Our knowledge of mental health is expanding every day, and so is our knowledge of how foods can impact our general health. But can healthy eating support your mental health and potentially reduce feelings of depression and anxiety?
No treatment is perfect, and no treatment works for everyone
We are far from declaring that all sufferers should dump their medication and expect diet to be the silver bullet in combatting mental health disorders. Whilst healthy eating can effectively treat anxiety and depression for some, others will still need other forms of medical or behavioural therapy. Your first point of call should always be a mental health professional, but tackling your diet in parallel to any course of action decided by you and your doctor can help improve your condition. Following a healthy diet, or even trying high-dose supplements of some of the key players we mention in this article, is an act of self-care and self-love, and can ultimately give you the best chance of taking control of your mental health.
Goal 1: reduce inflammation
People suffering from depression have a higher than normal level of inflammation in their bodies, especially those who are also overweight. Multiple studies have shown that a subset of patients with hepatitis C end up developing depression or even suicidal major depressive episodes because they were given a treatment for their hepatitis that stimulates inflammation. So which foods can dampen inflammation and help ease symptoms of mental health disorders?
The Mediterranean diet and DASH diet are key. Both consist of fruit (particularly berries), green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, legumes (lentils, peas, beans), whole grains, olive oil, fatty fish, almonds and walnuts. However, the DASH diet is even tighter on sugar consumption allowance since higher sugar consumption is linked to the development of depression and anxiety in the long run. I’d also like to add one of my favourite spices to this list: turmeric (and always combine it with crushed black pepper to enhance its anti-inflammatory potency!).
Numerous studies have tried to evaluate whether supplements like omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) could help reduce this inflammation but, although the results are not clear-cut, it does seem that taking 1-2g per day (similar to 3-6 portions of salmon per week) of a supplement that contains a little more of one type of omega-3 fatty acid (60% EPA relative to DHA – check the label!) appears to help ease symptoms in people suffering from major depressive disorder. It has been suggested that other disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia may benefit from this, but frankly the data just isn’t solid enough to support this. It is a bit more complex with bipolar disorder as omega-3 fatty acids may only be most effective for the depressive and not the manic phase (and could potentially worsen the manic phase).
Goal 2: boost serotonin levels
Tryptophan is an essential building block your body needs to make proteins. One of these proteins is a hormone called serotonin (the so-called “happy chemical”) which balances mood, and another protein is melatonin which helps with sleep and fatigue. It is believed that an impaired production of serotonin is one of the key drivers for people to develop depression. Interestingly, a higher than normal level of inflammation in your body is suggested to alter the availability of tryptophan for serotonin synthesis.
But it isn’t as simple as trying to figure out which foods provide the highest levels of tryptophan (if only it were!). The tryptophan circulating in your blood competes with other building blocks of protein so, for enough tryptophan to reach your brain, you need to pick foods that have lower levels of the other building blocks. To put it simply: aim to eat tryptophan-rich carbohydrates and avoid protein sources, because protein has (evidently) high amounts of those other building blocks for protein. Another tip: if you already have diminished serotonin levels, then avoid alcohol at meal times as this can reduce any competitive advantage tryptophan may have, even two hours after a meal.
The most popular believed sources of tryptophan are turkey and dairy but that’s not entirely true (it’s all about the ratio of tryptophan to its competitors!), and there are some even better sources. Examples include dried prunes, wheat bread, semi-sweet chocolate and bananas (for non-vegans: whole milk has the best ratio of all and, surprisingly, turkey has a smaller ratio than all the foods just mentioned!).
Some studies have shown that, when combined with various antidepressants, tryptophan supplements can further improve symptoms. A few studies have also reported an improvement in those suffering from depression during the winter season (seasonal affective disorder), who do not respond to the traditional light therapy, after taking tryptophan supplements (3g per day for 2 weeks).
Help give your body and mind the best chance of coping
Nutritional intervention may work wonders for some as a primary treatment or for those of us who experience ups and downs in mood which aren’t clinically relevant, but for others this would need to be an add-on to a medication regime. Yet the very fact that nutrition can have such an impact suggests we really ought to take a more holistic approach to mental health, and that there is a need for more studies in nutritional psychology/psychiatry. We are far from understanding all the complexities of the impact of healthy eating (and what we mean by healthy eating) but, by empowering ourselves with this growing knowledge, we can take control of what we put in our bodies and ultimately take more control of our own health.
Written by Dr Elisabeth Thubron - Head of Science & Research