In the United States, over 43 million Americans (that’s one in every five adults) experience a mental illness every year. The most common types are anxiety and major depression disorder (MDD). Since millions of Americans are affected, it may be a surprise to discover that 60% of people suffering from a mental condition don’t get medical treatment for their illness.

And an even larger percentage don’t make any connection between their mental health and the food they eat. And yet, there is a growing body of research that shows that our diets play an instrumental part. If we understand the effect dietary choices have on our mental health, we can make better decisions to improve our physical and psychological wellness at the same time. So, what are some foods that fight depression?

What is Depression?

Major depressive disorder is a common and serious medical illness that affects your feelings and the way you think and act negatively. Depression can cause feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy. It can also lead to several physical and emotional problems and can decrease your ability to function at home and work.

foods that fight depression

Symptoms of Depression

Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and may include:

  • Having a depressed mood or feeling sad
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Appetite changes
  • Increased tiredness and loss of energy
  • Increase in physical activity with no purpose (can’t sit still, pacing, wringing hands) 
  • Slowed movements or speech (severe enough to be noticeable)
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Problems thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

For a diagnosis of depression, symptoms must last two weeks and represent a change in your former level of functioning. In addition, medical conditions (such as thyroid problems, brain tumors, vitamin deficiency) can appear to be symptoms of depression so it’s important to eliminate general medical causes.

4 Main Causes of Depression

Depression is a complicated disease. No one knows precisely what causes it, but it can happen for a range of reasons such as the following:

  1. Family history

Although there aren’t any specific genes that can be linked to depression, if your family members had it, you are more likely to also have it. It isn’t clear yet whether it’s because of biology or learned behavior.

  1. Illness and health problems

Illnesses and injuries can affect your mental health. Chronic and long-term health issues that drastically alter your lifestyle can cause depression.

  1. Medication, alcohol, and drugs

Many different medications can have side effects on depression. If you feel depressed after beginning a new medication, you should talk to your doctor. Likewise, recreational drugs and alcohol can cause or make depression worse. They might feel like they’re helping at first, but they will eventually make you feel worse.

  1. Personality

Some people and personalities are just more likely to experience depression. Examples are people who:

  • Hold in worries and stress,
  • Have low self-esteem,
  • Are perfectionists, and 
  • Are sensitive to criticism

How Does Depression Affect Your Brain?

Brain chemistry is a complex area of medical study and it is still developing. A lot is still being researched. Also, there are so many other factors, aside from brain chemistry, that can lead to depression. Therefore, depression isn’t simply caused by a lack of certain chemicals. But there are specific processes between nerve cells that can add to depression.

What is Anxiety?

It’s a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety. But people with anxiety disorders often have intense, excessive, and persistent, worry and fear about everyday circumstances. Frequently, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense fear and anxiety or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks).

These feelings intrude on daily activities, are hard to control, are out of proportion to any actual danger, and can last a long time. You may start to avoid situations or places to prevent the feelings. Anxiety symptoms may start during childhood or the teenage years and go on into adulthood.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Common signs and symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling nervous, tense, or restless
  • Having a feeling of imminent danger, panic, or doom
  • An increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Problems concentrating or thinking about anything but the present danger
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Difficulty controlling worries
  • Feeling the urge to avoid anything that triggers anxiety

What Causes Anxiety?

It isn’t fully understood what causes anxiety disorders. Experiences such as traumatic events seem to trigger them in individuals who are already more likely to have anxiety. Traits that are inherited can also be a factor.

Risk Factors

Your risk of developing an anxiety disorder may be increased by these factors:

Trauma

Children who experienced abuse or witnessed traumatic events have a higher risk. Adults who experience a traumatic event can also develop an anxiety disorder.

Stress because of an illness

Having a serious illness or health condition can cause substantial worry about matters such as your treatment and your future.

Buildup of stress

A buildup of small stressful life situations or a big event may cause excessive anxiety. A death in the family, stress at work, or continuing worry about finances are examples.

Personality

Individuals with certain types of personalities are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than others.

Other mental health disorders

People with other mental health disorders such as depression often have an anxiety disorder too.

Drugs or alcohol

Alcohol or drug use or withdrawal can cause or make anxiety worse.

Medical Causes

Anxiety might be linked to an underlying health problem. Sometimes, anxiety symptoms are the first indications of a medical illness such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Drug withdrawal or misuse
  • Alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal
  • Chronic pain

What Happens in Your Brain?

There are 4 major effects of anxiety on your brain.

  1. Your brain becomes flooded with stress hormones. 

The surge of stress hormones (“fight or flight”) causes your brain to release more stress hormones until you are overwhelmed.

  1. Your brain becomes hyperactive to threats. 

People with anxiety disorders tend to feel threatened more often than people without them.

  1. Anxiety makes it harder for your brain to reason. 

Anxiety weakens the connections between the parts of the brain that alert the brain to danger and come up with a rational response.

  1. Anxiety trains your brain to hang onto negative memories. 

Anxiety “tricks” the brain into thinking that memories related to anxiety are safe to remember and store. It wires your brain to remember failure, threat, and danger while happier memories are buried.

How Diet Affects Mental Health

We all know that eating a healthy diet helps fight obesity and promotes our physical health. But the foods we eat also regulate our mental health such as our emotions, thoughts, and moods.

Serotonin, The “Happy” Chemical

Because our brain is always “on” and running, it needs nutrients from food to stay healthy, so it’s easy to understand why foods play such an important role in regulating our physical and mental health. According to Harvard Medical School, “What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter frequently called “the happy chemical” because it controls: 

  • Our appetite
  • Mood
  • Sense of pain
  • Sleep cycle

Needless to say, when we are satisfied, not feeling pain, and well-rested, we are happy.

Surprisingly, almost all (95%) of serotonin is not produced in our brain. It is produced in our gastrointestinal tract. Because of this, it requires the good bacteria from our intestines to function correctly. Foods that produce serotonin include:

  • Salmon
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Milk and cheese

This is also proved through studies that show that people who take probiotics (supplements for depression and anxiety that add good bacteria to our gut) find that their levels of anxiety, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve.

Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

Research has discovered that diet not only affects our physical health but also our mental health. Eating a well-balanced diet may bring on feelings of well-being and lower stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms. 

What’s The Best Diet for Mental Health?

Many studies have shown that people who eat Japanese, Mediterranean, and Nordic type diets have better mental health. They have also found that the risk of depression is 25% lower than in individuals who eat a Western diet. Here are some suggestions for foods that fight depression, and foods to avoid to support your mental health. Be sure to eat a wide variety to increase the nutrients and minerals.

Foods That Fight Depression: Good For a Healthy Mind

  • Fruits: Berries and Bananas
  • Vegetables: Carrots, Leafy greens
  • Fermented foods: Sauerkraut, Kimchi, and Kefir
  • Seafood: Pollock, Cod, Oysters, Scallops, Shrimp (wild-caught), Clams, Salmon, Mussels, Liver, Turkey
  • Dairy: Eggs, Milk (or Vitamin D supplement), Yogurt
  • Spices: Turmeric and Garlic
  • Healthy Fats: Olive oil, Avocado oil, Grass-fed butter, Ghee, and Coconut oil

Foods That Fight Depression: Worst for a Healthy Mind

  • Refined sugars
  • Processed foods
  • Refined carbs
  • Soda
  • Trans fats
  • Polyunsaturated fats
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Alcohol
  • Mercury: Found in fish such as Swordfish and Tuna
  • White flour
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Excessive caffeine

5 Ways Drugs and Alcohol Affect Your Mental Health

  1. How Drugs Affect Your Brain

Different parts of your brain are affected, depending on the type of drug. Even though you may feel pleasure, the side effects can be permanent. Side effects include:

  • Impaired learning and cognitive function
  • Loss of memory
  • Lack of self-control
  1. How Alcohol Affects Your Brain

Similar to drugs, alcohol interferes with your brain’s communication system. And while it makes you energized, inhibited, and happy at first, it is a depressant. Alcohol use can have long-term effects on your mental health including:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Memory loss
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Depression
  1. How Substances Affect Your Memory

When you drink too much, sometimes you have trouble remembering parts of the night before. These “blackouts” indicate that you are drinking too much. Although experiencing one doesn’t mean that your brain cells associated with memory are damaged, frequent heavy drinking can damage your memory cells permanently.

  1. The Relationship Between Substances and Anxiety and Depression

There is a direct relationship between substance addiction and certain mental illnesses. This means that substance abuse can be what triggers anxiety and depression. On the other hand, having anxiety and depression can lead to becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. 

These illnesses can trigger the use of substances as a way of self-medication as an attempt to feel better. But as soon as the effects wear off, the person is usually left feeling worse than before. They then consume more and eventually create a dependency.

  1. Substances Can Create Stress

You may sometimes use substances to help cope with daily stress. But frequent alcohol or drug use to deal with stress can be counterproductive, leading you to become dependent on it. You have to deal with certain situations eventually, which will leave you feeling more stressed.

Treatment for Depression

Depression can be serious, but fortunately, it’s also treatable. Treatment for depression includes:

Self-help such as:

  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Counseling or therapy with a mental health professional

Alternative medicine such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Holistic therapies
  • Medication such as prescription antidepressants
  • Brain stimulation: People with severe depression or depression with psychosis may be helped by brain stimulation therapy such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Treatment for Mental Health at Discovery Institute

Want to learn more about foods that fight depression? If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction that has led to debilitating depression or anxiety, we can help you at Discovery Institute.  We have programs and mental health professionals who are experienced in treating co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions. 

Discovery Institute in Marlboro, NJ, can provide you with a medical detox and several levels of care. This way treatment is tailored to your needs and goals. Contact us today.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.