Eating a healthy, balanced diet is not just good for your physical health, it also provides the fuel your brain needs to operate at its optimum level. When people say, “you are what you eat,” they aren’t totally off base. Numerous studies have shown that there is a correlation between what we eat and how our brain functions, specifically in terms of our mental health and mood.
Millions of people deal with depression and anxiety every day. Many of them use medication to adjust a chemical imbalance or get different forms of therapy to learn to better manage their worries. But eating the right foods could also be a way to alleviate symptoms.
Changing your diet could be a beneficial first step – or a complement to other traditional tactics – when treating depression or anxiety. That’s because different foods have different effects on your emotions and mood, and some support a healthy mind more than others.
How Food Affects Your Mental Health
More and more reports suggest a bad diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety, while a nutritional diet acts as a defense against these types of emotional disorders. When you eat the right foods, you can feel it. You have more energy, your body feels stronger and you function at your best. But the benefits of eating quality food are not just physical.
Getting the right nutrients can actually affect the brain’s levels of serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep patterns and appetite. Approximately 95 percent of our body’s serotonin is produced in the lining of our intestinal tract. With the help of the good bacteria in our gut, the serotonin carries emotional messages from the belly to the brain through neural pathways. To keep information moving throughout the body, optimal abdomen health is critical.
The food we eat supports or hinders a healthy gut. Sometimes when we are upset, we crave foods that are high in fat or sugar as a comfort. While fried chicken and cake may make us feel better for a moment, the long-term effect is the opposite. Too much refined sugar and processed food expose your brain to free radicals and inflammation, the latter of which has been connected to severe depression. They also impact your blood sugar levels, which can cause your mood to go up and down.
For the best mental health outcomes, people should eat a variety of nutritious foods every day. The information below will help you figure out which foods to avoid and which to stock up on if you want to use your diet as an aid in managing depression and anxiety.
Foods to Avoid When Dealing with Depression
For normal and steady mental health, there are specific foods you should avoid. The following indulgences may actually contribute to depression:
- Refined Sugars: They make blood glucose levels drop, which leaves you grouchy and more tired than before you ate them.
- Fast Food: These items are highly processed and not nutrient-rich. Fast food has a bunch of chemicals and preservatives, which can make you feel moody and sleepy after your meal.
- Artificial Sweeteners: They block serotonin from being produced and can contribute to insomnia, mood swings and headaches.
- Alcohol: This is a depressant and increases the symptoms and feelings that come with depression.
- Caffeine: It can inhibit serotonin production and makes sleeping more difficult. Inconsistent daily cycles can contribute to irritability and sour mood.
Foods to Help You Manage Depression
To prevent depression or counteract its symptoms, eat foods that support normal brain and stomach function. These include the options explained below.
Leafy green vegetables, such as kale, spinach and arugula, are extremely healthy, nutrient-dense foods that give your body what it needs – no matter what your mental condition. They are full of antioxidants and omega-3s, which contribute to brain protection and function respectively.
The majority of lean proteins are good to eat when you deal with depression, but turkey has something extra: higher amounts of tryptophan. This chemical naturally aids in the production of serotonin, which may not be produced as regularly in someone diagnosed with depression.
Aside from being a sweet treat, all types of berries pack a powerful nutritional punch. They are full of antioxidants, which keep your cells healthy and protected from environmental toxins and oxidative stress. Additionally, studies have suggested that depressed people are often found to have lower antioxidant levels in their blood, and consuming more can result in a reduction of symptoms for both depression and anxiety.
Omega-3 fatty acids support normal brain function and health, which can contribute to a decrease in depression symptoms. Walnuts are rich in protein, healthy fats and omega-3s. These power nuts also provide magnesium, which can play a role in reducing a person’s risk of developing depression, according to some reports.
Foods to Help You Manage Anxiety
Anxiety is an issue that often accompanies depression or can lead to it, but can also be a standalone disorder. When you have anxiety, your brain releases stress chemicals to create a fight or flight response that helps you cope with an intense situation. If you experience worry or unease often, it’s taxing on your body and mind. Fortunately, certain foods may be able to help you manage this stress. Some research has indicated that specific foods can have a calming effect on your mind. These include:
- Avocados: B vitamins maintain our nerves and brain, and not having enough can contribute to anxiety. Avocados are rich in these stress relievers, as well as potassium, which can help decrease blood pressure.
- Tea: Drinking warm tea has long been a way to calm and balance the body. Some ideal teas for relaxation include passionflower, ashwagandha and chamomile.
- Blueberries: Because they are high in antioxidants and vitamin C, blueberries are a delicious way to support your body’s natural stress management and immune actions. Vitamin C, in particular, can lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone).
- Lemon Balm: This calming herb has been used throughout history to treat anxiety and insomnia. It can be combined with other similar stress-fighters, such as chamomile, hops and valerian, and be taken as a supplement to encourage relaxation.
- Salmon: The orange fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help control adrenaline and cortisol production.
While not technically a food itself, probiotics are often used as an aid for anxiety. The presence of probiotics in your gut is critical to digesting and absorbing nutrients from the foods we eat, but also has been linked to reducing inflammation. These healthy bacteria can be taken in the form of a supplement, but are also present in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and some soft cheeses.
Foods to Stay Away from When You Have Anxiety
Much like with depression, certain foods have been found to intensify anxiety symptoms or panic attacks. If you have a hard time dealing with stress or struggle with an anxiety disorder, it’s simple: Stay away from these foods:
- Spicy foods
- Caffeinated drinks
- Processed food
- Sugary drinks
Using your diet as a defense against depression and anxiety is a natural, healthy way to manage minor symptoms. If you feel you need more intensive treatment for one or both of these conditions, schedule a consultation with Dallas Behavioral Hospital. When you come for your assessment, make sure to bring a food log of your eating habits so our practitioners can get a head start on helping you improve your diet.