Depression and Diet: The Link Between Food and Mood
Recent studies show us that depression is linked to increased levels of inflammation and our gut bacteria – luckily our diet and lifestyle plays a key role at influencing these factors.
Depression and diet: Food Fact Sheet
Life has changed dramatically during the pandemic and some of these changes have the potential to adversely affect our mental health. Isolation, for example, can be particularly challenging for those suffering with anxiety and depression.
We don’t necessarily have control over what life throws our way, but we can influence our response to stress with a balanced approach to nutrition and in this article we’re going to explore a few different ways that we can support ourselves when going through a stressful period, experiencing anxiety or when you’re feeling low.
Does diet impact depression and anxiety?
There is a growing body of evidence that depression is linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body and this can be influenced by a number of factors such as gut bacteria, the immune system, food intolerances, a heightened stress response and/or nutrient deficiencies.
Our gut bacteria are especially important to reduce inflammation in the body and can affect mental health through something called the gut-brain-axis.
The gut-brain-axis is a bidirectional link between cognitive and emotional centres in the brain with intestinal functions, meaning that a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut.
This means a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause of anxiety and stress and vice versa, and therefore manipulating the gut bacteria through our diet can be effective at improving our mood and reducing the burden of depression.
Depression and wholegrains, fruit and vegetables
When we feel stressed we can easily fall into bad food habits. Busy lifestyles and sleep deprivation often lead to making food choices out of convenience and from cravings instead of prioritising nutritional value.
Eating a balanced diet that is abundant in a diversity of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables can be one of the most important ways we can build a healthier microbiome which can positively impact our mood through the gut-brain-axis.
Our adrenal glands, the tiny glands situated at the top of our kidneys, produce cortisol in response to emotional triggers and food, which can keep us in the ‘fight or flight’ mode.
The best way to support this cortisol response is by balancing blood glucose levels throughout the day by pairing our carbohydrates with fats and/or protein sources.
Some of the best foods for anxiety and depression?
When it comes to the influence our diet has on our mental health, the variety of foods we eat becomes very important.
If you were to take away something from this article today, it would be to remember these three key principles in your diet:
- Anti-inflammatory foods – focus on including foods such as oily fish, herbs and spices.
- Colourful foods – aiming for half a plate of a variety of fruits, vegetables and leafy greens at every meal.
- Diversity of foods – focusing on a wide range of foods at each meal that also changes day-to-day if possible is optimal.
Some of the key nutrients you can focus on to support your mental health include:
The most important B vitamins for brain health include vitamin B9 (Folate) and B12. They are important for neurotransmitter synthesis and help to prevent loss of brain cells in the hippocampus.
Food sources of folate and B12 include:
- Leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and shellfish
In a 2010 study, a group of 50 people were randomly assigned to take either a daily probiotic formula or a placebo. The study found that the probiotic group had less depression, and their urinary levels of cortisol were lower compared to the placebo group, which indicates that they were less stressed.
Gut bacteria have the ability to boost levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical which may provide relief from depression and other mental health conditions.
Probiotics are best consumed through food such as:
- Live yoghurt
- Aged cheese
Why not try our delicious kimchi recipe packed full of gut-brain loving nutrition.
It’s important to also eat enough prebiotic foods as these help to feed the good bacteria in the gut. Good sources of prebiotic foods include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
Studies show a strong link between selenium and depression. It is thought to have a positive antioxidant effect by reducing inflammation, which is often at heightened levels when someone has a mood disorder.
The richest sources of selenium include:
- Brazil nuts
- Organ meats
Low levels of zinc intake can contribute to the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Zinc supplementation has long been used as a treatment for major depression and has even been shown to be effective when combined with antidepressant therapy for effective treatment of patients with major depression.
Try and include the following foods in your diet on a regular basis:
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark chocolate
A deficiency of Vitamin D can impair cognitive function and brain health, which may lead to poorly regulated mood and behaviour.
Vitamin D rich foods include:
Your body absorbs vitamin D primarily through sun exposure and therefore during autumn and winter months in the UK it is vital you take additional supplementation.
Include oily fish in your diet for mental health
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids help to lower inflammation in the brain by protecting neurons and individuals with higher levels of omega-3 in their diets tend to have a lower incidence of major depressive disorder.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid because it must be obtained from dietary sources as the body cannot produce it. Food sources include:
- Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring
- Grass-fed beef also contains alpha linolenic acid, which the body can convert into omega-3
- Plant based sources include edamame, walnuts and chia seeds, however this is much harder to convert and an additional vegan algae supplement would be recommended
Foods to avoid
Sunflower, safflower and corn oil are types of polyunsaturated fats which, when consumed in excess, can cause an imbalance in the omega 3:6 ratio in the body, increasing the risk of inflammation and depression.
Trans fats found in fried foods, frozen pizza, fast foods and margarine are associated with an increased risk of developing depression.
High glycemic load (GL) foods
A diet high in glycemic load (GL) is associated with an increased risk of developing depression. These high GL foods impact your blood sugar levels and in turn increase a hormone called insulin which is inflammatory in the body and the brain.
White potatoes, white rice and white bread are all examples of high glycaemic load carbohydrates. Even though these foods do not taste sweet, the body processes it in a similar way to sugar.
In order to minimise the risk of developing depression, choosing good sources of whole grains and fibre would be a better option. These include brown rice, steel cut oats, brown rice, nuts, seeds, berries, apples and pears.
Caffeine releases cortisol, our stress hormone, which can cause issues with blood sugar regulation and leave you feeling more anxious.
Therefore, it is advisable to limit the amount of caffeine consumed and try not to consume any after 12 noon as this can affect how well you sleep.
We know that excessive drinking can adversely affect mental health, and eventhough alcohol may suppress anxious feelings while consuming, the rebound effect can be far worse than the baseline level of anxiety.
There seems to be a bidirectional relationship between alcohol use and depressive disorders – one increases the risk for the other, and one can worsen the other.
It is therefore important to moderate the amount of alcohol consumption.
Can lifestyle have an effect on depression?
We all know how much better we feel after physical exercise. Exercise can be one of the most important ways we can support our mental health by boosting feel good endorphins in the brain.
Optimal sleep is key to mental wellbeing as the brain does important clearing throughout the night helping us deal with emotions more effectively.
To promote healthy sleep, limit the use of phones or other stimulating devices in the hour before you go to bed and try to get at least eight hours of sleep each night in a dark bedroom.
Practice mindfulness each day
This can be as simple as going for a walk in nature, doing ten minutes of meditation, reading a relaxing novel, playing an instrument, singing or dancing. Anything that brings you back in the moment can be great for calming anxiety about the future and positively impacting your mood.
Remember that solitude is not the same as loneliness. Spending five minutes a day in solitude can be an important component of a healthy mind.
In this modern world we live in, we are constantly bombarded with social media and negative news which can increase feelings of anxiety. Maybe it’s time to take a digital detox and practice being more present in our daily lives.
Hopefully with emerging evidence we can create a future where the importance of nutrition and food is used to optimise mental wellbeing and brain health.
The most important thing when dealing with depression and anxiety is to reach out and get support. Speak to loved ones or get in touch with a mental health professional if you need help.
We are the largest functional medicine clinic in Europe and have a team of experienced mental health clinicians who collaborate in a unique way, working as a team to get you to optimal mental health.
The sooner you reach out and get the right support in place the better your chances are of avoiding a crisis.
The quickest and easiest way to speak to a member of the team is to call us on 020 3332 0030 – or you can schedule some time in our calendar for a complimentary discovery call.
Lelani Loubser is a qualified Nutritional Therapist, Herbalist, Naturopath and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner. Lelani’s specialist areas of interest are in mental health, gut health and supporting clients with complex health conditions such as mould illness, MCAS, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue and autoimmunity. Lelani is especially passionate and experienced in supporting patients suffering from depression using a combination of personalised nutrition, herbal medicine and NLP coaching to help her clients regain their quality of life.
You can learn more about our expert practitioner team on our about us page.