As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, I’m passionate about leveraging the power of food to reduce symptoms of anxiety, and keep me calm, cool, and collected for all the things we have in store in our busy lives. And in this day and age, this work means more than ever: after the pandemic, Anxiety disorders grew by about a whopping 25% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic the American Psychological Association had reported that more than three-quarters of adult’s report symptoms of stress. Worse still, research has shown that more than 70% of people globally with mental illness receive no treatment from health care staff. All this points to us needing more solutions for the most common mental health condition. Whether you have a formal diagnosis or whether you feel off your game since COVID, anxiety – or broadly, a sense of displacement from the usual calm – seems to be everywhere these days.
I approach mental healthcare from the lens of functional nutrition, which means that I focus heavily on the relationship between the gut and the brain to utilize food as a means of improving mental fitness and emotional wellbeing. In my book, This Is Your Brain on Food, and my upcoming book, Calm Your Mind with Food, I refer to this relationship as the ‘Gut Brain Romance’. Gut health and brain health are intricately interdependent and, much like a romance, this relationship has both good and bad days. Connected by the vagus nerve, which allows for 2-way “text messages” between these organs, they are in constant communication and the health of one is reflective of the health of the other.
The nutrients from food influence chemicals that directly and indirectly affect your brain and in turn change the way you think and feel – including emotions of stress and anxiety. When inflammation is present in the gut, which results from an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria, inflammation is similarly driven in the brain. When inflammation is present in the brain, stress and anxiety can arise, especially when this inflammation becomes chronic. Considerable evidence tells us that brain inflammation is increased in those with anxiety, so understanding which foods are most inclined to contribute to chronic inflammation and avoiding them, is a powerful step for soothing an anxious mind.
These are the key foods to include in your diet for a calmer mind and happier gut.
- Prebiotic Fiber: veggies are rich in prebiotic fibers that feed and help maintain an abundance of healthy bacteria in the gut which is associated with reduced neuroinflammation and stress. Prebiotic foods include asparagus, garlic, onions, leafy greens, artichokes, legumes, mushrooms, and apples, amongst others. I recommend including a variety of these veggies in the diet to ensure a diversity of brain boosting vitamins and minerals along with fiber.
- Greens and Beans: These foods bring both fiber which nurtures the gut microbes, and also helps keep blood sugar on an even keel. My favorites are arugula, spinach, watercress, and dandelion greens, but all leafy greens can help calm the mind. Both greens and beans (including legumes and lentils) contain iron – and iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Iron deficiency anemia is a serious health threat especially to women and children. In the brain iron is key in the metabolism of neurotransmitters. Iron deficiency is especially linked to anxiety in infants, children, and adolescents.
- Polyphenols: One type of polyphenol are flavonoids like anthocyanins and cacao flavanols. Berries are loaded with fiber, antioxidants and vitamins, berries support a healthy gut microbiome and can reduce inflammation. Blueberries specifically contain one of the highest concentrations of anxiety reducing anthocyanin, a powerful flavonoid with antioxidant properties that supports brain health by fighting off oxidative stress. Wild blueberries even have twice the antioxidant power of regular blueberries! Extra dark chocolate has cacao flavonoids, a type of polyphenol that supports improved mood and anxiety. I love having a quarter cup of blueberries daily as part of a brain healthy breakfast with some chunks of extra dark chocolate as an afternoon snack.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: omega-3 fatty acids are an incredibly powerful tool in reducing inflammation in the gut and brain. They can be found abundantly in wild caught fish like salmon, anchovies, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in nuts and seeds like walnuts, flax, and chia seeds. Omega-3 consumption is associated with reduced anxiety, brain fog and cognitive decline, as well as improved mood.
- Spices: spices like turmeric with a pinch of black pepper, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary, and ginger not only boost the flavor and color of our meals, but are also rich in antioxidants, micronutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds for improved mental fitness. Enjoying my turmeric latte each morning is one of my go-to practices for reduced stress and good energy throughout the day!
- Fermented Foods: a healthy gut microbiome is dependent on a healthy presence of good bacteria in the gut and an effective way to replenish these populations of good bacteria is through eating fermented foods! Naturally rich in live cultures, foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, and plain yogurts are excellent for mental fitness. Consuming fermented foods in conjunction with the above-mentioned fiber rich veggies is key for maintaining a healthy microbiome and defending against chronic inflammation.
Hungry for more?
In my book, This Is Your Brain On Food, I dive deep into cutting-edge research to explain the innumerable ways in which food contributes to mental health. In doing so, I also seek to show you how to establish and maintain a sound diet to best support your psychological and cognitive health. Hungry for more? You can find me online at www.umanaidoomd.com, and connect with me on Instagram and Twitter, @DrUmaNaidoo, for real-time updates and news in Nutritional Psychiatry.
Dr. Uma Naidoo is an award-winning board-certified Psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of the best-selling book This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and More.