Updated: May 5, 2022
As a holistic nutritionist I talk endlessly about ways to support your physical health. Movement! Eat the Rainbow! Bodywork! Spend Time in Nature! Sleep! But what about our mental health? Taking care of our mental health is just as important as taking care of our physical health. The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depression globally in 2020. According to the CDC, rates of anxiety, depression and behavioral disorders in adults and children are on the rise. The CDC reports that 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year. Research has shown that 1 in 6 children between the ages of 6 - 17 have a treatable mental health disorder. These statistics highlight the need to increase resources and decrease the stigma around supporting mental health.
On a personal note, I have struggled with anxiety for the majority of my adult life. My dad struggled with severe bi-polar disorder which had a huge impact on both himself and our family dynamic. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month I decided it was important for me to share my story and ways to support your mental health.
One way to support your mental health is through food. The gut and the brain are in constant communication with each other! The gut is considered the second brain and 90% of your body's serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut (Naidoo, 2020). Research has estimated that 60% of patients with anxiety or depression have irritable bowel syndrome. These are just a few examples of how intricately related the gut and brain are. Foods most profound impact on the brain is through the microbiome - some food promote the growth of healthy bacteria and some foods inhibit the growth of healthy bacteria. It is theorized that if you treat inflammation in the body and support your microbiome you can treat inflammation in the brain.
Cold Water Fish: Cold water fish are rich in omega 3 fatty acids (an essential fatty acid you must obtain from diet) which are crucial for mental health! There are three main omega 3s (alpha-linolenic acid, eciosapentaenoic acid & docosahexaenoic acid). EPA and DHA are the two main omega-3s that support a healthy brain, are highly anti-inflammatory and promote healthy cellular membranes.
Salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring
Algae (spirulina, chlorella, seaweed) is an excellent source of omega 3s if you are a vegetarian / vegan
Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut is a fermented food that is packed with probiotics (healthy bacteria). Sauerkraut is rich in the good bacteria Bifidobacterium and Lactobaccillus or as I like to call them Bifi & Laci. These little guys will support a healthy microbiome, gut & brain.
Other foods rich in probiotics: yogurt, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kefir, kombucha
Brown Rice: A study found that diets high in fiber can reduce the risk of anxiety, depression and stress (Taylor & Holscher, 2018). Brown rice is rich in fiber, choline and B vitamins. Fiber the healthy bacteria in your gut, keeps your digestive system moving, supports elimination and will make you feel fuller for longer.
Aim for 25 - 30 grams of fiber a day
Berries: High in antioxidants & fiber! Berries are typically lower on the glycemic index so will not spike blood sugar. Blueberries are a power player and contain anthocyanin which has been associated with reduced inflammation and lower risk of depression.
PRO TIP: look for fresh or frozen berries (dried fruit can be very high in sugar)
Aim for 1/2 - 1 cup per day - blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries
Turmeric: The anti-inflammatory OG. A meta-analysis of six clinical trials found that curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) was significantly more effective than placebo in reducing depressive symptoms (Ng et. al, 2017). The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin can protect brain cells from damage. Aim for 500 - 1,000mg /day.
PRO TIP: combine turmeric with black pepper which will increase absorption of curcumin
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: EVOO is a healthy fat that is high in polyphenols (plant compounds) and antioxidants that can protect cognition, memory and support a healthy brain. Did you know the brain is made up of about 60% fat?
Sourcing is important - look for local, cold pressed olive oil if available.
Pumpkin Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of tryptophan, an amino acid and precursor to serotonin. A diet rich in tryptophan can help raise low serotonin levels in anxious or depressed brains and has also been shown to support restful sleep. (Naidoo, 2020).
Inspired by This is Your Brain on Food
Prep Time 10 mins
This is an easy and delicious spin on traditional hummus. Chickpeas have been referred to as "the ancestors of Prozac" and are an excellent source of tryptophan. Avocado is packed with healthy fats, fiber, potassium and vitamins C, K, E and B6.
1/2 large ripe avocado, skin and seed removed
2 cups chickpeas
1/3 cup tahini paste
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
3 tbs olive oil
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Using a food processor, combine all the ingredients except the olive oil, almonds and parsley for about 1 minute.
With the motor running on medium speed, drizzle in the olive oil and continue to process until the hummus is light and creamy. Season with additional salt, if needed.
Transfer the hummus to a bowl.
Top with chopped parsley and drizzle with additional olive oil. Enjoy!
Murray MT, Pizzorno JE, Pizzorno L (2006). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Murray, M., Pizzorno, J. (2012). The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Naidoo, Uma. (2020). This is Your Brain on Food. New York, NY: Little Brown, Spark.
Ng QX, Koh SSH, Chan HW, HO CYX. Clinical use of curcumin in depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. 2017; 18(6):503-8. doi10.1016/j.jamda.2016.12.071
Taylor AM, Holscher HD. A review of dietary and microbial connections to depression, anxiety, and stress. Nutr Neurosci. 2020 Mar;23(3):237-250. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2018.1493808. Epub 2018 Jul 9. PMID: 29985786.