How getting a grip on your nutrition can help with anxiety and depression symptoms
When people talk about healthy eating, it is often done in the context of dieting and achieving desired weight goals, “cleaning up” their diets because their doctor told them their cholesterol is too high, or because they really “ought to eat better.” Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. Many people make an effort to eat well for the sake of their physical well-being. Few people, however, make the conscientious effort to eat well for the sake of their mental health.
It is not a novel notion that when we eat well, we feel better, have more energy, sleep better, and have an overall better quality of life. But did you know that eating better also has a positive effect on mental health? In fact, there has been an increase in research linking healthier eating habits to better mental health. More specifically, scientists are looking at factors like gut health and serotonin production, as well as the gut microbiome, and their effects on clinical depression. Some medical professionals and psychiatrists are beginning to address their patients’ symptoms of depression by changing their nutritional habits along with other health behaviors.
First of all, what is depression?
Depression, clinically called major depressive disorder, is a serious mental illness that negatively affects how you feel and perceive the world and greatly impacts functioning. While experiences vary greatly from one individual to another, people who have depression most commonly report feelings of helplessness, loss of interest, increased fatigue, difficulties sleeping, change in appetite, and anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety present as persistent intense and excessive emotional responses that can be debilitating, making daily functioning difficult.
It’s important to understand that depression and anxiety can affect anyone. A lot of people don’t realize that what they are experiencing may be high functioning depression, clinically known as persistent depressive disorder (PDD). On the surface, individuals are able to function, go to work, and even socialize, but internally they are struggling — their sleep, appetite, mood, desire to engage, feelings of general contentment and happiness, all change. Over time, feelings of helplessness, loss of desire to do anything, and anxiety symptoms become a “norm” as the individual may not recognize the gradual decline and subtle changes in their own behavior.
So, why focus on eating habits and nutrition?
Tracking things like how you feel when you eat healthy and complete meals, how food (and alcohol) affects your mood, sleep, and perceived stress, as well as pervasive thoughts and emotions that arise, allows you to become more aware and connected. This creates space for making conscious (intentional) modifications. A change in appetite is one of the primary and most common symptoms of depression. Some people lose appetite and find it difficult to eat. Others turn to food as a self-soothing behavior and coping mechanism. Whether you struggle to eat a solid meal or find yourself engaging in binging behavior, here are some ways practicing healthy eating habits can help you during this difficult time.
1. Creating a sense of control
The combination of feeling “unable” (be it physically or otherwise) to do the basic things and losing control is debilitating. Nourishing yourself when you’re depressed can be difficult, but it is necessary for functioning. Food is not only a primary basic need, it is one that is tangible. It’s something we can get, manipulate, and consume physically. With food, we have the ability to control what we cook and eat. Knowing that you have control over what you choose to cook and eat, when you feel like you can’t control anything else, may give you a sense of accomplishment. Commit to making a healthful breakfast (or preferred meal of the day) every day, and practice that behavior with intent and purpose. (Quick tip: commit to a realistic minimum, then increase frequency over time when you notice you are consistent). This way, regardless of how the rest of the day went, you know that at the very least, you have control over that part of your day.
2. Creating opportunities to practice mindfulness
In a culture that celebrates “hustle and grind,” we are always doing, planning the next thing, and worrying about this or that. When your mind is constantly racing, planning ahead, worrying about what you said or did a few days ago, or the million and one things you still have to do, it seems impossible to “just be.” However, being in the present moment is something you can learn to do, especially at mealtime. Paying attention to things like flavors, textures, and sensation can be very grounding. While eating, you can allow yourself to experience all your senses. Depression can make you feel numb and indifferent. Practicing mindful eating can create a major shift psychologically, not only by providing temporary relief from the “go, go, go” loop, but it allows you to feel your emotions, including “enjoyment” while eating. Practicing mindful eating allows you to be present and savor the moment, rather than thinking of the list of things you have to do next.
3. Creating opportunities for success
As mentioned above, committing to making and having a healthy breakfast daily can give you a sense of accomplishment. Self-praise is a big part of the process of getting better. In behaviorism, this is called positive reinforcement (a term often misused by the general public). Positive reinforcement is a procedure during which something like praise is added to the equation, and the result of which increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. Whenever you make a choice that is for the betterment of your health, literally pat yourself on the back and say “good job.” Positive self-talk is an essential aspect of self-care and self-love, which are things we neglect when we are feeling depressed. Every day you can create an opportunity to make a choice to make yourself feel better, not only by eating what is best for your brain and body but also by beginning to fuel your brain with more positivity even if you are struggling to find it elsewhere.
4. Promoting gut health
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for mood, and sleep, and is often referred to as the “happy hormone.” It helps relay the signals and messages from one part of the brain to another. Almost 95% of serotonin is made by the gut bacteria in our digestive tract. Serotonin production is enabled by tryptophan, an amino acid not produced by the human body and therefore must be obtained from the foods we eat. Foods like salmon and seafood, lean poultry, eggs, and red meat, as well as leafy greens like spinach and kale, nuts, and seeds, are all great sources of tryptophan. It should be noted that tryptophan works best alongside nutrient-dense carbs, like sweet potatoes, brown rice, and quinoa, for best absorption into the bloodstream. While there are factors that impact and hinder the production of healthy gut bacteria, like high intake of processed foods, alcohol, and insufficient micronutrients, there is a way to improve gut health and promote the production of good bacteria. Limiting intake of the above foods as well as sugar and sugar alcohols is a good place to start. It's also important to include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, live culture yogurt, and drinks like kombucha and kefir. While the serotonin produced in the brain and the serotonin produced in the gut are the same molecule, they can elicit different functions. Research suggests that the gut and brain are in constant communication and that a healthy gut has a direct impact on the health of the brain.
Cultivate healthy eating habits to improve your mental health
Healing your relationship with food and having healthy eating habits is one of the most important changes you can make to address depression. Focusing on gut health, eating foods high in micronutrients, prebiotic fiber, and probiotics, allow for an environmental modification inside your body that improves its optimal functioning, therefore, improving your overall mental and physical health. Adhering to this way of eating as a lifestyle and habitual practice serves as a proactive and preventative measure. Getting a grip on nutrition can lead to changing other aspects of your life and is one thing you don’t have to worry about, no matter how challenging life may get.
Aleks Zavlunova is a Holistic Behavior Therapist and Wellness Coach. She uses principles of human learning and behavior modification to help people develop sustainable skills and habits to lead healthier and happier lives. Aleks combines cognitive behavior psychology and nutrition science to help her clients begin to address maladaptive and self-destructive patterns and habits, build self-esteem, confidence, and self-love, by systematically improving their relationship with food. She strongly believes that our relationship with food greatly correlates with our relationship with the self, our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, as well as our relationships with others.