What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood. When it comes to addressing mental health, it’s important to examine your brain on food. It turns out that the adage ‘You are what you eat,’ extends to your mental and emotional experience — not just your physical body. There is a demonstrated link between nutrition and mental health. Patients suffering from mental disorders often exhibit a severe deficiency of important vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.
Here are some of the most well-researched nutrients which are key to addressing anxiety and depression.
Your nerves and brain need iron. A severe iron deficiency in young children can cause irreversible cognitive damage that can lead to delays in development. It can also cause and exacerbate many kinds of psychiatric symptoms. Sometimes iron deficiency presents as anxiety, depression, irritability and even poor concentration and general restlessness.
B vitamins, such as vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and vitamin B9 (folate) are especially important when it comes to anxiety. These vitamins help produce and control brain chemicals and influence mood and other mental functions. Vitamin B6, known as pyridoxine, is also necessary for the formation of two neurotransmitters: serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), both of which can reduce anxiety and restore calm.
Vitamin D plays a critical role in optimal brain development and is a key ingredient in the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with motivation, reward-seeking and pleasure.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Researchers theorize an imbalanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (specifically getting too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3) can negatively affect brain function and heighten the risk of several mental and psychological issues. Several studies show supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Selenium is crucial for brain health and mood. Studies show adequate selenium may improve mood and diminish anxiety. In one study, researchers noted that the less selenium study participants had in their regular diet, the more frequently they experienced episodes of anxiety.
A 2011 study showed people with anxiety had lower levels of zinc in their bodies than matched controls who did not suffer from anxiety. In addition, the anxious group reported fewer symptoms after a course of supplementation with zinc and antioxidants.
Magnesium may play a role in regulating the nervous system to reduce symptoms of anxiety. While more research is needed, a 2017 meta-analysis showed a correlation between low magnesium levels and increased anxiety, as well as some data suggesting that supplementation could help.
We know certain nutrients are helpful in preventing or even reversing anxiety but where do you get them? And the answer is (drumroll please): from food. Here are some of the top foods to add to your diet if you want to cultivate an anti-anxiety diet and lifestyle.
Nuts & Seeds
These are rich in magnesium as well as tryptophan, an amino acid that the body converts into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds, in particular, are high in selenium.
Berries are fibre-rich. And they’re also antioxidant powerhouses which can help protect against stress and anxiety. Evidence shows the antioxidant flavonoids found in blueberries and other fruit are associated with a decreased risk of developing depression in young adults and children. Plus, just thinking about blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries may even lift your mood. They’re not just good for you; they’re pretty to look at too.
Adaptogens are herbs and plants used to help the body adapt to many of the problems of modern living: low mood, stress, anxiety, depression and a compromised immune system. These include ginseng, goji berry, astragalus, ashwagandha and certain mushrooms.
See, there’s some good news here. Dark chocolate, with minimal added sugars, can improve mood and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Chocolate also contains magnesium and non-heme iron. And some varieties may include small amounts of B vitamins, including vitamin B6 and B12.
Let’s face it, leafy greens are good for just about everything. Anxiety is no exception. Dark greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard, are high in magnesium and antioxidants, both of which may be beneficial in fighting anxiety.
Beans & other legumes
Both beans and legumes are great sources of magnesium. And they’re a great source of the prebiotic fibres that feed good gut bacteria. They’re also a healthy source of plant-based, non-heme iron.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, kefir, miso, and kombucha are rich in probiotics and may improve gut health by feeding good gut bacteria. Believe it or not, your gut health plays a major role in overall health, including mental health, and well-being (ever heard of the gut-brain connection?)
Several types of edible mushrooms can strengthen the immune system and increase resistance to stress. These include medicinal mushrooms like reishi, lion’s mane, and cordyceps. Lion’s mane, in particular, has anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce anxiety symptoms.
Green tea is a rich source of the amino acid L-theanine, which has links to lower levels of anxiety. In a 2017 study, researchers gave green tea or a placebo to a small group of students. The study found students drinking the green tea reported lower subjective stress. Many herbal teas that help with anxiety, and may also fight stress, include chamomile, peppermint, lavender and passionflower.
While all vegetables are welcome additions to a healthy diet, asparagus in particular appears to have specific anti-anxiety effects. The Chinese government actually approved the use of asparagus extract as a natural food supplement to relieve anxiety.
Avocados are rich in B vitamins, healthy fats and lots of antioxidants. Antioxidants in avocados work to eliminate oxidative stress. Although it may naturally occur as part of the aging process, chronic psychological stress can exacerbate and increase oxidative damage.
This article is reprinted by permission of the Food Revolution Network.
IMPACT Magazine’s November Edition
RBC Olympic hopefuls Hayley Daniels, Sam Effah and Kate Wright as our inspiring cover athlete stories! Get prepared for winter running, making movement part of your workday, and exploring great hikes near Calgary and Vancouver.