These Women Treated Their Anxiety and Depression with Food.

The connection between food and mental health

Since we don’t have all the answers, biologically, behind anxiety and depression, there’s no clear reason why changing your diet can change your mood, Knüppel says.

But we do know a few things: “Vitamins in the body help the function of enzymes that enable reactions such as the synthesis of serotonin, which plays an essential role in our happiness,” she explains.

Meanwhile, too much sugar has been foundTrusted Source to decrease a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in the development of depression and anxiety.

There’s also emerging researchTrusted Source that suggests that our gut plays an important role in mental health.

“The microorganisms in our gut can communicate with the brain and several systems that could play a role in depression and anxiety, and the composition of the gut microbiota is influenced by nutrition,” Knüppel adds.

Michael Thase, MD, psychiatrist and director of the Mood and Anxiety Program at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are a few other factors at play here.

“When you treat depression with medication, the actual ‘magical’ chemical ingredients matter maybe 15 percent. It’s really the process of working with a doctor and finding the motivation to recognize the problem and take steps toward fixing it that counts for most of the good,” Thase says.

“You can get that much of the good in a non-medication intervention that includes diet, exercise, and talking to someone,” he believes.

It’s really when you start taking care of yourself — which taking control of your diet certainly counts as — you get remoralization, Thase adds. “Your spirits pick up and that’s an antidepressant.”

Knüppel agrees: “Diet is a great way of active self-care and self-love — a key in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is often used to treat anxiety and depression. I believe seeing oneself as worthy of self-care and therefore worthy of being fed with nutritious food is a great step.”

Why certain foods are mood-boosting

  • Some enzymes found in food boost serotonin levels.
  • Sugar is associated with depression and anxiety.
  • Emerging science shows gut health plays a role in anxiety.
  • Eating healthy foods is a great way to practice self-care, important in CBT.
  • Taking active steps to eat a nutritious diet can increase motivation.

Should you try it?

No treatment is perfect and no treatment works for everyone, Thase states. Both experts agree if you have depression or anxiety, your first step should be getting help from a mental health professional.

But trying out nutritional changes in parallel with whatever steps you and your doctor decide may potentially bolster the improvements.

Still, Thase says diet isn’t a silver bullet for anxiety and depression.

“I’m all in favor of helping people take a look at their fitness and diet as a holistic plan to help recover from depression, but I wouldn’t count on it solely,” Thase says.

For some, nutritional intervention may work wonderfully as a primary treatment. But for others, including people with specific disorders like bipolar or schizophrenia, sticking to a specific diet would need to be used as complementary to other treatments, like medication, he explains.

And even though Thase doesn’t incorporate nutritional interventions with his patients, he adds that he could see this becoming another tool for psychiatrists or mental health professionals to consider in the future.

In fact, there’s a field called nutritional psychology that’s gaining steam.

“There is a real movement toward mindfulness and holistic approaches in our culture right now, and in psychiatry, there’s a movement toward personalized medicine, in the sense that our patients are the captains of their own ship and their own treatment planning,” he explains.

As people become more interested in alternative therapies like this and continue to see results, you may see more mainstream docs writing prescriptions for healthy foods in the future.