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Food for Anxiety and Depression: Simple Steps to Enhance Your Mental Wellbeing

By Dr. Alex Armitage, DNP, CNL, APRN, FNP-BC Specialist in Supportive Palliative Care and passionate advocate for holistic well-being.


Food choices not only enhance mental health but also help in reducing anxiety and depression. Discover how integrating these nutritious options into your diet can pave the way for a more joyful and healthier lifestyle.


Dr. Alex Armitage


The concept of 'mood food' is fascinating and vital in our journey towards wellness. It's based on the premise that certain foods have the power to positively influence our mental health and emotional equilibrium. Managing anxiety and depression extends well beyond medications, and is most effective when our lifestyles support any medical management we may choose. A key part of this is how we support our bodies nutritionally. In our modern, fast-paced lives, filled with stress and anxiety, leveraging our diet as a tool for mental wellness is vital for success. Here’s the thing… some of the nutritional choices are simple to do!


Understanding Food's Impact on Anxiety and Depression

The intricate relationship between our dietary choices and our emotional state is undeniable and profound. Foods that are rich in specific nutrients can affect the functioning of neurotransmitters within our brains. This, in turn, influences our mood, stress response, and levels of anxiety. By integrating mood-boosting foods into our regular diet, we can harness a natural and effective strategy to address and improve various aspects of mental health. The gut has more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and 95 percent of the body's serotonin is found in the bowels. This often-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our "second brain." Scientific American wrote a nice little article on neural networks in the gut that can be found here if you would like to geek out on this science.


The Modern Diet's Influence on Mental Health 

Today's Western dietary habits, characterized by a high intake of processed and fast foods, have led to a noticeable decline in the quality of our diets. This dietary shift has a profound and often underappreciated impact on mental health. The overreliance on convenience foods not only deprives our bodies of essential nutrients but also leads to increased inflammation in the body which is at the root of many chronic illnesses. What we have come to appreciate over the last 14 years since that Scientific American article was written is the profound effect that the gut microbiome has on nutrient availability, inflammation, and our overall resilience. There is a lot that we still don’t know about the gut microbiome, but we know absolutely that what we eat has a profound impact on the health of our microbiome and therefore on the health of our mind and body. I would like to offer five simple food choices that can benefit our mental health, and ways that we can operationalize these changes to make them sustainable in our daily lives.


Five Simple Food Additions That Benefit Mood


Fresh filet of salmon

1. Omega-3 Rich Foods 

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are not just nutritious; they're brain boosters. When we talk about omega-3 fatty acids there are two that are most commonly considered and the focus of our supplementation: EPA and DHA

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have garnered significant attention for their potential role in lifting one’s mood, managing depression, reducing anxiety, and supporting overall mental well-being. These essential fatty acids are found abundantly in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in certain plant sources such as flaxseeds and walnuts.


EPA, one of the primary omega-3 fatty acids, is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation within the brain has been linked to the development and progression of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. EPA's anti-inflammatory effects can help mitigate this process by reducing inflammation in the brain, potentially alleviating symptoms of both anxiety and depression.


On the other hand, DHA is highly concentrated in the brain and plays a crucial role in maintaining its structure and function. While EPA targets inflammation, DHA contributes to overall brain health and cognitive function. A healthful diet that includes sources of DHA, such as fatty fish, can support not only mood regulation but also cognitive well-being.

Try grilling salmon with a squeeze of lemon for a simple, heart-healthy dinner, or toss flaxseeds into your morning smoothie or oatmeal for an effortless omega-3 boost. Walnuts, another omega-3 powerhouse, can be a crunchy addition to salads or a healthy snack on their own. These small dietary changes can significantly impact your mood and anxiety levels by enhancing brain function and reducing inflammation. If dietary sources are insufficient, supplements can also be considered.


Broccoli head

2. The Magic of Magnesium 

Magnesium, often referred to as the "relaxation mineral," plays a crucial role in the management of mood and anxiety. One of magnesium's key functions is its involvement in the regulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are closely linked to mood. Adequate magnesium levels support the synthesis and function of these neurotransmitters, contributing to feelings of happiness and contentment. Low magnesium levels, on the other hand, can lead to neurotransmitter imbalances, potentially increasing the risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.


Furthermore, magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system. It acts as a natural relaxant by regulating the activity of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, which is involved in stress and anxiety responses. Magnesium helps to prevent overstimulation of this receptor, reducing the likelihood of excessive stress signaling within the brain. As a result, individuals with sufficient magnesium levels may experience reduced feelings of anxiety and improved overall mood.


Incorporating magnesium into your diet can be relatively easy. Magnesium-rich foods include leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, nuts and seeds like almonds and pumpkin seeds, whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa, and legumes like beans and lentils. Spinach, for instance, can be incorporated into your diet in various ways – think savory spinach omelets for breakfast or fresh spinach salads for lunch. Almonds are another excellent source of magnesium and can be included in your diet as a snack or as a crunchy topping for yogurt and cereals. Avocados, rich in both magnesium and healthy fats, make for a perfect ingredient in smoothies, sandwiches, or as a creamy base for guacamole. Regularly including these foods in your meals can help soothe your nervous system and reduce stress and anxiety.


Supplementation may also be considered for individuals with magnesium deficiencies or those at higher risk of mood disorders and anxiety.



Lovely bowl of yogurt

3. The Role of Probiotics 

The importance of gut health in mental well-being is increasingly recognized, with probiotics playing a key role. I have written a whole blog article dedicated to the role of fermented foods in boosting mood and managing depression and anxiety called “Good Mood Food: Fermented Food and Happiness” Here I explore the interaction between eating probiotics, our gut microbiota, and our overall mental wellbeing.

Yogurt, for example, can be a versatile ingredient in your diet. Enjoy it as a part of your breakfast, use it in smoothies, or mix it with herbs for a healthy dip or dressing. Kefir, a fermented milk drink, can be a refreshing beverage on its own or can be used as a base for smoothies and salad dressings. Including these probiotic-rich foods in your daily diet can improve gut health, which is closely linked to mood regulation and anxiety reduction.


4. Eating fresh 

When I think about food I think about nutrient density. The most nutrient-dense and therefore the most powerful foods are those that are found fresh in the supermarket. Simply put we can say that if it looks the way God made it, it is probably fine to eat. Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and fresh proteins are your friends. Deli meats and bacon are not due to the known additives in these foods that cause disease and harm your gut bacteria. If what you are eating comes from a box or a package it is not doing you any favors.


Fresh vegetables and fruits are colorful, natural wonders that are packed with essential nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants that play a vital role in supporting your mental well-being. Vegetables and fruits provide a steady supply of vitamins like vitamin C, which has been linked to lower levels of stress hormones, and folate, which plays a crucial role in neurotransmitter regulation. Additionally, their high fiber content promotes a stable blood sugar level, helping to prevent mood swings and irritability. By embracing a diet rich in fresh produce, you not only nourish your body but also cultivate a positive environment for your mind, fostering a sense of well-being and emotional balance.


Chocolate and cocoa beans

5. Cocoa-Rich Products

Incorporating cocoa-rich products into your diet as a means to enhance mood and reduce anxiety and depression is rooted in scientific evidence. Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content contains compounds like flavonoids and polyphenols that have been associated with mood-boosting properties. These bioactive compounds have the potential to increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of happiness and well-being. Additionally, dark chocolate's mild stimulant effect from theobromine can provide a gentle energy lift without the abrupt crashes associated with other stimulants. While indulging in cocoa-rich products, it's important to choose options with lower sugar content to maximize their benefits. So, treating yourself to a square of dark chocolate can not only satisfy your sweet tooth but also contribute to a happier and more relaxed state of mind.


Lesser-known Dietary Interventions for Anxiety and Depression

Exploring lesser-known foods and practices for mood support reveals promising options for enhancing mood and reducing anxiety which I will not delve into too deeply here, but it is interesting to know that research is ongoing and quite varied. These include traditional comfort food Talbinah, Japanese dried bonito dashi, intermittent fasting, and dietary adjustments like alpha-lactalbumin intake. While individual responses may vary, these practices offer exciting possibilities for emotional well-being, even though some areas require further research. At the bottom of this article are the references to these scientific findings if you are interested in reading more.


Making Food Choices Part of a Healthful Program

The Mediterranean diet, renowned for its focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins, offers a holistic approach to enhancing mood and reducing anxiety. This diet emphasizes foods like olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, known to support brain health and emotional well-being. For example, incorporating olive oil into daily cooking or dressing salads with it instead of butter or other saturated fats can be a simple yet effective change. Snacking on a handful of almonds or walnuts, or adding grilled salmon or mackerel to weekly meal plans, are practical ways to reap the mood-boosting benefits of this diet. The high fiber content from whole grains and legumes in the Mediterranean diet also plays a significant role in gut health, which is closely linked to mental health due to the gut-brain axis.


Similarly, the MIND diet, a fusion of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, is specifically designed to prevent neurological decline and has also been found to have positive effects on mood and anxiety. It focuses on brain-healthy food groups like leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, and fish. Incorporating the MIND diet into daily life can be as easy as adding a serving of leafy greens like spinach or kale to meals, opting for berries as a naturally sweet snack, or choosing whole-grain bread and pasta over refined options. Regular consumption of these nutrient-rich foods not only supports cognitive function but also contributes to overall emotional balance and stress reduction.


To seamlessly integrate these diets into daily routines, planning is key. Starting with small, manageable changes like swapping refined grains for whole grains, increasing the intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, and choosing fresh lean protein sources can make the transition easier. Gradually incorporating more servings of these brain-healthy foods into each meal will not only align with the principles of the Mediterranean and MIND diets but also contribute to an overall improvement in mood and anxiety levels. The key is consistency and making these diets a sustainable part of one's lifestyle, rather than viewing them as temporary changes.



The Impact of Sugar and Processed Foods on Mental Health


And now the not-so-fun part: Sugar is not your friend!


And by sugar, I mean any sugars or simple carbohydrates. The consumption of sugar and processed foods can have a detrimental impact on mental health, a concern that is increasingly relevant in today's fast-paced, convenience-oriented lifestyle. High sugar intake and processed foods often lead to rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, which can cause mood swings, irritability, and increased feelings of anxiety and depression. These foods can also trigger inflammatory responses in the body, contributing to a host of mental health issues. Diets higher in sugar and simple carbohydrates shift the gut microflora to a less favorable spectrum and impact the way they help process the foods that we eat. Moreover, diets high in processed foods tend to lack essential nutrients necessary for brain health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, further exacerbating mental health problems.


Sugary donuts

Reducing the intake of sugar and processed foods while focusing on whole, nutrient-rich foods is a crucial step towards improving mental well-being and maintaining a stable, positive mood.


Although this is a final paragraph in a long blog article, it is of vital importance. The tricky part is that reducing sugar is not easy as it is in EVERYTHING! Sugar is not just in soft drinks and desserts. If you start to read food labels you will find sugar in bread, salad dressing, ketchup, frozen fish fillets, BBQ sauce, yogurts, most marinades, beef jerky and the list goes on! I have given up most sugars (not chocolate!) and I know how hard it is to make this jump. I would offer that giving up sugar is more difficult than climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (and I know, as I have done that too). Don’t think of this as an all-or-nothing venture. The best way to succeed at reducing sugars is to start picking away at it and making small but consistent changes. I would counsel you to start by giving up the sugary drinks and the hidden sugars in things like dressings and breads. Don’t fall into the artificial sweetener trap as that is just as bad as sugar, for different reasons (we will have to explore that in another blog.) What you will find is that the first 2 weeks of sugar reduction are incredibly hard, the first 3 months are still hard and then it gets easier, because believe it or not, one’s body does crave the sugar less over time. All I can say is that this is a step that is well worth the effort as your health benefits will ultimately outweigh any short-term discomfort (and shopping inconvenience) that you will experience.


Conclusion

Our journey into the world of mood-boosting foods has illuminated the powerful impact that our diet can have on our mental health and emotional well-being. We've explored the intricate relationship between specific nutrients and brain chemistry, delving into the roles of omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, probiotics, and cocoa products in supporting mood enhancement and anxiety reduction.


But knowledge alone is not enough; action is key. It's time to take charge of your mental health by making intentional choices in your daily diet.

Here's your call to action:

  1. Incorporate Omega-3 Rich Foods: Start by adding omega-3-rich foods like salmon, mackerel, and walnuts to your meals. Consider grilling salmon with a squeeze of lemon or tossing flaxseeds into your morning smoothie.

  2. Embrace Magnesium: Incorporate magnesium-rich foods such as spinach, almonds, and avocados into your diet. Snack on almonds or add them as a topping for yogurt and cereals.

  3. Prioritize Probiotics: Enjoy yogurt or kefir as part of your breakfast or in smoothies to improve gut health, which is closely linked to mood regulation.

  4. Eat Fresh: Increasing your consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits is a simple yet potent strategy for enhancing mood and reducing anxiety.

  5. Embrace Cocoa-rich Products: Indulge in dark chocolate with high cocoa content as a delightful mood-boosting treat for improved emotional well-being.

  6. Explore Lesser-Known Foods and Practices: Be adventurous and try traditional comfort foods like Talbinah or Japanese dried bonito dashi. Experiment with intermittent fasting and consider adjusting your dietary intake of alpha-lactalbumin.

  7. Reduce Sugar and Processed Foods: Limit your intake of high-sugar and processed foods, which can negatively impact your mood and mental health. Opt for nutrient-rich, whole foods instead.

  8. Consult a Healthcare Professional: The changes that we discussed in this article are powerful and do have a very real impact on your body's health and chemistry. That’s the point, right? We are making these changes because we want to experience a change in our health. Before making significant dietary changes or considering supplements, consult with a healthcare professional, especially if you have underlying health conditions or take medications, as you may find that some of the medications that you are taking may need to be adjusted as your body moves toward a more healthful state. This is a good thing!

Remember, small steps can lead to significant improvements in your mental well-being. By nourishing your mind with the right diet, you're not only supporting your emotional equilibrium but also taking a proactive step towards a more joyful and healthier lifestyle. Your mental health matters and your journey to better well-being starts with the choices you make at the dinner table.



Articles of interest if you want to geek out!

  1. Hadhazy, A. (2010, February 12). Think twice: How the gut's "second brain" influences mood and well-being. Scientific American. Link

  2. Fusar-Poli, L., Gabbiadini, A., Ciancio, A., Vozza, A., Signorelli, M. S., & Aguglia, E. (2021). Chocolate and depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 292, 90-101. Link

  3. Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 6287. Link

  4. Gangwisch, J. E., Hale, L., Garcia, L., Malaspina, D., Opler, M. G., Payne, M. E., Rossom, R. C., & Lane, D. (2015). High glycemic index diet as a risk factor for depression: analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(2), 454-463. Link

  5. Dickson, S., Stoltenborg, I., Poelman, R., Schéle, E., Kooij, K., Roger, A. H., & Goudriaan, A. (2023). Microbiome-gut-brain axis in Nutritional Psychiatry. European Psychiatry, 66. Link

  6. Freijy, T., Cribb, L., Oliver, G., Metri, N-J., Opie, R. S., Jacka, F., Hawrelak, J. A., Rucklidge, J., Ng, C., & Sarris, J. (2023). Effects of a high-prebiotic diet versus probiotic supplements versus synbiotics on adult mental health: The “Gut Feelings” randomised controlled trial. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 16. Link

  7. Godos, J., Grosso, G., Ferri, R., Caraci, F., Lanza, G., Al-Qahtani, W., Caruso, G., & Castellano, S. (2023). Mediterranean diet, mental health, cognitive status, quality of life, and successful aging in southern Italian older adults. Experimental Gerontology, 175. Link

  8. Lee, M. F., Angus, D., Walsh, H. S., & Sargeant, S. (2023). “Maybe it’s Not Just the Food?” A Food and Mood Focus Group Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20. Link

  9. Badrasawi, M., Shahar, S., Manaf, Z. A., & Haron, H. (2013). Effect of Talbinah food consumption on depressive symptoms among elderly individuals in long term care facilities, randomized clinical trial. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 8, 279-285. Link

  10. Funatsu, S., Kondoh, T., Kawase, T., Ikeda, H., Nagasawa, M., Denbow, D. M., & Furuse, M. (2015). Anxiolytic-like effect of dried bonito dashi in mice as demonstrated by the hole-board test. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 79(3), 494-497. Link

  11. Verschoor, E., Finlayson, G., Blundell, J., Markus, C. R., & King, N. A. (2010). Effects of an acute alpha-lactalbumin manipulation on mood and food hedonics in high- and low-trait anxiety individuals. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(4), 595-602. Link

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