A Lifestyle Approach for Optimal Mental Health
In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, it’s no surprise that many people experience depression and anxiety. While therapy and medication can be essential, the impact of nutrition on mental health often goes overlooked.
There is no disputing that good nutrition, as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, helps you to achieve the best physical health. New research shows just how important nutrition can be when it comes to mental health too.
Nutrition and mental health are clearly interconnected. For example, you may have experienced the impact that stress and other mental health challenges can have on appetite, food choices, cravings, etc. There are ways to take back control and strategically use nutrition as one of many tools to improve mental health.
According to the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, “There have been many studies that have demonstrated that a good quality diet is important to the risk of or prevention of mental disorders.” This means that by eating a nutritious, balanced diet, you can lower your chances of experiencing mental health concerns in the future.
But, what if you’re already experiencing symptoms?
The good news is that recent clinical trials have found that improving food choices can help to reduce symptoms and improve moods. Choosing the right foods, drinks, and supplements can make a big difference.
This article shares some of the research that links improved nutrition to improved moods and gives you some practical strategies to optimize your nutrition for better mental health.
Before we look at depression and anxiety separately, let’s go over some of the food and nutrient strategies for better mental health in general.
Medical disclaimer: There is growing evidence that certain foods, supplements, and lifestyle habits can influence the risk and symptoms of depression and anxiety. They may play an important role if symptoms are mild, and can also help to support other treatments. Please see your healthcare professional or book an appointment with me to discuss your personal needs and goals when it comes to nutrition for mental health. http://kaizennutritionwellness.com/appointment/
Food and nutrient strategies for better moods
There are a lot of nutrition strategies that can help to reduce stress and optimize moods in general, whether it’s for depression or anxiety.
Eat a variety of balanced, healthful foods
Ensuring you get a variety of foods helps you meet your nutrition needs for optimal health (physical and mental) every day. This includes loading up on fruits and vegetables, and getting enough protein, fiber, and healthy fats. A recent clinical study showed reduced symptoms of depression when participants improved the quality of the foods they ate for three months. The improved diet focused on getting whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, olive oil, and nuts every day; plus legumes, lean red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs a few times per week.
Many vitamins and minerals are involved in the processes that are affected by anxiety and depression including magnesium, iron, folate, vitamin B12, riboflavin (B2), and vitamin B6. In the handouts at the end, you’ll find a book of recipes packed with these key micronutrients to support mental health for people with anxiety and depression.
- Food Sources of Magnesium: pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts (no more than 3-4), halibut, quinoa, spinach, almonds, bran, buckwheat flour, cashews, soybeans, mixed nuts, white beans, black beans
- Food Sources of Iron: Cooking in cast iron pans, clams, oysters, organ meats, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, white beans, blackstrap molasses, lentils, spinach, beef, kidney beans, sardines
- Food Sources of Folate: Beef liver, black-eyed peas, great northern beans, asparagus, spinach, boiled peas, broccoli
- Food Sources of vitamin B12: nutritional yeast (added), beef liver, clams, trout, salmon, beef (preferably pastured), haddock, plain yogurt, tuna, milk, swiss cheese, eggs, tempeh
- Food Sources of Riboflavin (B2): nutritional yeast (added), milk, almonds, eggs, spinach, beef, chicken, asparagus, salmon, broccoli
- Food Sources of Pyridoxine (B6): nutritional yeast (added), chickpeas, bananas, potato with skin, wild salmon, chicken, avocado, spinach, dried plums, hazelnuts
A word of caution about supplementing Folate and B12
If you are suffering from increased anxiety/depression or a long history of anxiety/depression we should take a look at the form of folate and B12 in your supplements and food. Consider that the following may be contributing to your symptoms:
Folic acid in fortified foods such as bagels, breads, crackers is a synthetic form and can block folate receptors in certain individuals with genetic variants. This blocks your body from receiving natural folate from foods.
Methyl-Folate and Methyl B12 can block the body’s ability transfer this methyl-group (CH3) into the methionine pathway to lower homocysteine (a marker for increased cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s risk)
Non-methylated forms of Folate and B12 can provide the options needed for your body to create a methyl group naturally, hand it off to B12, and lower homocysteine. What about MTHFR genetic SNP, you ask? Some individuals do have this genetic SNP and often methyl-folate and methyl B12 is recommended. The reality is that MTHFR
C677T and A1298C are very common, and genetic variants that are very common in the general population rarely cause a significant impact to metabolic function. Monitoring your Methylmalonic acid (a functional marker of B12 status) and Homocysteine levels is one way to see how your supplements are impacting optimal function in these metabolic pathways.
Ensure you’re eating meals as a matter of routine
Sometimes our moods and life in general disrupt our eating patterns. We may forget to eat meals in the first place, or double-up when we forget that we’ve already eaten a meal. Regularly eating nutritious meals can help balance moods. If it will help, consider setting yourself reminders or scheduling mealtimes to ensure that you nourish your body and mind on the regular. Perhaps a meal plan that has all of your meals laid out for you is what you need.
If you find that you get really hungry between meals, incorporate more snacks into your routine! Try this client favorite, packed with protein and fiber, as a cool snack for the summer heat!
Boost energy by pairing snacks together with carbohydrates + Fat or Protein.
- carrot or celery sticks + single serving guacamole
- bell peppers + hummus
- high protein yogurt + blueberries, walnuts
- cherry tomatoes + hummus
- apple + 2 Tbsp nut butter
- strawberries (4-5) plus ¼ cup walnuts
- rolled low sodium lunch meat pinwheels (3) + cherry tomatoes
View our Power Snacks handout for additional ideas on how to pair snack components together to balance macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat).
Enjoy your meals mindfully
Eating mindfully is when you pay attention to your food when you eat. This means making thoughtful food choices, eating slowly, chewing well, and savoring the flavors and textures. Not only does mindful eating help keep you focused on enjoying the food in front of you in the present moment, but it helps improve digestion and can positively influence mental health.
Several recent studies have found that certain strains of probiotic supplements may help with depression and anxiety. Probiotics are friendly, live microbes that can improve gut health and are often found as dietary supplements.
The ability of probiotics in the gut to influence moods is because of the gut-brain connection. The gut and brain communicate with each other through the nervous system, as well as via molecules called neurotransmitters. This is the same connection that can cause stomach upset during stressful times, and why some gut conditions can trigger depression or anxiety. It’s an emerging area of research now that is shedding light on how we can leverage gut health for better mental health.
Extra nutrition tips for depression
Enjoying a nutrient-rich dietary pattern can help to nourish your body and brain so that you can have energy and feel good throughout the day. A couple of nutrition strategies that can help with depression include curbing intake of refined sugars and enjoying coffee in moderation.
Curb intake of refined sugars
There’s a link between depression and consuming a lot of refined sugar (like the kind found in sweets, desserts, sodas). One of the reasons is that the brain depends on a steady supply of blood sugar (glucose). When we eat or drink refined sugars, they’re absorbed very quickly and spike blood sugar levels like a rollercoaster. This effect can then impact the brain and influence moods. Many people find that when they’re feeling down, they crave sweets to help boost their moods. So, while sweets may seem to feel good temporarily, over the long term they can lead to worsening mood swings.
A nutrition strategy that can help reduce intake of refined sugars is to have healthier foods available—especially when it comes to snacks and desserts. Instead of reaching for sweets and sugary drinks, consider fruits, nuts, and unsweetened beverages like fruit-infused water and teas, and unsweetened dairy/non-dairy milks.
Enjoy coffee in moderation
Coffee contains antioxidants that can help reduce the harmful effects of oxidative stress and inflammation. Coffee also contains caffeine. Low-to-moderate amounts of caffeine can help to increase energy, alertness, and concentration which are often a much-appreciated boost for those who need it.
Some studies show that there may be a “sweet spot” of 2-6 cups of coffee per day to help lower the risk for depression. Caffeine intakes may affect different people in different ways (depending on metabolism, etc.), so proceed with caution to find your personal sweet spot.
When you’re having a bad day
Cooking for yourself when you’re in a depressive episode is the last thing many people want to do, so having nutritious meals on-hand is critical to nourishing the body and mind during these periods. To get you started here are two (!) recipe booklets you can download for freezer-friendly recipes and quick and easy 30-minute recipes.
Extra nutrition tips for anxiety
One strategy to reduce feelings of anxiety or serious stress is to ensure you don’t get too much caffeine (from all sources).
Don’t overdo the caffeine
As noted above, while some coffee may help with symptoms of depression, too much caffeine can increase symptoms of anxiety—especially in those who are more sensitive to it. Some of the side effects of having too much caffeine are jitteriness, increased heart rate, sleep difficulties, and anxiety. Moderating your overall caffeine intake (from all sources including coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, caffeine supplements, some medications, etc.) can help.
For some people, having no more that 400 mg of caffeine (about the amount in four cups of coffee) can help reduce some of these effects. If you start feeling these symptoms and you still want to enjoy your coffee, tea, soda, etc., try switching to decaffeinated options.
Keep in mind. Caffeine can put you into fight or flight with a push of cortisol production that helps wake you up but also puts stress on your body. If you are already prone to anxiety, caffeine can be counterproductive.
Alternatives to coffee that give you a similar boost include:
- Teeccino adaptogen tea (check against medications before using): vary by product, some are gluten free
- MUD\WTR: Masala chai, lion’s mane, chaga, reishi, turmeric, cinnamon, cacao, cordycepsGolden Milk: Turmeric, Ashwagandha, Dates, Cardamom, and Vanilla
- Clevr Blends adaptogen blend (check against medications before using): Organic oatmilk powder, coconut cream powder, monk fruit, carob, chicory root, resihi, ashwagandha, vanilla bean powder
- RASA: Organic chicory, burdock, dandelion roots, eleuthero, roasted date seeds & maca, chaga, ashwagandha, cinnamon
- Joe’y: roasted chicory root, cacao, roasted dandelion root, gluten free malt, cinnamon, ashwagandha, cordyceps mushroom, lion’s mane mushroom, rishi mushroom, L-Theanine
- Wooden Spoon Herbs: Organic chicory, dandelion, maca, burdock roots, mesquite pod, cinnamon bark
- Free & True: Organic matcha green tea powder, turmeric, ginger, rice powder, spices
- Four Sigmatic: Organic coffee, chaga, reishi, ashwagandha
- Chagacinno: Wild foraged chaga, organic cacao, cinnamon, monk fruit
Self-care strategies that can help with depression and anxiety
While nutrition is essential for good mental and physical health, there are other lifestyle factors that can also play a role.
Exercise can lower symptoms of depression and anxiety—especially when done regularly (e.g., during most days). Physical activity helps us to reduce stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and release “feel good” compounds called endorphins.
Ironic as it is, we need energy – our ATP molecule – to feel like we even CAN exercise, and exercising increases our ATP energy molecule production. Feels a lot like the ‘chicken or the egg’ conversion, doesn’t it? When chronic disease or a cluster of symptoms impacting energy production, this is often a challenge. I would encourage you to get started any way you can.
Just 30 minutes of walking per day can help improve your mood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, you don’t need those 30 minutes to be done in one session. Breaking it down into three 10-minute sessions during the day can add up to the same health benefits.
Getting enough quality sleep is great for your body and mind. Sleeping 7-9 hours/night can help you get into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which allows the body to repair tissues and supports a healthy immune system.
The most impactful strategy to get better sleep is to make it a priority and stick to a schedule. You can also try to stop screen time and bright lights before bed as they can trick your brain into thinking that the sun is still out and you should stay awake.
Other activities that can help to manage some of the stressors that lead up to or worsen depression and anxiety include mindfulness, meditation, relaxation exercises, deep breathing, and taking time each day to pay attention to the positive. These activities can help to reduce muscle tension, lower the heart rate, and calm the mind.
Examples include practicing gratitude or journaling about good things that happen, noting why you appreciate them and focusing on the positive by challenging negative thoughts. Perhaps you can take some breaks each day to listen to your favorite music, play a game, read, or enjoy a hobby.
Another strategy utilized by my clients is what I call “The Highlight Reel.” Akin back to the days when my kids did sports, this is the same idea as a gratitude journal, but this journal only includes highlights of the day – little wins. Maybe you packed your lunch today so you could stay on track with your goals. That’s a win. Maybe you picked a no added sugar option for ketchup at the grocery by reading labels. That’s a win. Engage your partner or roommate in this if possible so they can help you remember the highlights they noticed throughout the day. Eventually, these little wins become second nature, but it is fun to look back on your progress by viewing “The Highlight Reel.”
Being social with people whom you care about and who care about you is an often-forgotten step toward optimal mental health. Reaching out and keeping in touch with friends and family regularly—especially when you need support—can make a world of difference. You can also meet new people by joining a group or volunteering to support an issue that means a lot to you.
Nutrition can play a role in reducing the risk of getting depression and anxiety in the first place, and to help manage the symptoms once they occur. The vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats we eat are used to help fuel and function our physical and mental health. This means that our food choices can help to optimize more balanced moods.
For your mental health, enjoy a nutrient-rich variety of foods that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and proteins. Cut back on foods that have refined sugars and find your personal optimal amount of coffee to enjoy every day can help.
If you’re in crisis: Call 911 for a medical emergency or 988 to reach the suicide hotline.
Need help planning and making nutrition part of your mental health plan? As a licensed registered dietitian, I’d love to help. Book an appointment with me today to see if my product/program/service can help you. (Add your “book now” button)]
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