Updated: Nov 14, 2022
We’ve all heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’. When I’m working with patients in my office, I like to discuss all areas of health including body, mind, and spirit. When we try to improve the overall health of our bodies, we can’t just focus on treating disease. We must focus on promoting health and preventing disease. More and more evidence is now showing that food is medicine for the body and can actually prevent and improve conditions like depression and anxiety. You may have never visited a mental health professional for depression or anxiety. However, I’m sure we can all agree that every one of us has felt sad or nervous. So many of us long for better sleep or more energy. Turns out, your diet can have a huge impact on all these things. I recently read the book “This is Your Brain on Food” by Dr. Uma Naidoo MD. I was fascinated by the book and wanted to share some of the valuable information I discovered as well as some of the tips I provide my own patients. Let’s dig into some ways that you can improve your diet, overall health, and of course mental health.
The Good Bugs
Our intestinal tract is full of all kinds of good and bad bacteria. Each person’s gut can contain up to a thousand various species of bacteria. The gut has actually been referred to as the 2nd brain due to its profound connection with our 1st brain and its role in neurotransmitter modulation. When the food we eat is broken down in the gut by the good bacteria the resulting chemicals can affect how we process and make neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA which all affect how we feel mentally. Healthy foods like fermented foods and foods high in fiber promote the good bacteria to grow and flourish. While unhealthy foods prevent the growth of and can even kill the good bacteria. I will go into some recommendations for foods that improve the gut biome as we discuss foods that affect depression.
Depression can cause many changes in the appetite. When we are feeling lousy, down or sad we might want to reach for comfort foods like sugary foods or fried foods. I can definitely relate to needing some sofa time with a spoon and a carton of ice cream when I’ve had a bad day. Sometimes depression can suppress the appetite causing us to eat very little and to be undernourished. Unfortunately, unhealthy foods high in sugar can worsen our depression. But there is good news! Some foods can improve our mood through the amazing and complex gut brain connection. I routinely discuss probiotics with my patients during our visits. When we eat probiotics, we increase the good bacteria in our guts. Studies have shown that when we include probiotics in our diet, we can improve depression and reduce production of stress hormones. You can find probiotics in fermented foods such as yogurt (choose one low in sugar), sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and some cheeses. I often recommend supplementing with a good quality probiotic which you can find in stores or online. For the probiotics to thrive we also need prebiotics. Think of these as the food for the probiotics. Foods high in prebiotics include beans, oats, bananas, berries, garlic, onions and asparagus. Another critical element for good brain health is Omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s help our brain by lowering inflammation in the body and by protecting our brain cells called neurons. Studies have shown that eating foods high in Omega-3s may prevent depression. The absolute best sources of Omega-3s are found in fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. Other sources of Omega-3s include walnuts, dark leafy greens, and grass-fed beef. Look for foods that are fortified with Omega-3s like eggs, milk and yogurt. Foods high in magnesium, zinc and selenium have also been studied to improve symptoms of depression. Iron can be found in lean red meats, beans, pumpkin seeds, and broccoli. Magnesium can be found in avocados, spinach, nuts and seeds, beans and whole grains. Foods high in zinc include seafood, lean beef, and poultry. For selenium, the best source is brazil nuts. Avoid foods high in sugar, foods that contain artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame), fried foods and bad fats (margarine, shortening, and hydrogenated oils) which have all been studied to worsen symptoms of depression.
Do you suffer from frequent worry, worst case thinking, sleepless nights due to your mind racing? Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric disorders in America. Did you know that diets high in saturated fats, poor quality carbohydrate foods, and sugars can change your brain chemistry and worsen anxiety? Although I love my coffee in the morning, I have noticed that If I drink too much caffeine throughout the day I feel jittery and anxious. Science has found that caffeine can overstimulate areas of the brain that increase anxiety and it can also inhibit areas of the brain responsible for anxiety regulation. Most studies show that by staying under 400 mg of caffeine a day, you are less likely to increase anxiety. For some perspective, a venti coffee at Starbucks contains 475 mg. Sticking to smaller sizes will help you cut back on your total daily intake. So what foods can help reduce anxiety? Some studies have shown that foods high in dietary fiber can reduce anxiety and stress. Inflammation in the brain has been linked to increased anxiety. Dietary fiber reduces inflammation in the body and brain. Foods high in fiber include beans, brown rice, berries, bran and baked potatoes. Other high fiber foods include almonds, Brussel sprouts, apples, and carrots. We talked about foods high in Omega-3s and fermented foods earlier. These foods have also been studied to improve anxiety as well. I know in my family, every year when we nod off after a big thanksgiving dinner someone mentions that we have all had our fair share of tryptophan. Tryptophan is actually an amino acid that is needed for the production of serotonin (our feel good/less anxious neurotransmitter). Foods like turkey and chickpeas contain high amounts of tryptophan. But here’s the kicker. For the tryptophan to be broken down and absorbed by the brain, these foods need to be accompanied by other foods with carbohydrates like potatoes or whole grain bread. Studies have also shown that foods high in magnesium and vitamin D can improve anxiety. We can get vitamin D from sunlight, fortified milk and foods such as eggs, and salmon. We discussed foods high in magnesium earlier in the article.
Your Grocery Cart
In her book, Dr. Naidoo recommends that we use the pneumonic BRAINFOOD to help us fill our carts with healthily foods. B: berries and beans, R: rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables, A: antioxidants, I: include lean proteins, N: nuts, F: fiber rich foods, O: oils (avocado and olive), O: omega-3 rich foods, D: dairy, S: spices.
Overhauling your diet can be challenging and can seem like a monumental task. I talk to my patients about making some healthy substitutions in their diets. Trading out some of the bad stuff for some of the good choices. I can assure you, when you start to think of food as medicine for your body and start to put in more good foods than bad, you will notice a positive difference in your overall wellbeing, energy level, as well as your mood.
Dr. Hilary Butella is a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with a secondary certification in family practice. She provides individualized psychiatric evaluation and medication management while incorporating aspects of physical wellbeing, lifestyle choices, emotional health, and spirituality. She strives to promote health and wellness in a compassionate, empathetic setting.
Naidoo, U. (2020). This Is your brain on food. New York: Little Brown Spark.