Food & Mood: What to eat for anxiety, depression and just feeling damn good

When it comes to mood, the foods you eat can either improve your mentality or severely hinder it. Mounting studies show that if you follow a typical Western diet you are more likely to dampen your mood and increase your risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

The typical Western diet is characterized by a high intake of refined carbohydrates, sugars and saturated fats, and a low intake of natural antioxidants, micronutrients, healthy fats and fibre. These unfavorable nutritional characteristics contribute to poor mental health.

Research demonstrates that inflammatory foods, such as refined carbs (e.g. white bread, biscuits, soft drink), excess meats, and refined oils, negatively influence mood. They do this via increasing oxidative damage to your cells as well as increasing the amount of inflammatory molecules floating around your system.

This ain't good!

Both oxidative stress and inflammation are associated with depression and anxiety.

Further to this, those consuming a typical Western diet are less likely to consume a variety of nutrient rich plant foods, resulting in the insufficient intake of the nutrients essential for a good mood. Some of these nutrients include, healthy fatty acids, tryptophan, magnesium, folic acid, antioxidants, fibre, probiotics and prebiotics.

Healthy fatty acids, such as those found in oily fish, walnuts, microalgae oil, chia seeds, wheat germ, flaxseeds, and extra virgin olive oil, have been shown to contribute many positive benefits to our brain and blood vessels, as well as deliver anti-inflammatory effects that help to prevent and/or alleviate depression.

Magnesium, an essential mineral found in legumes, green vegetables, nuts, seeds and certain grains, has been shown to reduce anxiety and create a calming affect on the body via its affects on our nervous system. Including magnesium rich foods is a must do for good mental health.

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to healthy sleeping patterns as well as boosts mood, is also strongly influenced by a healthy diet. A number of studies show that this particular neurotransmitter is commonly linked to feeling better and living longer. In relation to diet, you can increase your serotonin levels by eating foods rich in the amino acid Tryptophan. Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan. Plant foods rich in tryptophan include spirulina, spinach, soybeans/tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils, legumes, mushrooms and raw oats.

Folate, a B Vitamin, found in edamame, artichoke, brussel sprouts, beets, avocado, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, is essential for brain functioning and a healthy mind. It is required to convert tryptophan into the feel good hormone serotonin.

Further to this, it can heighten serotonin function by slowing down the breakdown of brain tryptophan. Folate is also involved in the synthesis of dopamine, another neurotransmitter that helps control the brains reward and pleasure centres, as well as regulates emotional responses.

Low folate levels have been linked to depression and because folate is water-soluble, it is essential that we eat a variety of plant foods each day to keep our levels topped up!

Vitamin C plays a number of important roles in brain health, including its functions as an antioxidant and neuroprotective constituent (helps to protects the brain cells), as well as a cofactor in dopamine synthesis; the feel good neurotransmitter. Psychological dysfunction, including impaired mood, is known to occur in Vitamin C deficiency, likely because of its involvement in neuronal transmission, brain neurotransmitter synthesis and fuel metabolism.

A number of studies have shown that increased Vitamin C intake can improve anxiety and elevate mood.

Foods rich in Vitamin C include plums, guava, blackcurrants, capsicum, berries, kale, spring greens, brussel sprouts, paw paw, kiwifruit, citrus fruits, broccoli.

On top of all of this, optimizing your gut health results in improved mood and overall well being. Studies show that your gut health affects your thoughts, feelings, anxiety, depression and general well being. They call it the gut-mind connection. For example, around 50% of the bodies Dopamine is produced in the gut. Our gut bacteria produce large amounts of this neurotransmitter, influencing our feelings of reward, motivation and pleasure. Hence, our gut bacteria influence our mood.

Furthermore, majority (about 90%) of serotonin produced in the body is made in the gut. Serotonin has a strong influence on mood. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to alterations in serotonin. Interestingly, gut bacteria can produce factors that block or mimic serotonin action, which in turn, again, influences our mood. Therefore good gut health, particularly good gut bacteria health, has a strong influence on improving our mood.

To optimise your gut health, include fibre rich foods, prebiotics and probiotics, within your diet. My next blog will provide more insight into optimising gut health for a good mood.

In summary

A varied plant-based diet that includes a bunch of vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, some healthy oils/fats, and a bit of red wine (optional), can improve your mood and elevate your overall well being.