Did you know that in 2013, an estimated 3 million Canadians (that is a whopping 11.6%) aged 18 years and older reported having an anxiety or mood disorder?
Did you also know that you can help combat anxiety and depression using changes to your diet and lifestyle?
In order to make this topic a little more manageable, I have broken it up into “part 1” and “part 2”. Today in Part 1 we will go through some of the most important nutrients needed to fight anxiety and depression then in Part 2 we will discuss foods that can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and how we can help reduce these feelings using diet and lifestyle.
This amino acid became famous for it’s presence in turkey and has gotten all of the blame for the “post-turkey coma” experienced after most major holiday dinners.
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps us feel calm.
There are many foods high in tryptophan, including:
- Eggs (and yes, please eat the yolks!)
- Nuts and seeds
However, there is some debate as to whether or not tryptophan is able to cross the blood-brain barrier (tryptophan must compete with other amino acids in the body for absorption into the brain). Luckily, we can help to increase the amount of tryptophan absorbed by eating foods rich in tryptophan with foods containing complex carbohydrates.
What would this look like? This could be turkey or salmon served with a side of roasted sweet potato (complex carbohydrate) or nuts and seeds served as a snack with a side of fruit (complex carbohydrate). When we consume carbohydrates our pancreas produces insulin. Insulin is our storage hormone and it allows amino acids to be absorbed into the muscles and other areas of the body. This leaves tryptophan (another amino acid) behind in the “amino acid pool”, making it more likely that it will be absorbed across the blood-brain barrier.
In Summary: Pair foods rich in tryptophan with foods containing complex carbohydrates in order to get the maximum calming benefit.
Studies have demonstrated a relationship between B vitamins and mood. B vitamin deficiencies can trigger symptoms of depression in some individuals. I always recommend a food first approach, so see my post here for a list of foods rich in B vitamins.
Omega-3 fatty acids
We touched briefly on omega-3 fatty acids when we talked about inflammation in the body last week but did you know that these fatty acids also enhance our mood? Some studies have shown that patients who took omega-3 fatty acid supplements in addition to their antidepressants improved more than those patients who did not take omega-3 supplements. We can find omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA – the useable form of this fat) in fatty fish such as salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, sardines, tuna and anchovies. Don’t get this confused with the omega-3 fats found in plant sources such as ground flaxseed, chia seeds and flaxseed oil (this type of omega-3 fat is called ALA). In order to get the same health benefits we receive when we eat fatty fish we must convert the ALA into the useable form DHA and EPA. Don’t be fooled though, the conversion rate in a healthy individual is less than 5%. In conclusion, I don’t recommend relying on plant sources of omega-3 as the only source of omega-3 fats in your diet. If you are vegan and refuse to consume a fish-based supplement, I recommend NutraVege, an omega-3 supplement derived from the echium plant and algae.
Norepinephrine and dopamine are neurotransmitters that carry impulses between nerve cells. Higher levels of these neurotransmitters have been shown to improve mental energy and alterness. Protein in our diet helps to stimulate the production of norepinephrine and dopamine. See this post on hormones and brain chemicals and their affect on our weight.
Serotonin and food
As we’ve discussed earlier, serotonin is our calming “feel good” chemical. Did you know that most of the serotonin we have in our body is actually produced in the gut? In order to get the maximum serotonin production within the gut, it must be healthy. Hippocrates said “All disease begins in the gut” and is that ever true. Not only our physical health but our mental health is impacted by the state of our gut.
What positively impacts our population of good gut bacteria?
We will discuss probiotic benefits in detail in a future post, however we must touch on them today when discussing using food as medicine for treating depression and anxiety. Research in the area of the gut microbiome (the good gut bugs in our large intestine) is exploding and we are learning more and more about the incredible benefits of hosting a robust population of good gut bacteria.
Researchers working with mice have determined that by disrupting the normal bacterial content of the gut by introducing antibiotics, changes in the mice behaviour occurs with the mice becoming anxious. Along with this change in behaviour, there was also an increase in Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which has been linked to anxiety and drepression (1).
Some of my favourite ways to incorporate probiotics into my diet is through food. My absolute favourite way is through drinking a fermented coconut water called Kevita. This retails for $3.99-5.99 and we can now get it at our major supermarket (hello mainstream). I recommend drinking 1/2 of a bottle at one time and ensuring it is always refrigerated. To get a variety of strains of probiotics, kefir, raw sauerkraut and fermented pickles are all great sources as well!
What negatively impacts our population of good gut bacteria?
This is the obvious one. Antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria in the body but they often wipe out some of our good bacteria as well. After a course of antibiotics it is critical that you adopt a probiotic regimen for at least 2 weeks following the last dose of antibiotic.
Stress levels can negatively impact the population of our good gut bacteria as well. This stress does not have to be mental stress alone. Stress could also stem from lack of sleep, poor nutrition or too much exercise. The gut/brain connection is a two-way street: the gut can impact the brain and the brain can impact the gut. This connection has been demonstrated time and time again in our rodent friends (2).
Birth Control Pills
This one may come as a shocker since most women are or have been on birth control pills at some point in their lives. Taking these “innocent” little pills can also alter the population of good gut bacteria in our digestive tract.
Believe it or not, foods containing processed sugars can lead to imbalances between the good and bad gut bacteria we have. These processed sugars feed the “bad” bacteria and starve the good (vegetables rich in prebiotics – think: garlic, onion, asparagus) feed our good bacteria. When we include these processed sugar-containg foods in our diet more frequently we put ourselves at risk of developing an imbalance in bad versus good bacteria (called gut dysbiosis).
That concludes Part 1 of this topic. Please tune in for Part 2 coming later this week where we will talk about foods to eliminate or reduce to help decrease anxiety/depression and diet and lifestyle changes we can make to help us feel better.
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Thanks so much for tuning in guys!
Yours in Health,