There is no doubt a mental health crisis going on in the western world. From 2005-2008 antidepressants were the most frequently used drug by persons ages 18-44 in the United States. This usage has increased over 400% within the last 25 years (1). If you take a look at the steadily escalating depression rates, it’s quite obvious that antidepressants are not solving the mental health issue.
While the causes of depression may vary, it is almost always linked to a neurotransmitter imbalance (9). Neurotransmitters are essentially, chemical messengers that our brains produce releasing calm, energetic, focused, tired and happy feelings when appropriate. In most cases of depression, serotonin is the neurotransmitter deficient which is why serotonin repuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most frequently prescribed antidepressant.
Through nutritional supplementation one can reverse neurotransmitter deficiencies and mental health issues associated such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and bipolar disorder restoring one to optimal health. While this is truly remarkable, most would agree that prevention is the best medicine and prevention starts at a very young age.
The first three years of a child’s life are uniquely important as this is the most sensitive period for brain development. It’s during this time that 700-1000 neuron connections are established every second so it’s inarguably essential that children be supplied with the raw materials needed to support this growth throughout those years (3).
The best source of these raw materials is indeed, nutrient-dense breast milk. Long-term breastfeeding ensures that a baby will have access to these depression protectant nutrients for as long as necessary.
Breastmilk is truly natures perfect food when it comes to supporting neuron connections and brain development. That being said, it’s worth noting that the composition of nutrients in breastmilk can vary substantially based upon a mothers diet, genetic expression and environment.
Here are a few of the most powerful depression protectant nutrients found in breastmilk:
- Cholesterol: Many important hormones that have a direct effect on emotion, energy production and brain formation including progesterone, testosterone and pregnenolone are comprised of cholesterol. Cholesterol is also a necessary for the utilisation of Vitamin D, deficiencies of which are frequently linked to depression (5). Most importantly, cholesterol is needed for the synthesis of myelin which coats and protects every nerve cell and supports brain signalling.
One study found that women with low cholesterol are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety (6).
- Saturated Fat: Mammalian milks, including human milk, typically contain 50% of their total fatty acids as saturated fatty acids (2). Saturated fat is needed in every cell of the body and brain as it brings structure and protection to cell walls. Saturated fat also acts as insulation for the myelin sheaths of each nerve cell. The brain is estimated to be about 45% saturated fat, so this is extremely important for infants and young children to be consuming.
- Omega 3 fatty acids: Omega 3’s are constantly praised for supporting brain and heart health and they live up to all of the claims. Omega 3 supplementation has the ability to raise dopamine (our natural feel-good neurotransmitter) by up to 40% immediately upon consumption (8). Think of the antidepressant role it has when the brain is initially developing! They also give cell walls a bit of fluidity, proving to enhance chemical signalling between the brain and body.
In an ideal ratio the consumption of omega 3’s to Omega 6’s would be anywhere from 1:1 -1:3, but unfortunately for those in the western world the ratio is often as high as 1:20! This is in large part due to the highly processed foods consumed, which typically contain very high levels of Omega 6’s fats. It is therefore essential to include Omega 3’s in the mothers diet during those early breastfeeding years.
- Beneficial bacteria: Human milk also contains hundreds to thousands of distinct bioactive molecules often referred to as probiotics. These beneficial organisms protect against infection and inflammation in the gut which is often referred to as the second brain (2). It’s in the gut that over 90% of the brains serotonin is produced, once again, responsible for calm and happy moods. Without beneficial bacteria in the gut, inflammation can easily occour leading to serotonin deficiency and poor neurotransmitter signalling between the brain and gut.
These multiple and unique strands of beneficial bacteria are unique to each mother and cannot be supplemented through formulas.
- Protein: Every source of animal protein, including breast milk, contains a complete source of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein needed for the manufacturing of neurotransmitters. For example, Tryptophan is an amino acid that when consumed turns to serotonin and later during the day melatonin (which encourages deep sleep). If a mother is consuming adequate amounts of protein, her breastmilk will contain more than enough amino acids necessary for proper mood signaling.
Like I mentioned earlier, breast milk varies in nutrient profile from mother to mother, largely in part to diet.
If you want to create superfood breastmilk with rich anti-depressant nutrients, here are a few nutrient-dense foods to consume in bounty during your lactation journey!
- Organic, animal proteins: Grass-fed beef, free-range poultry and eggs, nutrient dense bone broth, gelatine and organ meats from grass-fed cows.
- Cold water fish-: Oily, wild-caught fish (avoid farm raised!) such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are a natural source of easily absorbed Omega 3.
- Healthy fats: Butter or ghee from grass-fed cows & coconut oil.
- Probiotics: Sauerkraut, water kefir, probiotic pills (the more strains the better!)
Luckily, all of the above foods are not only superfoods for breastfeeding mothers but for everyone! Including them in your diet will undoubtedly support brain health in any stage of life and encourage stable, happy moods!
(1)”Antidepressant Use in Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2005–2008.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 24 June 2016.
(2) Ballard, Olivia, and Ardythe L. Morrow. “Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors.” Pediatric Clinics of North America. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2013. Web. 24 June 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3586783/>.
(3) “Brain Architecture.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2016.
(4) Enig, MG. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol. Bethesda Press, Silver Spring, MD, 2000.
(5) Hollis, B. “Vitamin D vs Broad Spectrum Phototherapy in the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder.” N.p., 1993. Web.
(6) Partonen T and others. British Journal of Psychiatry. 1999 Sep;175:259-62.
(7) “Result Filters.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 24 June 2016.
(8) Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure: The 4-step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-being. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.
(9) “What Causes Depression? – Harvard Health.” Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2016. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression