The Fall and Winter can be a tough time for anyone struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The shorter, darker days coupled with the changing weather can greatly impact mood and energy levels. To make matters worse, the added stress of the holiday season can pose a tremendous challenge to your mental health, making this the most difficult time of the year for many. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, it’s incredibly important to talk to your doctor about getting the help you might need. In the meantime, there are personal steps you can take to help support your physical and mental health. This includes exercising regularly, getting enough quality sleep, taking the necessary time for yourself, and of course, eating a healthy diet.
Yes, everyone reacts to different foods in different ways, and some may have stronger food sensitivities than others. Because of this, when struggling with any health concerns it’s a great idea to start a ‘food journal’ and complete a personal diet review. Keep a record of everything you eat in a week, including the time of day and any issues you might experience throughout the day or night. This can include any physical symptoms like bloating, headaches, or lack of energy, but should also detail any differences in mood. Be detailed and thorough – for most people, this can be an eye-opening experience. Certain patterns might emerge that allow you to better understand how your nutrition is impacting your own personal mental health. For now, we have shared some of the top foods that have been shown in studies to affect anxiety and depression.
Foods to Add to Your Diet
1. Foods Rich in Folate and Vitamin B
We highly recommend adding more foods that are rich in folate and B vitamins. Most non-vegetarians consume adequate levels of B12 through meats in their diet. However, many people struggle to get enough folate, which is most often consumed through green, leafy vegetables. In studies, folate deficiencies have been linked to certain types of depression.
While dietary folate supplements are available, it is always best to start with food. So, what are leafy greens? Basically, any vegetables with a dark green color contain folate. This includes spinach, kale, bok choy, and mustard greens.
Be cautious when using folate supplements. Look for active folate, not folic acid. As a general guide, always talk to your physician before taking any dietary supplements.
2. Foods Rich in Vitamin D
Recent studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with depression, particularly in individuals with seasonal affective disorder. If you spend a lot of time outside, you are likely already absorbing the recommended daily amount of vitamin D, but this can be difficult during the Fall and Winter. Boost your vitamin D count with foods such as salmon, egg yolks, mushrooms, cod liver oil, and fatty fish like sardines, herring, and tuna.
Protein is essential for your body to grow and repair, but it can also greatly play a big role in anxiety and depression. Your body uses a protein called tryptophan to create serotonin, which is known as the ‘feel good’ hormone. A lack of protein can consequently affect your mood, causing the neurotransmitters (mood regulators) in your brain that are comprised of amino acids to cause anxiety and depression. Focus on healthy, lean proteins.
Foods to Avoid or Limit
Often what becomes a bigger issue is not what to eat, but rather what to avoid eating. Many of the foods we consider relatively safe can be quite toxic to us.
Many physical and mental health disorders have been linked to chronic inflammation in the body, so it is best to avoid foods that cause an inflammatory reaction as much as possible. This includes:
1. Food Dyes
You might be surprised by how many of your favorite foods include this nasty additive, including some cheeses, cereals, snack bars, and even vanilla ice cream. Food dyes can be problematic for most people, with reactions ranging from mild to severe. We have enough challenges dealing with our own environmental toxins, so it’s best to avoid foods that contribute to our toxic burden.
Most of us grew up believing that a glass of milk each day is healthy. And yes, calcium is definitely needed for developing and maintaining healthy bones. Unfortunately, for many of us, milk can also cause inflammation. In fact, simply reducing your dairy intake can improve your anxiety and depression symptoms. So, put down that glass of milk and get your calcium fix through other calcium-rich foods like leafy green vegetables.
For some of us, grains can trigger an inflammatory response that can be problematic for those struggling with mental health. Grains are something that we have been consistently told are good for our health. Diets rich in good, whole grains have been frequently linked to lowering cardiovascular risk, regulating digestion, and providing a good source of folic acids, however grains can also wreak havoc on a body that is imbalanced.
Gluten can also trigger an inflammatory response in many individuals. The best way to determine if grains are causing you problems is to temporarily remove them from your diet. Try going gluten-free for a period of time and see how you feel. You might find you feel a little lighter and have more energy. Your mind and mood will also be impacted.
The number one ingredient to avoid when trying to reduce inflammation is sugar. Sugar is a significant contributing factor in chronic inflammation and is nutritionally void of anything aside from added calories. Unfortunately, many who struggle with depression and anxiety often find it challenging to find the time and energy needed to prepare healthy meals. In these situations, it is only natural to gravitate towards foods that are easy and convenient, and these prepared meals are generally loaded with inflammatory ingredients, especially sugars. Complicating things further is how many people crave sugary treats when dealing with stress or sadness. Fortunately, there are options available to you if you are trying to cut down on unhealthy, ‘convenience’ foods. Maybe give meal-planning for the week a try or invest in one of the many healthy meal delivery services that are now available. These services offer a variety of options, including providing all the ingredients and simple instructions necessary to make healthy meals at home in limited time. If purchasing pre-made meals from your local grocery store, read labels carefully and seek out options that are lower in added sugars and sodium. Do note that when we suggest eliminating sugar from your diet, we are referring to ‘added sugars’. Fresh fruit should not be avoided and can provide much-needed nutrients.
It’s important to note that your diet also affects the quality of bacteria in your intestines, which consequently also impacts mental health. It may seem far-fetched, but what happens in your intestinal tract affects your mental health and vice versa. This is commonly referred to as the ‘gut-brain connection’. For example, have you ever felt nauseous or experienced stomach discomfort before a stressful presentation? Conversely, has just the thought of a mouth-watering meal made your stomach rumble? A troubled gut can send signals to the brain, just as the opposite is true. This means that your stomach or intestinal distress can contribute to emotional distress like anxiety or depression. With this in mind, it is important to seek help for any chronic digestive disfunction or imbalances. Talk to your doctor, a naturopathic doctor, or a nutritionist if you have concerns.
Clearly, foods play an important role in how we function both physically and mentally. A good rule of thumb is to focus on natural, whole foods while limiting processed foods that are full of additives, sugars, sodium, and chemicals. Listen to your body and take note of any foods that seem to directly affect your moods or energy levels. Most importantly, if you are struggling with anxiety or depression, you are not alone. Talk to a friend or family member for support and consult with your doctor to get the help you might need.
Anxiety, depression, and stress go hand in hand all too often. Learn helpful strategies for managing your stress here.