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What's Inside Counts: A Diet for Depression, Stress, and Anxiety

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Have you heard the saying that pain is unavoidable but suffering is optional? I've looked this up on a couple of occasions to find out to whom I might attribute this rather lofty quote without a firm answer. It doesn't matter. It was said/ written by someone at some point and lives on in the universe of internet aphorisms. At times I imagine that it must been been spouted by some smug new age guru to show us how little we know about self-regulation, perhaps to sell a program to help us fix just that. In my better brighter moments I think that it must have been uttered by some well-aged person with a warm wizened smile informed by their own experience of pain or suffering, probably both.

I suppose it is just to say, and I know few who would argue, that to live, especially in this fast-paced modern world, where we can be met with challenges at any moment and anything can happen unexpectedly at any point, means that we will unavoidably confront stress and anxiety. And I suppose it is to say that once met with these challenges, we can avoid or lessen suffering by choosing not to dwell in and not to feed the pain, which is of course, easier said than done. The mind gymnastics required to redirect our thoughts and calm our nerves calls for the kind of practice and repetition upon repetition which frankly is not easily accomplished when our nervous system is upset and firing.

As a holistic physician acupuncturist, I firmly believe that the most practical way to build our stress resilience and manage anxiety is by choosing a lifestyle that supports our body's innate ability to adapt and survive. This includes, of course, getting enough sleep so that we give our body space for cellular repair, exercise to increase our cardiovascular reserves, social support, and a well-balanced diet. I want to focus on the last today because I don't think we can emphasize enough how significant a role our diets can play in managing conditions such as depression, stress, and anxiety. By choosing the right foods, we can support our bodies and minds, promoting overall wellness so that we just feel better.

The Impact of Nutrition on Mental Health:

Before diving into the specific dietary recommendations, it's essential to understand the profound connection between nutrition and mental health. Our brains rely on a delicate balance of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals to function optimally. A diet lacking in vital nutrients can disrupt this balance and contribute to mood disorders. Conversely, adopting a diet rich in key nutrients can support brain health and enhance emotional well-being. Here are some practical tips to do just that.

  1. Focus on Whole Foods: A crucial aspect of a diet for managing depression, stress, and anxiety is emphasizing whole, unprocessed foods. Processed foods can have detrimental effects on mental health due to their high levels of refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. They are typically low in essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which are crucial for optimal brain function. Incorporating fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can provide a wide array of nutrients necessary for optimal brain function. These whole foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (natural compounds found in plants that have been shown to have numerous health benefits), which collectively support mental health.

  2. Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, have demonstrated promising effects on mood disorders. Cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are excellent sources of these essential fatty acids. For those following a plant-based diet, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts can provide a vegetarian source of omega-3s. Consider incorporating these foods into your meals regularly to support brain health and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Keep in mind that while cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are generally considered beneficial for mental health, it's important to be mindful of potential mercury contamination, especially in larger predatory fish. To minimize the risk, consume these fish in moderation and choose sources known for low mercury levels or opt for smaller fish species that tend to accumulate less mercury. Pregnant women and young children should follow specific guidelines regarding fish consumption due to the potential risks associated with mercury exposure.

  3. Reduce Inflammatory Foods: Chronic inflammation can negatively impact mental health, exacerbating symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety. Some of the proposed mechanisms by which it can do this includes neurotransmitter imbalance, oxidative stress, disruption of neuroplasticity, increased blood-brain barrier permeability, and activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. To reduce inflammation, limit or avoid processed foods, refined sugars, trans fats (such as partially hydrogenated oils found in many deep fried foods, commercially baked goods, snack foods, and refrigerated doughs), and excessive consumption of red meat. Instead, focus on anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, leafy greens, turmeric, ginger, and green tea. These foods are rich in antioxidants and can help support a healthy inflammatory response in the body.

  4. Don't Underestimate Gut Health: Emerging research has unveiled the intricate relationship between our gut and mental health. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is crucial for optimal brain function and emotional well-being. To support your gut health, include fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir in your diet. These foods contain beneficial probiotics that promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria, positively influencing your mental state. It is also helpful to incorporate prebiotics, which are types of dietary fibers that serve as a food source for beneficial bacteria in the gut, promoting their growth and activity. These include garlic, onions, bananas, asparagus, leeks, oats, and apples.

  5. Mindful Eating Practices: In addition to the specific foods you consume, how you eat can also impact your mental health. Practicing mindful eating can help reduce stress and promote a healthier relationship with food. This simply means paying attention to the experience of eating and engaging all your senses. Take time to savor each bite, eat in a calm environment, and listen to your body's hunger and fullness cues. Engaging in mindful eating can enhance your overall well-being and reduce emotional eating patterns.

Managing depression, stress, and anxiety requires a holistic approach that encompasses diet as a vital component. By prioritizing whole foods, incorporating omega-3 fatty acids, reducing inflammatory foods, nurturing your gut, and practicing mindful eating, you can make significant strides in improving your mental and emotional well-being. Remember, each person is unique and you may want to consult your healthcare provider who can provide personalized guidance based on your specific needs. With dedication and a mindful approach to nourishing your mind and body, you can embark on a transformative journey towards finding balance and lasting wellness. While some amount of stress and anxiety is inevitable, our paths towards happier and healthier lives begin with the choices we make every day, starting with the food we put on our plates.



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