Depression & Anxiety – What to Eat to Feel Good

 

Lady standing by sunset, nutrition depression anxiety

Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

Depression and anxiety can hit any of us at any time and when it does, taking time to prepare food and eat well can be incredibly difficult.

You can feel overwhelmed by life, paralysed by anxiety, and have little interest in cooking and eating.

The irony is that certain foods and nutrients can support mental wellbeing, and good nutrition is an important step on the path to recovery.  The key to making these changes is to keep them practical and manageable,  Take small sustainable steps, one at a time.  Attempting a full diet overhaul can be a step too far and a bit too challenging when you feel this unwell.

Let’s look at some of the important nutrients that support mental wellbeing, and easy ways to incorporate them into your daily routine.

Go with your gut

As always, we need to start with digestion.  If you’re not breaking down your food properly and absorbing the nutrients it doesn’t matter how many fancy foods and supplements you take – none of them will work.

The trillions of bacteria living in our digestive system – also known Lady's hands on her tummy, digestionas our microbiome – are the subject of ongoing research.  Our gut and brain are communicating constantly via nerve pathways and chemical messengers, many of which are produced or influenced by friendly gut flora (probiotics).

Many of the research studies looking at probiotics and mood balance are small scale but the results are promising and it is now known that certain species, including Bifidobacteria which thrive in the colon, can positively affect mood.

Small Steps to Big Changes

 – Nourish your microbiome by including fermented foods 3-4 times a week.  Try sauerkraut, kefir (dairy or coconut water), natural plain yoghurt, or kimchi.  Do not use if you have histamine problems as fermented foods are rich in histamine.

 – Swap raw foods for warm, cooked foods that are easy to digest; for example swap your lunchtime salad box for a vegetable soup or reheated leftovers.

 – If you have ongoing digestive problems seek help!  Food sensitivities, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Coeliac Disease can all contribute to depression and anxiety so do get in touch with me or a BANT Registered nutrition practitioner in your area for support.  Remember to download your copy of ‘Your 3 Easy Steps to All Day Energy’ too; it’s packed with tips for supporting digestion!

Fats are your brain’s best friend

Your brain contains 25% of your body’s cholesterol, and an awful lot of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats.  If you’re still buying ‘fat-free’ and ‘low-fat’ foods you are doing your brain a great disservice – please stop!

Fats provide structure to our brain cells and help them communicate with each other.  Without fats the messages between brain cells are like a bad mobile phone signal, all crackly and broken up and we are at risk of mood fluctuations and depression.

The long-chain omega-3 fats also have anti-inflammatory actions.  Increased inflammation is associated with several mental health disorders, including depression.  Inflammation is known to alter the balance of mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, and affect areas of the brain linked to motivation and perception of threat.  Not every person with depression has increased inflammation but it is a key factor for many, making anti-inflammatory foods part of a brain-health food plan.

Small Steps to Big Changes

 – Include oily fish 2-3 times a week.  Think SMASHT – salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herrings and trout! A fish and omega 3 supplement capsules

 – If you’re not keen on the taste of oily fish, sneak it into a fish pie or mix tinned sardines / mackerel in tomato sauce into a tomato based veggie sauce.

 – Vegetarians & vegans: make sure to include pumpkin seeds and oil, flax oil, walnuts, or a blend like Udo’s Oil every day to top up your levels of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA).  This converts to EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fats found in the brain) but a lot of it is lost in the conversion process hence the daily intake.

Proteins – brain building blocks!

Mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are made from amino acids, the little building blocks that make up proteins.  A low protein diet means there may not be enough amino acids to support the production of mood chemicals in the brain.

Small Steps to Big Changes

 – Keep a Food & Mood diary for a week and see how often you eat good quality protein rich foods.

 – Aim to include a palm-sized serving of protein with every meal: choose from eggs, good quality meat or fish, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds.

 Vitamin D

The sunshine vitamin is a biggie for mental health.  There are vitamin D receptors throughout our brains, and low levels are thought to play a role in the development of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Here in the UK low levels of vitamin D are common thanks to our often cloudy weather.  Before jumping in with a supplement, I recommend getting your levels tested by either your GP, your nutrition practitioner,  or use the simple home test kit available from www.vitamindtest.org.uk 

Once you know your levels, you can decide whether to supplement or not.  Optimum levels (based on cancer research studies) are between 75-100nmol/l.

Magnesium, folate & B6 – mental health teammates

During times of stress we need to eat plenty of foods packed with these nutrients to give our nervous system extra back-up.  Magnesium and B-vitamins (particularly B6 and folate) are essential for mood chemical production and function, as well as supporting our energy levels.

Small Steps to Big Changes

 – Go green.  Dark green vegetables are rich in both folate AND magnesium.  See if you can include 2 generous handfuls of green leafy veg everyday.  Try adding a big handful of baby spinach to a smoothie or omelette.  Serve broccoli or peas with your evening meal.  If you haven’t got the motivation to prepare fresh veg, buy the ready chopped frozen stuff – at this moment in time it is more important for you to eat the veg than worry about it being fresh.

 – Include two B6 foods everyday: choose from avocado, chicken, Avocadoturkey, lentils, banana, carrots, brown rice, nuts, and seeds.

 – Relax in an Epsom Salt bath!  Epsom salts are rich in magnesium sulphate which can be absorbed through your skin.  Make sure the water is comfortably warm, add a few drops of essential oil if you fancy, and soak for a good 20 mins.  Remember to ban everyone else from the bathroom so you can bathe in peace!

 

I hope you find these tips inspiring, and feel able to try them out one at a time.  Feeding yourself well is one of the kindest things you can do, and you are TOTALLY WORTH the extra ten minutes it takes to prep something tasty!

If you would like more personalised support for managing depression and anxiety do get in touch at sallyduffin@nutritioninyork.co.uk

Hop over to the Facebook group too – it’s a friendly place to share conversations and challenges all about digestive health and mental wellbeing; find us at Nutrition in York

 

 

 

 

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