When you’re feeling depressed and anxious, seeking support from a therapist is always a good idea. But sometimes, there may be physical reasons that you’re feeling depressed and anxious, too. Turns out that our modern lifestyle – stress, an overload of medications, and unhealthy diets – affects the health of our gut, which can have a big impact on our moods.
“The gut is sometimes considered the second brain,” says Katie Bogaard, a naturopathic practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine. “In fact, more serotonin is produced in your gut than in your brain.”
According on a 2015 article in the New York Times, micro-organisms in your gut secrete chemicals – such as dopamine, serotonin, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GAMA) – which are used in our brains to regulate our mood.
However, in order for your gut to produce the right neurotransmitters to keep anxiety and depression at bay, your gut has to have the right level of gut flora. When this gut flora is out of balance – by taking too many antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, or other medications – our guts can’t make the needed neurotransmitters, leaving us feeling depressed.
Stress can also contribute to leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal permeability, which is when toxins from your gut escape through tiny holes in your intestinal walls and get into your blood stream. Studies have shown that your body’s immune system response to those toxins can also cause depression.
“Our modern lifestyle — stress, the standard American diet, and antimicrobial and antibiotic use — can make us all at risk for intestinal permeability,” Bogaard says. “And once someone has intestinal permeability, it sets them up to be susceptible to a slew of different issues, including depression and anxiety.”
Of course, your diet plays a big part in affecting your mood as well.
“When you’re depressed and not feeling well, people will reach for comfort foods like carbohydrates and simple sugars that generate serotonin when serotonin is low in your brain,” Bogaard explains.
Unfortunately, while eating those comfort foods do make us feel momentarily better, they actually cause more harm than good. As soon as the sugar high is gone, we feel depressed again.
Why? Because in addition to causing our blood sugar to spike and then crash, sugars and refined carbohydrates use up B vitamins to create energy – the same B vitamins we need to sustain good moods.
In fact, studies have shown that diets high in sugar, fat and processed foods are linked to higher instances of depression, while diets consisting of lean meats, fish, whole grains, nuts and veggies can improve our moods.
So what are some ways that you can change your diet to avoid feelings of depression? Here are a few suggestions (and make sure to consult your doctor before getting off of any anti-depressants):
- Avoid Sugar
As mentioned above, sugar can wreak havoc on our moods by taking us on and endless cycle of ups and downs throughout the day. Avoid refined sugar and opt instead for whole fruits, which provide fiber that can help delay blood sugar spikes.
- Avoid Caffeine
Did you know that caffeine has a direct impact on our neurotransmitters? It increases dopamine and acetylcholine, making us feel more alert and motivated. But it also decreases GABA, which is designed to calm our thoughts when they’re racing out of control. So with less GABA, we’re likely to feel more anxious. Plus, if you’re someone who likes to put sugar in your coffee, you’re facing even more crash-and-burn feelings.
- Eat Protein at Every Meal
Bogaard says combining protein with whole grains at each meal is a great way of keeping your blood sugar more stable throughout the day and avoid the mood roller coaster.
- Eat a Healthy Breakfast
“People who don’t start their day well balanced will be craving sugar all day,” Bogaard says. Ditch the Danish or cereal for an omelet with veggies to feel full and balanced throughout the morning.
- Get Lots of Vitamin B and D
Both vitamin B and vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to depression, so it’s important to get enough of both of them in your diet. Make sure to fill up on lean proteins like chicken and fish, as well as lentils, almonds and spinach to get enough vitamin B, and spend time in the sun to soak up more vitamin D.
- Take a Supplement
Bogaard recommends taking either tryptophan or 5HTP, both of which can boost your serotonin levels, or taking a combination supplement such as Cerenity for anxiety or Cerevive for depression, both of which contain several different nutrients that support the production of neurotransmitters in your brain. However, if you’re already on an antidepressant, be sure to consult your doctor before taking any additional supplements.