Can a healthy diet boost your mental health?
Sometimes it feels like anxiety is an all-too-common fixture of modern life. If you're not stressing about your work presentation, you're worried about your relationship or concerned about paying the mortgage. Most of us have experienced feelings of anxiety at one time or another, and these feelings are totally normal. They're a throw back to ancient times, when our ancestors had to be ready to call on their 'fight or flight' response at any moment. But excessive anxiety can affect your ability to function, leaving you feeling afraid and uncertain. Can diet really help to protect you against feelings of anxiety and depression? We wanted to find out.
A modern epidemic
Did you know that levels of anxiety have been constantly rising since the 1940s? In fact, anxiety disorders are now the most prevalent mental health problem on the planet. It seems that although diagnoses of anxiety in the UK have fallen over the last decade, symptoms of anxiety have increased.
Women are 60% more likely to experience anxiety disorders than men. Anxiety actually covers a range of disorders including generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorders, phobic disorders (such as stage fright), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression and can be caused by a combination of psychological, environmental and biological factors. It may be that you're simply more vulnerable to stress than others – research shows that almost half of all those with panic disorders also have a close relative who suffers. A parent's fears may influence children, being reinforced as they grow up.
Yet there's also a chemical side to things. The brain relies on a balance of neurotransmitters to stay healthy, such as dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine and aminobutyric acid (GABA). You've probably head that serotonin boosts feelings of happiness and well-being; a deficiency can lead to depression and anxiety. Stress hormones such as cortisol also have their part to play. It could also be that you have a highly sensitive amygdala. This is the part of our brains which regulates emotions, fears and memories. An over-sensitive amygdala could effect how you respond to stress, increasing blood pressure and heart rate.
Can food really help?
You might be wondering what all this has to do with food? Studies have revealed that some foods can help us to feel calmer whilst others provide temporary stimulation (such as caffeine). So adjusting your diet can be really helpful if you suffer from panic attacks or anxiety disorders. Food can also help to boost your mood, alleviating mild symptoms of depression. Diet isn't a substitute for medical help such as therapy and medication, but it can definitely help. Just as there are foods you may want to avoid if you experience frequent attacks of anxiety or depression, there are also calming, mood-enhancing foods which can make you feel happier and more at ease.
What should you be eating?
We've done our homework and discovered some foods that you should be eating, as well as those which you should try to avoid (or consume in moderation). Here goes!
Tryptophan rich foods
Food rich in tryptophan can help our brains produce the chemicals needed to feel good. Like, just scored a winning goal at the match or got asked out by the man of your dreams good. GOOD. Tryptophan helps produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for making you feel calm and happy.
Excellent sources of tryptophan include bananas, lean chicken, turkey, milk, cheese, oats, nuts, soy (great if you're avoiding dairy), peanut butter and sesame seeds – so many of our favourite foods! Some scientists are still unsure whether tryptophan found in food can cross the barrier from the blood to the brain, but we reckon every little helps.
Foods containing vitamin B
The B vitamins such as Thiamine (vitamin B1) can boost mood, according to studies. If you're deficient in vitamin B12 and folic acid, it could act as a trigger for depression. Eating foods rich in B-vitamins or taking a supplement can help keep anxiety at bay. Eat plenty of leafy greens – add some spinach to your smoothie – or enjoy beef, chicken, pork, citrus fruits, rice, nuts and eggs. Like you needed an excuse to enjoy a zucchini omelette for breakfast! Eggs are also packed with amino acids and protein.
Low-carb diets are not necessarily good for your health; everything in moderation, we say. Carbs can actually increase the amount of serotonin produced in the brain, as long as you choose healthy carbs. Avoid processed white bread, sugar and white rice and instead opt for whole grain bread and brown rice. Because it takes the body longer to break down whole grains, sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream, and there's none of the lethargic 'crash' you get shortly after eating a big bowl of pasta.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Evidence shows that omega-3 fatty acids found in tuna, salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, herrings and other oily fish can play a part in enhancing and uplifting your mood. A recent study revealed people taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements alongside prescribed antidepressants noticed more of an improvement in their moods than those who took the antidepressants alone. Omega-3 fatty acids also reduce your risk of heart disease, so whip up a tuna salad for dinner, now!
We've always been fans of protein – not only does it help to rebuild tissues after a workout, but it's also a great energy booster. Now you'll be happy to know it can also stimulate the production of norephinephrine and dopamine, neurotransmitters which improve our reaction times, alertness and mental energy. In case you didn't already know, excellent sources of protein include meat, fish, cheese, nuts, eggs, Greek yoghurt, soy, lentils and beans.
Foods to avoid
What foods should you try to steer clear of if feelings of anxiety or depression are overwhelming you, leaving you feeling gloomy and stressed?
Coffee, tea and other caffeine-containing beverages can help to boost your energy levels and are usually fine to consume in moderation. But consuming too much caffeine can inhibit serotonin levels, leaving you irritable and depressed. Caffeine also interferes with your sleep cycle if consumed to excess, which can cause stress and anxiety. A good night's sleep is essential for maintaining a positive mood.
It might seem like an obvious no-no, but whilst a drink or two can help relieve anxiety and stress, these effects are only temporary. Alcohol acts as a depressant and can leave you feeling distinctly glum. A far better way to relax is with a few minutes of meditation; or why not get outside and go for a run as you'll boost your levels of vitamin D! Alcohol is also a diuretic which will mean you'll need to use the toilet more often, leading to dehydration, which can negatively impact your mood.
Could that tasty hamburger or takeaway hot dog be causing mental health issues such as anxiety? A recent study in London discovered that eating fatty, processed foods can increase your risk of depression by up to 58%! Something to think about next time you're indulging in a piece of fried chicken. Chuck your takeaway and turn to fresh fruit and vegetables for a natural way to boost your mood.
If you're craving something sweet, try fresh fruit, a smoothie or even making your own trail mix. Avoid commercially produced sweets and cakes if you can, as many contain sugar, corn syrup and other additives designed to give you a temporary lift. Sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream to give you a surge of energy. As the surge wears off, your body naturally increases the production of insulin to remove sugar from the bloodstream, leaving you feeling low, irritable and tired.
What difference will it make?
A healthier diet combined with regular exercise and plenty of sleep can actually go a long way towards making you feel less anxious, stressed and depressed. We challenge you to try out our mood-boosting ideas for a week, by cutting out foods to avoid and including plenty tryptophan and B-vitamin rich foods in your diet, then let us know how you get on!