As a child, food was a thing of happiness; every meal was taken at a table properly set and the cooking of it became central to my growing up. At my mother’s side, standing on a stool, I learned to carefully weigh ingredients, artfully separate eggs and beat them with a fury until they stood obediently in snowy peaks, handle pastry dough with a light touch. Our kitchen sang with voices, was scented with sweetness and was always warm from the oft-used oven.
It was a shock, then, when Mum succumbed to her first episode of depression, her hunger evaporated and suddenly our kitchen was silent and cold. My siblings and I ate straight from the fridge, foraging. When my mother infrequently appeared in the kitchen, she was mute and red eyed and would turn aside any food proffered, before returning to her bedroom. I had to force my own food past the lump in my throat; make like things were normal for my little brother and sister’s sake. For my mother’s sake. For my sake.
Meals had always been a time to knit together as family. It was at the table that my mother recounted her childhood growing up amid the flavors of British India. She described a wide veranda wrapped around a high ceilinged house; the smooth soft saltiness of saffron yellow dahl; homemade potato chips so thinly sliced and perfectly fried they were better than shop-bought. But when Mum got sick, mealtime, like food, like our life, lost its flavor; it morphed as a sinister barometer to Mum’s moods.
When it was apparent Mum’s misery was here to stay, and when we had spent months seeking elusive answers to recovery everywhere — on the psychiatrist’s couch, at her counseling sessions, in the pharmacological cocktails of SSRIs and lithium and tricyclic antidepressants — I trawled the Internet for a solution. And food, I read, apparently could be much more than sustenance.
Certain foods — avocado, turkey, salmon, nuts — evidently possessed the power to influence mood, I read. If food made us happy, could it, in the right quantity, of the right composition, make Mum happy again?
So I tried: I sliced an avocado in half, sprinkled its sage green flesh with salt: “Try this,” I said as I handed it to her. Mum, curled into a chair pretending to sleep, existing on a diet of tea and biscuits so that her whereabouts could always be deduced by an incriminating trail of crumbs, ate it with something between disgust and apathy, as one might consume medicine that — of course — I hoped it might be. The avocado made no difference. I persevered. Regular turkey sandwiches made a brief appearance, bowls of nuts became a perennial that Mum picked at disinterestedly All these foods supposedly prompt the popping of cerebral serotonin, nudge endorphins forward to make us happy. They never did. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Michael Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University and author of “The Second Brain,” is often called the father of neurogastroenterology for his work examining the connection between the GI tract and the brain. He acknowledges the link between what we eat and how we feel, but says it would be impossible to eat ourselves out of a depressive episode: “One of the transmitters in the brain, serotonin, is made in the body from tryptophan, an amino acid. If you eat steak (or turkey or avocado or salmon), you get tryptophan, the more tryptophan you eat, the more gets into the brain and the more serotonin you make. But you’d need to eat a lot of steak to elevate serotonin noticeably, it wouldn’t be an effective way to change mood, it wouldn’t be as effective as an SSRI.”
I’d read that dark chocolate, the kind with a high percentage of cocoa solids, seems to have the power to lift a mood. Cocoa contains compounds called polyphenols, which studies suggest may reduce anxiety, a condition that often underlines and exacerbates depression. I imagined bowls full of confectionary, fat with calming cocoa and energy-fueling sugar sweetening Mum’s life.
Except that, just as with steak, you can’t cure depression by eating chocolate; scientists at the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech, who observed the cocoa link, warn that their findings are only useful in so much as the magic ingredients in cocoa may one day, in the right amounts, be harnessed as yet another treatment. Chocolate certainly meets a fleeting need, but it is a short-lived high that depends on the delightfulness of taste and feel and sugar. And then you crash, the consequence of falling blood glucose — never a good thing if you’re battling the lethargy of depression. Chocolate, it turns out, does not deliver a sustained state of happiness.
But, of course, it wasn’t just my mother’s appetite for food that vanished when she got sick, it was her appetite for everything — for cooking, for laughing, for living.
In his classic, 17th-century compendium, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” English scholar Robert Burton wrote, “Be not solitary, be not idle.” But when depression steals in, it is hard for sufferers to remain occupied. Instead of trying to find foods that would miraculously heal her and urging Mum to eat, should I have been urging her to do?
Our kitchen was cold and quiet. Would the preparation of food to a person battling depression have been more helpful than its eating? Psychotherapist Terry Lynch, author of “Depression Delusion” and other mental-health books, thinks so; “the doing, step-by-step, working through the stages is important,” he wrote in an email. He regularly recommends that people suffering with depression do — “take small steps frequently; beginning, working through to completion. The person may feel a strong urge not to do — but with repetition of the doing, momentum can begin to kick in, rather than the inertia that is such a recurring feature of depression.”
And I am struck by the word “inertia.” I asked my mother one day, “How are you, Mum?” I am inert, came the answer. There would be no cooking that day.
Camille Lassale, a researcher on public health, aging, nutrition and epidemiology who has published on the links between diet and depression, agrees with the imperatives of “doing.”
Diet, she says, can influence mental health in good and bad ways: “A poor diet can cause damage to the brain which can be due to oxidative stress, insulin resistance, changes in blood flow and inflammation. Conversely, a diet rich in anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant components can affect the brain by protecting it from oxidative stress and inflammation which can disrupt the neurotransmitters responsible for regulating emotion.”
But, she says, depression is a complex condition “characterized by feelings of disinterest in activities, low mood and changes in sleep and appetite.” Mark Hyman, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and founder and director of the UltraWellness Center, says: “Diet is not the solution to healing depression, but it is one important piece of the puzzle. Exercise, stress management, community, purpose, meaning, therapy, and more are all important parts of managing depression. People are often looking for that magic bullet that will solve their ailment, and typically, there isn’t one.”
The nature of Mum’s illness meant that for decades, it came and went. No one thing preceded it, no one thing evicted an episode. But, when it went, her depression always vanished with a speed that astonished me, sometimes seemingly overnight. And I wondered how a thing that had weighted all our lives for so long could up and leave with such lightness, such speed?
Quite suddenly, one morning, Mum would just sweep into my bedroom, dressed, smiling, hair combed. “What are we all having for breakfast today?” she’d ask. “Eggs, toast, porridge?” She’d observe the sky as she drew my curtains open. “Looks like a day for porridge,” she’d announce laughing. “Up you get!”
When depression came, it took her hunger away. When it went, she was consumed by greed: for food, for cooking.
For life, mostly.