There are many reasons we find ourselves depressed or anxious. I covered most of these last week (if you haven’t already, you can read that here), we may have been told we have a hormone imbalance, we may be suffering from inflammation in the brain, reduced serotonin and reduced neuro-plasticity (the brains ability to communicate with itself, let go of old connections and establish new ones). So if all this is going on in our brain, why am I talking to you about your diet?
We have all heard of the importance of serotonin and dopamine in stabilizing and boosting our mood, but what may surprise you to learn is that 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut and over half of our dopamine is synthesised there too.
The gut is referred to as our second brain, it has it’s own functioning ability outside of the brain allowing it to communicate with the brain. According to Professor Felicia Jacka of the Food and Mood centre, 90% of information travelling this superhighway is going from the gut to the brain, and only 10% from the brain to the gut.
So it makes sense that the foods we eat and the health of our gut directly correlates with the health of our brain.
The truth of it is – Your comfort foods are actually making you feel worse.
That’s right, the foods you eat when you feel low, actually contribute to you feeling worse. The below is a list of foods to minimise in your diet and why they are not helping you shake the blues.
- Alcohol, tobacco, other drugs
We know typically these are depressants, and yet we still reach for a glass of wine or a joint to have a good time or numb the effects of stressful day, but they affect the nervous system. Alcohol interferers with our sleep, promotes inflammation as, news flash, our body swells and gets aggravated when we poison it. Add to this that it makes your blood sugar go up and down like a yo-yo, it actively reduces serotonin and actually increases production of hormones that increase your levels of stress and anxiety. It’s a quick fix that not only is toxic to our brain, but damages the gut lining and our healthy bacteria.
2. Added sugar (refined sugar)
We have all been to a children’s birthday party where the children are ‘hyped’ up on sugar and then all get tired and short tempered almost as quickly. The link between the ‘sugar high’ and our food is so similar to that of alcohol or drugs we even treat it as such and limit how much we allow our children to have. We know it’s not good and yet we sit there eating entire chocolate oranges in 10 minutes (or was that just me?)
What sugar actually does is promote inflammation, cause fatigue and irritability, and stop us being able to effectively deal with stress. A study cited by Mind over Munch in their video here, stated that people with a high sugar diet were 23% more likely to develop depression or anxiety.
3. Processed Foods & Fast Foods
We know they aren’t good for us, but the trans fats found in processed and fast food correlate with anxiety, aggression and depression among others. Processed meats are often full of salt , sugar and a lot of…
4. Artificial sweeteners and anything else you can’t pronounce in the ingredients
The clue is the in the name, artificial. They aren’t food and our bodies don’t know how to process them as such. Not only can these ingredients lead to weight gain, they are also associated with headaches, dizziness, migraines as well as mood disorders. If it isn’t food, don’t eat it.
5. ‘White’ grains
When they make white flour, white rice etc, they take away everything that is good about the grain and leave behind what is basically a form of dehydrated glue. Simple carbs like those found in white bread, white rice have nothing good for you, but wow are they full of gluey starch, a simple sugar that causes massive irregularity in your blood sugar.
6. Refined oils
We know how amazing Omega 3 is for our brain health, more about that later, but have you heard of it’s arch nemeses, Omega 6? Neither had I before I started this research, but much like a negative cancels out a positive, Omega 6 (found in refined oils) compete with and block out the Omega 3s. Rather than helping our brain function, Omega 6 causes inflammation, impairs brain function and has been shown to worsen depression. Worth noting a lot of the already really bad fast food, is then fried in refined oil.
I’m not telling you that you can never have a glass of wine after a stressful week (studies have shown small amounts of red wine have a positive effect on our mood and health), or you can never treat the children to McDonalds, but it should be exactly that – a treat. In order to really help lift our spirits, we need to limit these foods that are literally making us depressed (it’s no surprise that the western world has the highest consumption of these foods and the highest rates of common mood disorders) and eat foods that truly make us happy and function well.
- Fatty fish
I promised I would come back to this Omega 3, the undisputed ruler of the brain health foods. Our brains are actually made up of 60% fat. Healthy fats in the form of Omega 3 are fuel to our brains. The best source of Omega 3 is in Salmon, but other fatty fish such as sardines, mackerel and tuna are also good for you. Not to mention all their other health benefits. Also, if you really don’t like fish, Omega 3 is one of the only nutrients that still has a positive effect on mood when taken as a supplement.
Fatty fish also contain amino acids, if the nutrients we take in from food were love letters amino acids would be the envelopes. Tryptophan in particular is the envelope of choice for our happy hormone, serotonin.
2. Nuts and seeds
If you are vegetarian / vegan and cannot eat fish, then you will be pleased to know that walnuts, chia, flax and hemp seeds are also really good sources of plant based Omega 3. Walnuts especially have a recognised mood boosting effect. One study measured participants depression scores and found they were 26% lower in people who ate 1/4 cup of walnuts a day. Eating that amount of walnuts (roughly a dozen halves) also lead to greater optimism, energy, hope and concentration. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of tryptophan.
3. Meat, Poultry, Eggs Dairy AND SOY
All meat, regardless if it is red or white meat is an excellent source of complete proteins and amino acids, although the best sources are chicken and turkey.
Eggs are also a good source of folate and vitamin D, which may have links to our immune health. Folate can also be found in legumes such as beans or chickpeas, as well as nuts and seeds.
What is folate? Folate is a very clever B9 vitamin who’s job is to help regenerate cells and tissue. Low levels of folate have been linked to increased risk of depression and poor response to antidepressant treatment
Of course I’m going to tell you at some point to eat your greens. Vegetables, especially dark leafy greens such as cabbage, spinach and broccoli, are packed full of nutrients and folate. They are also full of antioxidants.
Why are antioxidants good? Oxidisation of cells in the body, splits them at an atomic level. These atoms have unpaired electrons and zoom around the body looking for another atom to pair up with. Think of it like a pair of magnets stuck together, and then the Oxygen comes in like the flat mate they swear they are just friends with and splits them up leaving one magnet looking desperately for love, and not caring what they wreck in the process. These are what you may have heard referred to as free radicals. They are natural and normal, but like everything, in moderation. If there are two many of them, our body can’t keep up and they can cause diseases and have even been attributed to some cancers. When this happens, the body is in oxidative stress which has also been linked to depression and anxiety.
A healthy mix of fruits is essential for your diet, but berries are your best choice when choosing mood foods. All berries are some of the most antioxidant rich foods that exist, so much so in blueberries, they are considered a depression food.
Avocado is also great for you, and they are not just for millennials. They are full of healthy fats, folate and also rich in amino acids helping all that good stuff get to where it needs to be.
Keep in mind that any change to your diet in the right direction is going to help you to feel better, you don’t need to become Gillian McKeith overnight to get the benefits, but the more you can eliminate the less helpful foods and eat more of the good stuff, the better you will feel. The catch 22 is, if you are feeling depressed you may not feel worth spending the time and energy to buy and make these foods, but there are really quick, simple and cheap solutions available on line. If you know someone who is depressed, why not make a large batch of something yummy you can take round to a friend (and leave, please don’t put pressure). Something easy to reheat or eat cold they can just grab – Such as a crust-less quiche using yogurt instead of cream and packed full of chicken, red peppers and spinach.
If you would like this quiche recipe, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and put “Brain Quiche” in the subject.
Please keep in mind, no specific food is a treatment for anxiety or depression, and these recommendations are NOT a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Please consult with your physician or mental health professional before making lifestyle changes, especially any changes that involve medication.