Some spices such as saffron, sage, cardamom and chillies are known to have specific anti-depressant effects; while others work indirectly by improving the general health of the individual.
General effects of spices
Spices have the highest antioxidant activity of all food types including fruit and vegetables (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006). Antioxidants are very important in countering free radical damage which can in turn aggravate or cause many degenerative diseases.
All chronic degenerative diseases are associated with free radical damage and an increased incidence of depression. Therefore preventing or treating them by eating antioxidant-rich foods like spices, will also help to reduce the incidence of depression.
For centuries, saffron has been used to treat depression in traditional Persian medical systems.
Recently several clinical trials have shown that this yellow spice is indeed as effective as many of our current anti-depressant drugs in treating mild to moderate depression.
The first of these was a double-blind placebo controlled trial where patients with depression were given 30mg of saffron extract daily for six weeks. By the end of this period depression in the treatment group had improved by a far greater extent than the placebo group.
In two other clinical trials depressed patients taking saffron were compared to those taking two commonly prescribed anti-depressant drugs, imipramine and fluexitine (Prozac). In both these trials saffron was found to be at least as effective as the two modern drugs. An important bonus was that no side effects were observed in the patients taking saffron.
Chillies also have mood elevating effects. They work by stimulating a specific type of pain receptor (called TRPV1) on sensory nerve endings. When these nerves are stimulated they signal the brain to release chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins, in turn, stimulate the release of the brain chemical, dopamine which in turn acts as a mood elevator and relieves depression.
Many modern antidepressant drugs also work by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain.
A double blind placebo controlled trial has shown that sage reduces anxiety and elevates mood. It has been known for several years that compounds in this spice work by inhibiting cholinesterase, an enzyme that is intimately involved in the transmission of signals across nerve synapses.
Sage has the added benefit of improving memory.
Cardamom has been used by traditional Ayurvedic practitioners to treat depression in India for thousands of years. Although there are no clinical trials to back up the use of this spice to treat depression there are biochemical reasons that give an indication as to why it is effective.
As with other organs the brain is subject to toxins, free radical damage and other environmental and genetic insults. Aging and damage caused by environmental agents can aggravate a propensity to develop depression. However this susceptibility can be reduced by using one or more of those spices known to have anti-depressive properties. In addition the diet should include a variety of other spices most of which contain neuro-protective phytonutrients; some of which may also have yet-to-be-discovered mood-elevating properties.