who eat mushrooms are college-educated women.
The researchers admit that this study doesn’t precisely identify what nutrients in mushrooms could be responsible for the potential anti-depression effect. But they note that mushrooms are a rich source of ergothioneine, an antioxidant nutrient that defends cells against damage from free radicals. And, they add, research indicates that antioxidants may lower the risk of severe mental problems like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.
“Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of the amino acid ergothioneine — an anti-inflammatory, which cannot be synthesized by humans,” says researcher Djibril Ba, PhD. “Having high levels of this may lower the risk of oxidative stress, which could also reduce the symptoms of depression.”
While this research was on non-hallucinogenic mushrooms, other studies are looking into the potential benefits of so-called “magic” mushrooms.
“Magic” Mushrooms as Mighty as Antidepressants
Other researchers are studying psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” for its potency against depression.
For instance, a study at the Center for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College, London, shows that psilocybin is at least as effective as antidepressant medication for treating depression.2
In this research, investigators compared the effectiveness of two supervised sessions of psilocybin therapy with a six-week course of a selective serotonin uptake inhibitor antidepressant called escitalopram.
The research involved 59 people who all had moderate-to-severe depression. The test subjects who took the psilocybin experienced significant improvements including reductions in anxiety, an increased ability to experience pleasure, improvements in expressing their emotions and increased feelings of well-being.
According to researcher Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, “These results comparing two doses of psilocybin therapy with 43 daily doses of one of the best performing SSRI antidepressants help contextualize psilocybin’s promise as a potential mental health treatment. Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the escitalopram group.”
Increases Important Connections Among Brain Cells
Another psilocybin study, this one at Yale, shows that a single dose of psilocybin given to lab animals promotes an immediate and long-lasting increase in connections among the brain’s neurons.3
The Yale researchers believe that this expansion of connections may be involved in psilocybin’s potential use as an antidepressant.
“We not only saw a ten percent increase in the number of neuronal connections, but also they were on average about ten percent larger, so the connections were stronger as well,” says researcher Alex Kwan, PhD.
Of course, the psilocybin scientists don’t think anyone should run out and start self-medicating with hallucinogenic mushrooms. And neither do I! But in the future, therapists may begin using these types of natural substances to help people with mood disorders.
In the meantime, eating more of the mushrooms available at grocery stores may prove to be helpful. And their possible antidepressant effects are a good reason to order mushrooms on your next pizza.
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