8 Foods to Eat to Improve Anxiety & Depression
- Written By:Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD
Dr Uma Naidoo, MD. Harvard-trained Nutritional Psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist and author of “This is Your Brain on Food.”
As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, I often see clients with either anxiety or depression and work with them on a personalized plan to help improve their symptoms. Many times though both these emotions run together. Someone feeling slightly down may also be anxious, or sometimes when we work on strategies to improve anxiety, I often hear how someone’s mood has also been uplifted.
While these are two separate conditions, there are foods which can help lower the symptoms of both. Mental health and nutritional psychiatry is never a one-size fits all, but here are some guidelines about how to fend off the blues and lower your stress with everyday foods you can add to your meals.
Definitely add in fermented foods like unsweetened coconut yoghurt, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, homemade pickles. Live active cultures, found in fermented foods provide more healthy bacteria to our guts, which reduces inflammation and supports a healthy brain, healthy hormone levels and happy moods.
Eat fiber filled foods to fend off anxiety. As Americans we seem to be obsessed with counting grams of protein but it’s grams of fiber we are missing. Combining both nutrients, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes and lentils are great sources of both fiber and plant-based protein. You cannot obtain fiber from animal or seafood proteins. These foods are also high in polyphenols and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which have widely been shown to be anti-inflammatory and promote a healthy gut flora, which in turn improves your brain health!
Super dark chocolate
It turns out that extra dark natural chocolate is a probiotic rich food, great for your gut and brain. Cacao flavanols are antioxidants that beat oxidative stress in the brain - and by doing so fend off stress. Natural dark chocolate contains magnesium that fends off inflammation in your body and brain; increases blood flow in the brain, improves cognitive function and fends off anxiety. Find an unsweetened and raw version with 75% cacao or more.
Dark Chocolate is rich in serotonin - which is the chemical used in medications to treat anxiety and stress. The effect of chocolate was researched in a population study of 13,626 adults found that, even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, body mass index and daily sugar intake, dark chocolate consumption specifically, (but not milk or white chocolate consumption found in regular candy bars), was associated with a 70% reduced risk of depression.
The calming powers of teas cannot be overstated. Passionflower, Lavender and Chamomile tea are some of my favorites for destressing. Chamomile calms the nervous system. (Drinking chamomile during pregnancy may be a problem so always ask your doctor.) Passionflower will help poor sleep, anxiety and even hot flashes. The mechanism is thought to be related to passionflower increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a naturally-occurring amino acid that reduces activity in the central nervous system, leading to relaxation, a better mood, improved sleep, and even pain relief.
Rainbow of veggies
Fiber-rich whole foods improve blood sugar levels, decrease inflammatory markers which contributes to better mental health. Try adding as many different colors in your salads. Chopped peppers, kale, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, the more variety you bring to your plate, the better. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, Bok choy and arugula contain the powerful anti-inflammatory compound sulforaphane which has been shown to promote healthy gut bacteria and shut down inflammatory pathways. Those who regularly consume cruciferous vegetables may have fewer anxiety and depression symptoms.
Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are filled with antioxidants and fiber which decreases inflammation and feeds the “good” bacteria in the gut. A healthy gut leads to a healthy stress-free brain.
Spice it Up
Turmeric is my go-to anti-stress spice. Curcumin, its active ingredient, decreases anxiety and changes the corresponding brain chemistry, protecting the hippocampus because stress can deactivate the hippocampus. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and promotes neurotrophic activities which helps maintain healthy brain functions. I add it to smoothies, salads, soups and even tea. Always adding a pinch of black pepper makes it much more bioavailable to the brain and body.
Salads with an abundance of greens
Folate, the essential nutrient found in green vegetables, is the key when fighting off anxiety and stress. Its deficiency contributes to a loss of brain cells; and is highly linked to anxiety, memory loss, chronic fatigue, stress and more mental health conditions. You can find it in watercress, dandelion greens, spinach, romaine, or arugula.
Learn more about the gut-brain connection and how to improve your mental fitness with food in my bestselling book This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and More, joining my newsletter or following me on social media.