This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Not only has anxiety and depression affected many of my loved ones, but my personal experience with anxiety and the role food played in decreasing it, is why I decided to become a nutritionist.
Before diving into the food aspect I think that it’s important to acknowledge that there are some factors we have control over and some that we don’t. In this blog I want to focus on the ones that we do and the ones that I am educated to speak on.
The food that we eat impacts our mood and our mood impacts the food we eat. Knowing that dietary changes will help isn’t always enough. Step one is getting yourself to a place where you’re ready to make some dietary changes. If you’re there GREAT! If you need to implement other strategies or seek help to get you a place where you’re ready to make change, that’s okay too.
More and more research is being done in the field of nutrition and mental health and while there’s still lots we don’t know, there are many things we do! I’ve worked with hundreds of women who have experienced how changing their diet impacts their mood and I think the most important disclaimer I can give here is to be kind to yourself. Making diet & lifestyle changes takes time, energy and resources so focus on what you can change now and don’t get too wrapped up in what you can’t.
In a recent review published in the World Journal of Psychiatry they identified and ranked foods that are “the most nutrient dense sources of nutrients demonstrated to play a role in the prevention and promotion of recovery from depressive disorders.” There are 12 nutrients supported by current evidence: folate, iron, long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc. From here the authors foods based on their nutrient density, and I’ve included some of those results, focusing on commonly available and consumed ingredients. You can access the whole study here: https://www.wjgnet.com/2220-3206/full/v8/i3/97.htm
Include spinach, lettuce, fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, parsley) & kale frequently! These nutrient dense vegetables are especially high in folate which can decrease depressive symptoms are increase the efficacy of antidepressants!
Pumpkin, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, brussels, squash, onions - are all on this list for different reasons, from the carotenoids in pumpkin & squash, to the flavanoids in peppers & the nutrient powerhouses that are cruciferous veggies - consuming these regularily will support brain health & mood!
Citrus, strawberries, apples, blueberries & pears are great sources of vitamin C as well as plant chemicals (flavanoids) that have been linked to reduced risk of depression.
Fish & Seafood
Fatty fish are unique in the amounts of omega 3 fats they contain and studies show that people who consume more fish have a lower risk of depression! Omega 3 supplements also boost the effects of medications. Bivalves such as oysters are incredibly high in zinc, which is linked to improved mood. Include tuna, trout, salmon and if you enjoy them - sardines & herring!
Other animal products
Eggs & turkey are high in the amino acid tryptophan which is the precursor to our feel good neurotransmitter serotonin. Eggs are also a good source of mood supportive vitamin B6 and choline which is needed to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which plays a rolein mood and memory. Organ meats (if you can stomach them) are also at the top of the antidepressant ranking list.
Tea and chocolate are high in flavanoids (plant chemicals) which are powerful antioxidants and have been linked to lower risk of depression especially in older women. Yes that means you can eat chocolate! Just aim for it to be at least 70% cocoa content to get all the benefits!
Ferments & Probiotics
There’s a strong link between gut health and brain health and the majority of your serotonin is actually produced in your gut! Including kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, plain yogurt or a probiotics supplement can help support the bacteria in your gut and therefore your brain!
Limit or Explore your Relationship With
· Coffee: if you’re experiencing anxiety I encourage you to experiment with eliminating it for a week and notice if your symptoms improve, caffeine can trigger or exacerbate anxiety
· Alcohol: the relationship between alcohol use and anxiety and depression is complex, it can be used to alleviate symptoms in the short term but can worsen or exacerbate them in the long term
· Sugar & refined carbs: low levels of serotonin can cause sugar cravings, and consuming sugar can alleviate anxiety and improve mood – momentarily – but this can create a cycle that’s hard to get out of and in the long term can further deplete serotonin and cause a reliance on sugar
Before removing these, I encourage you to look at what role they’re filling in your life and bring in other supportive factors first
Changing your diet to support mental health means looking beyond specific foods and nutrients and at dietary patterns. The combination of dietary habits and the cumulative and synergic effects of nutrients in the diet have a bigger impact than any individual food or nutrient!
· Are you carving out time to shop for and cook your food?
· Are the majority of your meals made of real food ingredients?
· Are you eating mindfully?
· Are you consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, whole grains, beans & legumes?
The Big Picture
Blood sugar imbalances, thyroid disorders, gut issues, inflammation and nutrient deficiencies all play a role in anxiety and depression and the above recommendations can help, but a health care practitioner may be able to help you put an individual plan in place and request any necessary testing.
The Holistic Side
Holistic means looking at the whole picture, and that extends beyond food. Ask yourself the following questions as you implement dietary shift.
· Create space: do you have room in your life for the things that make you feel nourished, calm and taken care of? Are you able to set boundaries? Can you say no to others to say yes to yourself? Does your schedule reflect your priorities?
· Connection: having a sense of community and a space where you feel held and heard is crucial for anyone dealing with mental health struggles
· Activity: depending on where you’re starting from this one can be tough to get going, but adding in movement or exercise that you enjoy will significantly impact your mood
· Authenticity: are you showing up as you? Are you able to be open, raw and real?
· Progress over perfection: are you celebrating the small victories? Are you showing yourself lots of love and compassion as your work to make dietary and lifestyle changes?
I’m going to do a follow-up blog going deeper into gut health, inflammation, thyroid issues, blood sugar imbalances and roles the specific nutrients play! For now I hope there’s something you can use and take away today.
Sending lots of love,
https://www.wjgnet.com/2220-3206/full/v8/i3/97.htm (antidepressant food rating)
https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/1/181/4577292 (whole food diet)
https://jech.bmj.com/content/70/3/299 (fish consumption)
https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15091228 (supplements and antidepressants)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4997290/ (flavonoids & depression)