A nutritional psychiatrist and chef shares the most powerful foods and nutrients for managing mental health.
When you’ve got deadlines to meet and errands to run, navigating anxiety and depression can feel like just another task that’s impossible to tackle. This is especially true when you need to pencil in supportive activities like therapy sessions, exercise classes or daily walks, and phone calls to connect with loved ones. But managing your mental health doesn’t start and stop at the “big” things on your to-do list; your smaller, daily behaviors, like eating meals and snacks, can make a difference in your mood.
Why Food Is Key to Managing Mood
It might not seem obvious, but the foods you eat can significantly contribute to your mental health and stress levels. More specifically, some foods can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly those high in compounds that fight oxidative stress and inflammation—two mechanisms behind mental health issues. (In fact, on the flip side, some of the worst foods for anxiety are those high in inflammatory ingredients.) Similarly, foods rich in gut-friendly nutrients (like probiotics and fiber) can support your mood, as the gut microbiome and brain are so closely related.
Of course, no single food can magically cure anxiety and depression, and food alone isn’t a replacement for treatments like medication or therapy. (It’s also very important not to wait to chat with your doctor if you think you’re experiencing mental health symptoms.) However, if you’re looking for a more well-rounded approach to taking care of your mental health, it’s worth focusing on incorporating lots of these foods that help reduce anxiety and depression severity and prevalence.
Foods to Reduce Anxiety and Depression
According to Uma Naidoo, MD, nutritional psychiatrist, chef, and author of This Is Your Brain on Food and Calm Your Mind with Food, regularly noshing on fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) can support healthy brain tissue and mental wellbeing, potentially reducing anxiety and depression. They’re packed with omega-3 fats—specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—which are highly beneficial for the brain, Dr. Naidoo says. Both fats work by protecting the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation, which are “linked to mood disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as neurodegeneration [i.e, the death of nerve cells] that can influence memory loss, brain fog, and cognitive decline,” she explains.
Not a fan of fish? According to Dr. Naidoo, omega-3 fats are also found in plant foods like walnuts and chia seeds. They aren’t absorbed quite as well as the fats in seafood, but they’re a solid alternative with healthy brain benefits nonetheless.
By now, you’ve probably heard all about the benefits of fermented foods for the gut. But they might also boost your mood, thanks to the link between the gut health and brain health. According to Dr. Naidoo, fermented foods like plain yogurt, kimchi, and tempeh contain live bacterial cultures called probiotics. As Dr. Naidoo explains, these bacteria “replenish the population of good bacteria in the gut, which helps to balance [the] microbiome.” The result is lower inflammation and improved production of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers that control mood and cognition, she adds.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are some of the best foods for brain health, and no wonder: They’re brimming with nutrients that contribute to a healthy mood. Noteworthy examples include polyphenols, vitamin E, and vitamin C, all of which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties—which, again, can help pump the brakes on mental health symptoms. What’s more, vitamin C helps clear the body of excess cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” This can further ease feelings of stress and anxiety, according to Dr. Naidoo.
One more time for the folks in the back: A healthy gut equals a healthy brain! So many gut-friendly foods—like those high in fiber—are also great for your noggin. Berries, such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, are prime examples. These richly colored fruits are packed with fiber, a nutrient that aids microbial balance in the gut. This paves the way for a better stress response, improved regulation of neurotransmitters (including serotonin), and lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, all of which can ease anxiety and depression.
Plus, berries are teeming with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins, according to Dr. Naidoo. These compounds, which are also natural pigments that give berries their iconic red-purple-blue hue, support a healthy mood by regulating inflammation, controlling signals between neurons, and balancing the gut.
Shellfish lovers, this one’s for you. Oysters are another great food for anxiety and depression—all thanks to their sky-high content of zinc, an essential mineral. “Zinc regulates levels of the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin, both of which are crucial for mood and stress regulation,” Dr. Naidoo says. For context, adults need about 11 milligrams of zinc per day, and one average-sized oyster contains approximately 5 milligrams, she says. That means eating just two or three oysters per day will help you get enough zinc. But if oysters aren’t your thing, you can also get zinc from “other shellfish like crabs or lobsters, as well as legumes, nuts, and beef,” Dr. Naidoo says.
Dark chocolate is another food that can boost your mood, and not just because it tastes so good. This treat is loaded with antioxidant polyphenols, which have been shown to support brain function by controlling neuroinflammation and increasing neurogenesis (aka, the production of new neurons). Dark chocolate also has a prebiotic effect on the gut, meaning it feeds good gut bacteria, ultimately aiding mental wellness via the gut-brain relationship. To top it off, dark chocolate is a source of magnesium, “a nutrient that helps calm the central nervous system [and reduce] anxiety,” says Dr. Naidoo.
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