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Eat Your Way to Happiness: Top Foods for Beating Depression and Anxiety

There is no disputing that good nutrition, as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, helps you to achieve the best physical health. New research shows just how important nutrition can be when it comes to mental health too.


Nutrition and mental health, including depression and anxiety, are clearly interconnected. For example, you may have experienced the impact that stress and other mental health challenges can have on appetite, food choices, cravings and even your weight. There are ways to take back control and strategically use nutrition as one of many tools to improve depression and anxiety.


According to the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, “There have been many studies that have demonstrated that a good quality diet is important to the risk of or prevention of mental disorders.” This means that by eating a nutritious, balanced diet, you can lower your chances of experiencing mental health concerns in the future.


But, what if you’re already experiencing symptoms?


The good news is that recent clinical trials have found that improving food choices can help to reduce symptoms and improve moods. Choosing the right foods, drinks, and supplements can make a big difference.

This article shares some of the exciting research that links improved nutrition to improved moods and gives you some practical strategies to optimize your nutrition for better mental health.


Before we look at depression and anxiety separately, let’s go over some of the food and nutrient strategies for better mental health in general.

Medical disclaimer: There is growing evidence that certain foods, supplements, and lifestyle habits can influence the risk and symptoms of depression and anxiety. They may play an important role if symptoms are mild, and can also help to support other treatments. Please see your healthcare professional to discuss your personal needs and goals when it comes to nutrition for mental health.


Food and nutrient strategies to boost your mood

There are a lot of nutrition strategies that can help to reduce stress and optimize moods in general, whether it’s for depression or anxiety.


Eat a variety of balanced, healthful foods

 Ensuring you get a variety of foods helps you meet your nutrition needs for optimal health (physical and mental) every day. This includes loading up on fruits and vegetables, fiber, healthy fats and choosing either plant based or lean animal protein. A recent clinical study showed reduced symptoms of depression when participants improved the quality of the foods they ate for three months. The improved diet focused on getting whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Did you know that up to 90% of your serotonin, the "feel-good" chemical, is produced in your gut? That's why improving your nutrition will enhance your gut-brain connection and boost your mood.  If you want to learn more about the exact nutrients that will boost production of serotonin and get support while you make these nutritional changes, then join Saravit Direct Health and let Dr. Dunbar craft your personalized WellnessRx.


Ensure you’re eating meals as a matter of routine

Sometimes our moods and life in general disrupt our eating patterns. We may forget to eat meals in the first place, or double-up when we forget that we’ve already eaten a meal. Regularly eating nutritious meals can help balance moods. If it will help, consider setting yourself reminders or scheduling mealtimes to ensure that you nourish your body and mind on the regular. Perhaps a meal plan that has all of your meals laid out for you is what you need.


Check out this meal plan developed to include common nutrient deficiencies that may worsen your mood such as selenium, zinc and folate.


Enjoy your meals mindfully

 Eating mindfully is when you pay attention to your food when you eat. This means making thoughtful food choices, eating slowly, chewing well, and savoring the flavors and textures. Not only does mindful eating help keep you focused on enjoying the food in front of you in the present moment, but it helps improve digestion and can positively influence mental health.


Consider probiotics

 Several recent studies have found that probiotics, through food or supplements may help with depression and anxiety. Probiotics are friendly, live microbes that can improve gut health and are often found as dietary supplements.   Fermented foods are a fantastic way to include more probiotics into your nutrition.


The ability of probiotics in the gut to influence moods is because of the gut-brain connection. The gut and brain communicate with each other through the nervous system, as well as via molecules called neurotransmitters. This is the same connection that can cause stomach upset during stressful times, and why some gut conditions can trigger depression or anxiety. It’s an quickly emerging area of research now that is shedding light on how we can leverage gut health for better mental health.

If you would like access to my personalized dispensary where you can get supplements at wholesale cost respond to this post and I'll follow-up with you.


Extra nutrition tips for depression

Enjoying a a nutrient-rich dietary pattern can help to nourish your body and brain so that you can have energy and feel good throughout the day. A couple of nutrition strategies that can help with depression include curbing intake of refined sugars and enjoying coffee in moderation.


Curb intake of refined sugars

 There’s a link between depression and consuming a lot of refined sugar (like the kind found in sweets, desserts, sodas). One of the reasons is that the brain depends on a steady supply of blood sugar (glucose). When we eat or drink refined sugars, they’re absorbed very quickly and spike blood sugar levels like a rollercoaster. This effect can then impact the brain and influence moods. Many people find that when they’re feeling down, they crave sweets to help boost their moods. So while sweets may seem to feel good temporarily, over the long term they can lead to worsening mood swings. 


A nutrition strategy that can help reduce intake of refined sugars is to have healthier foods available—especially when it comes to snacks and desserts. Instead of reaching for sweets and sugary drinks, consider fruits (I really like frozen fruit like grapes or blueberries), nuts, figs and unsweetened beverages like fruit-infused water and teas.


Enjoy coffee in moderation

 Low-to-moderate amounts of caffeine can help to increase energy, alertness, and concentration which are often a much appreciated boost for those who need it.   If you're finding that you're reaching for cups of coffee later in the afternoon or after lunch - I would recommend 2 things.

  • Be sure your lunch is made of whole foods, which means minimally processed, and consist of mostly  plants and vegetables so you're getting adequate amounts of fiber. This will provide sustained energy and increased focus and mental clarity.

  • In addition to the above, try switching your afternoon coffee to tea.


Caffeine intakes may affect different people in different ways (depending on metabolism, etc.), so proceed with caution to find your personal sweet spot. While some coffee may help with symptoms of depression, too much caffeine can increase symptoms of anxiety—especially in those who are more sensitive to it. Some of the side effects of having too much caffeine are jitteriness, increased heart rate, sleep difficulties, and anxiety. Moderating your overall caffeine intake (from all sources including coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, caffeine supplements, some medications, etc.) can help. 


For some people, having no more that 400 mg of caffeine (about the amount in four cups of coffee) can help reduce some of these effects. If you start feeling these symptoms and you still want to enjoy your coffee, tea, soda, etc., try switching to decaffeinated options. 

Other lifestyle habits that can help with depression and anxiety

While nutrition is essential for good mental and physical health, there are other lifestyle factors that can also play a role.


Physical activity

Exercise can lower symptoms of depression and anxiety—especially when done regularly (e.g., during most days). Physical activity helps us to reduce stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and release “feel good” compounds called endorphins. 


Just 30 minutes of walking per day can help improve your mood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, you don’t need those 30 minutes to be done in one session. Breaking it down into three 10-minute sessions during the day can add up to the same health benefits. 


Enough sleep

Getting enough quality sleep is great for your body and mind. Sleeping 7-9 hours/night can help you get into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which allows the body to repair tissues and supports a healthy immune system.


The most impactful strategy to get better sleep is to make it a priority and stick to a schedule. You can also try to stop screen time and bright lights before bed as they can trick your brain into thinking that the sun is still out and you should stay awake. 


Stress management

Other activities that can help to manage some of the stressors that lead up to or worsen depression and anxiety include mindfulness, meditation, relaxation exercises, deep breathing, and taking time each day to pay attention to the positive. These activities can help to reduce muscle tension, lower the heart rate, and calm the mind.


Examples include practicing gratitude or journaling about good things that happen, noting why you appreciate them and focusing on the positive by challenging negative thoughts. Perhaps you can take some breaks each day to listen to your favorite music, play a game, read, or enjoy a hobby. My personal favorite is box-breathing!


Stay connected 

Being social with people whom you care about and who care about you is an often forgotten step toward optimal mental health.  In fact a lack of social connection can be just as harmful to your health as high blood pressure, obesity or smoking. Reaching out and keeping in touch with friends and family regularly—especially when you need support—can make a world of difference.   

Bottom line

Nutrition can play a big role in reducing the risk of getting depression and anxiety in the first place, and to help manage the symptoms once they occur. The vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats we eat are used to help fuel and function our physical and mental health. This means that our food choices can help to optimize more balanced moods.


For your mental health, enjoy a nutrient-rich variety of foods that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and proteins.  Cut back on foods that have refined sugars, and find your personal optimal amount of coffee to enjoy every day can help.


If you’re in crisis: Call 911 for a medical emergency or 988 to reach the suicide hotline.


Need help planning and making nutrition part of your mental health plan? As a lifestyle medicine trained physician, I’d love to help.


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