If you can’t view the video above, click Teaching Kids to Cook May Help Prevent Anxiety and Depression to see it directly on YouTube.
Here’s the thing about food and mood – a lot of people don’t believe that what we eat can be the root cause of how we feel, especially when it comes to big issues like depression and anxiety. But if you think about it in a practical way, it’s only too obvious (and painful, especially if you’ve ever tried to cook healthy food while in the throes of depression).
The last time you got too hungry, a meal was delayed or you missed it all together because you were stuck working on something and forgot to eat, were you absolutely kind to your co-workers? Did you have the most patience in the world with your family? Were you able to make good and wise decisions in those moments of hunger? If that doesn’t apply to you, maybe you know someone else who gets “hangry” when they haven’t had enough to eat.
And how about eating out or Thanksgiving dinner? Do you know that feeling after a restaurant dinner with lots of rich food, where you just want to fall asleep and your brain is a little foggy?
The last time you felt sad or stressed out, what did you want to eat? Kale chips or salad? Or maybe ice cream, mashed potatoes, and meatloaf, or some chocolate? A bag of chips or some cookies? And sometimes… It actually does make you feel better.
Maybe you’ve heard of kids who get out of control rage when they consume red food dye or emotional with yellow? I’ve heard more stories than I want to, but there is no denying that it’s real.
If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you were nervous, you know that the gut-brain connection is real. The brain quite clearly can impact the gut, and the gut can impact the brain, causing things like those cravings when you have certain feelings.
The foods we eat can impact mood and anxiety in both the short and long-term.
In other words, the food you eat can make you feel better or worse in the moments and hours after consuming it, but there can also be compounding effects over time with things like nutrient deficiencies causing chronic disease.
There’s a reason one-third of our teens report experiencing anxiety and over 10% are clinically depressed – those numbers are increasing at massive rates, so we’ve changed something (probably a few things) about the way we live. Processed foods are one piece of the story…
To grab the 10 Foods free eBook and learn more about the foods on the table in the video above PLUS the most important part, HOW to use them at home with ease, click HERE.
Vitamin & Mineral Deficiencies May Interfere with Serotonin and Cause Depression
In the case of depression and anxiety, research has found correlations with low zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins, all of which assist serotonin production and neural pathways. Increasing those nutrients in the diet, therefore, may have a protective or healing effect.
Serotonin is the feel-good chemical thought to be deficient at the root of most depression. A neurotransmitter, serotonin must be produced, transported, and received by the brain in order for our bodies to have “enough.” If any of these steps is compromised, levels are low and depression and other mental health disorders may result. In other words, even if you’re producing enough, if your brain isn’t processing it, it doesn’t really matter.
Antidepressant drugs work to increase serotonin levels – but they certainly aren’t solving the root cause. No one is deficient in Prozac. (source)
There are many ways to improve your serotonin levels without drugs, such as exposure to bright light, exercise, and dietary changes.
Increase Zinc for Brain Health
You can certainly get your zinc levels tested and supplement (here’s what I take every day – apart from any magnesium supplement as it interferes with absorption). But in general, Americans consuming more zinc is a great idea.
Foods high in zinc:
- pumpkin seeds (roast your own crispy pumpkin seeds)
- turkey (dark meat)
- , pecans, and peanuts
- sesame seeds (tahini)
- Swiss chard, mustard greens
- kidney and lima beans, lentils
- wild rice
- source: Beyond the Label and experts listed at end of post
Our bodies can’t store zinc, so it’s important to consume zinc-containing foods or supplement with zinc often.
Increase Magnesium for Brain Health
So a square of dark chocolate a day may be good for more than just your brain! As depression goes, a study demonstrated “rapid recovery from major depression in < 7 days for most of the patients” receiving simple magnesium supplementation. (source)
Foods high in magnesium:
- pumpkin seeds (again!)
- cocoa / dark chocolate (ALDI 85% dark is my fav!)
- flax seeds, chia seeds and sunflower seeds
- dark leafy greens like spinach, chard, beet greens, collards
- cashews (again!), hazelnuts, , Brazil nuts
- sweet potato
- tuna (again!)
- brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat
- source and Beyond the Label
There are also many ways to get magnesium in your body beyond food, such as this supplement that my husband and I take daily, drops to add to your water (they taste badly once you get up to the recommended 1/2-1 teaspoon, so in juice or lemon water only), magnesium lotion or balm, topical magnesium spray, and magnesium flakes or Epsom salts in the bath.
B12 May be Low in People Suffering from Depression
Again huge numbers on Vitamin B12 deficiency – almost 40% of the population may be severely deficient. Reasons include damage to villi and weakened tight junctions in the gut due to GMOs or gluten, not eating enough animal products, or low stomach acid.
Fixing a B12 deficiency can have such a profound impact on one’s anxiety that it reverses severe symptoms that medications couldn’t even touch. Read this article by Dr. Kelly Brogan for more.
It has also been found to delay the onset of dementia, another brain health issue no one wants to worry about. Just 0.4 mg per day decreased symptoms of depression too (ibid)!
RELATED: Watch this fascinating interview with Dr. Brogan about kids and anxiety/depression.
Foods high in B12:
- beef and beef liver (get that in capsule form here)
- clams, salmon, halibut
- tuna (again!)
Insulin resistance can also be a major problem…
Why Ditch Sugar for Brain Health & Depression and Anxiety Resilience?
1. Sugar Compromises Mood Balance via the Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
“Excessive consumption of simple sugars can trigger hypoglycemic reactions—i.e., low blood sugar—and result in mood imbalances, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.” (Beyond the Label by Christina Bjorndal)
Be sure not to substitute artificial sweeteners, because they can block the formation of serotonin as well, plus disrupt hormones and alter your microbiome!
And in fact, depression might not even be related to serotonin (I know, I know – research is constantly changing, and that’s a good thing, but it can be hard to pinpoint truth). It’s highly likely that depression is like a fever, a sign of something going wrong in the body. As a fever denotes an infection, depression may be a marker of inflammation or a sign of thyroid malfunction.
RELATED: Prevent Blood Sugar Crash in Kids
2. Sugar is a Source of Inflammation
“Sugar, particularly in the form of fructose and sucrose, spikes insulin and triggers release of inflammatory cytokines. It forms advanced glycation endproducts when it binds to proteins, and oxidizes lipids which form cell and mitochondrial membranes.” Dr. Kelly Brogan
Let’s break that pretty technical sentence down:
- fructose = fruit sugar (obviously part of high fructose corn syrup)
- sucrose = table (white) sugar. This is broken down into glucose and fructose in the body.
- spikes insulin = problem for blood sugar
- triggers release of inflammatory cytokines = causes inflammation, including in the brain. You know that feeling of “fogginess” when you have a fever, which is a well-known feeling of inflammation? Imagine that, at a low level, constantly.
- oxidizes lipids which form cell and mitochondrial membranes – oxidized fats would be called “rancid” in your kitchen. In your body they interfere with cell health, and many say that the mitochondria are the seat of our health, so if sugar is negatively impacting our mitochondria, that’s no good!
When your systems or brain or gut is inflamed, your body is constantly trying to calm that inflammation and has fewer resources left for healing, building the immune system, digestion, etc.
3. Sugar Can Cause Vitamin & Mineral Deficiencies
“Sugar also depletes the body of B vitamins and magnesium, which are crucial to the production of serotonin.” (Beyond the Label by Christina Bjorndal)
While it’s fairly commonly accepted that sugar causes inflammation in the body and negatively influences blood sugar regulation (plus it’s addictive), that information from Christina Bjorndal, an ND from Canada who is the country’s expert on naturally treating mental illnesses, is even more closely related to depression and anxiety.
As we’ve seen above, a deficiency in B vitamins and magnesium could be a singular root cause of poor mental health, and serotonin is the primary neurotransmitter implicated in “chemical imbalance,” even at the medical level.
It’s difficult to ditch sugar, because eating it often causes cravings for more as it gives us a hit of serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Sugar isn’t the only way to get serotonin though; in fact something as simple as getting sufficient sleep can boost serotonin.
With sugar so closely related to the body’s production and use of serotonin, it is definitely a good first step to experiment with cutting it from your diet.
Healthy Fats Calm Inflammation and Help Anxiety & Depression
The brain is 60% fat, one-third of which is omega-3s, but we’re often starving it.
This 2008 narrative review, Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses, seems ahead of its time, since we’re still just understanding the links between nutrition and mental illnesses. In it, we find all these possible reasons to consume more omega-3s for brain health:
- First, the journal article notes that many patients’ diets who have mental disorders are deficient in various nutrients, including those mentioned above and omega-3 fatty acids.
- EPA and DHA, found in fish oil, “have been found to elicit antidepressant effects in humans”
- “Accumulating evidence from demographic studies indicates a link between high fish consumption and low incidence of mental disorders; this lower incidence rate being the direct result of omega–3 fatty acid intake.”
- 1-2 grams omega-3s daily is an acceptable dose for healthy people, but up to 9.6 g has been shown safe and effective for patients with mental disorders.
- Studies showed that “lowering plasma cholesterol by diet and medications increases depression,” and in particular it seems to be the omega-3 to omega-6 ratios that are off. In another study, researchers found that low cholesterol increased patients’ risk for depression, and that study also pointed to an imbalance in 3s vs. 6s or a deficiency in omega-3s as the culprit. (I wrote about how omega-6 heavy we Americans get here.)
Where do we find omega-3 fats?
Plain and simple, fish are the best source, and wild-caught salmon is the best of the bunch. In the video above you’ll see Vital Choice salmon featured.
Omega-3 fats are also found in flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and pastured egg yolks.
When I spoke with or communicated online with brain experts (see end of post), many were very quick to point to omega-6 intake being too high and causing inflammation affecting the nervous system and brain.
Omega-6s are very high in seeds, notably corn and soybeans from which industrial oils are made. Our food systems are saturated in omega-6s, and fish is certainly not even a weekly occurrence for most American families eating what is quick and easy.
You can picture omega-3s and omega-6s on opposite sides of a balance scale. They’re both essential nutrients that the body cannot make on its own, but we are consuming omega-6s far too easily and throwing things out of balance.
- Omega-6s are inflammatory, while omega-3s are calming. Note that some inflammation is appropriate, such as a fever when a virus or bacteria needs fighting in your body or any other attack on your system. But too much…now we have a problem.
- Omega-6s facilitate fat storage, while omega-3s aid brain development and processing.
- Omega-6s help blood clot, while omega-3s keep the blood thin.
- Omega-6s promote rigidity of cell walls, while omega-3s support permeability of cell membranes.
Both have vital jobs in the body, but you can see that a surplus of omega-6s throws all sorts of systems out of balance, including cardiovascular health, brain health, blood sugar regulation, hormone balance and gut function. Yowza!
There are LOTS of reasons to consume more omega-3 fats, avoiding mental disorders like depression and anxiety among them.
Other Nutrients and Foods that May Impact Mental Health
For sure, cutting sugar, increasing fish and omega-3 fats (while attempting to decrease omega-6s, especially industrially processed ones), and having your magnesium, zinc and B12 levels checked (or just assuming that eating more foods high in those nutrients is a good idea) is the best first start to building a healthy brain through diet.
Other nutrients to consider include:
- Tryptophan (related to serotonin production)
- vitamin C
- B vitamins (B3, B6)
- gut healing foods like probiotics, more on that here
- Vitamin D from sunshine and supplements (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!)
- Sources: Beyond the Label, Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illness, Nutrient Intakes are Correlated with Overall Psychiatric Functioning in Adults with Mood Disorders, A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (that last one used a modified Mediterranean diet, which didn’t focus on any certain nutrients, but most certainly improved the whole foods focus of participants and likely increased their fish intake while reducing industrial processed foods)
I know. I know. That’s a lot of information. Sometimes it takes information and education to convince us that a change is worth doing.
BUT it almost always takes instruction and practical strategy to make a change sustainable! That’s why we compiled an EASY list of 10 everyday foods you can eat more of to build resiliency to depression and anxiety – and it comes with super practical ways to use them in your daily life. I’m all about baby steps and holding your hand!
Download a free copy of 10 Foods to Fight Depression & Anxiety in Kids, and see what a difference the right foods can make in your family members’ moods.
This mini-ebook tells you 10 of the best foods you can feed your kids to build brains that are resilient to depression & anxiety & more. It includes ideas to USE each of the foods, and I hope you’ll get your kids involved in the preparation as well.
Watch later this week for more information on depression and anxiety both here and on Kids Cook Real Food, including more info on how diet and mental health are related, another FREE eBook on how parents can build routines to nearly “depression-proof” their kids, and the practical fundamentals of connection that will build brains.
Huge thanks to all the health professionals who contributed to this resource:
- Jess Sherman, CAHN-pro, MEd, RHN, author of Raising Resilience
- Madiha Saeed, M.D., author of The Holistic RX
- Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., executive direction of the American Institute of Stress
- Christina Bjorndal, N.D., author of The Essential Diet: Eating for Mental Health
- Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D, CNS, founder of Horizons Developmental Resource Center
- Dana Cohen, M.D., Board of Directors of the American College for the Advancement of Medicine
- Sara Vance, nutritionist and author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan
- Aimie Apigian, M.D., attachment and trauma expert
- Kelly Brogan, M.D., author of A Mind of Your Own and this helpful post