According to Beyond Blue, in any one year 1 million people in Australia will suffer from depression, 2 million from anxiety and 45% of the population will suffer some kind of anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Therefore, it is very likely that you will suffer from anxiety and/or depression yourself or you will know a family member or friend who is currently suffering or has suffered in the past. Periods of depression and anxiety can follow a very stressful event like losing a loved one or coming out of the other side of a divorce or redundancy. Depression and anxiety may also have a genetic link. However, many people experience bouts of anxiety and depression for no apparent reason, and it may occur like a bolt out of the blue or it may be a slow insidious onset. In any of these cases, the sufferers quality of life may be adversely affected. However, there is plenty of help out there for those who seek it, in the form of both medical intervention, counselling and natural therapies. This article highlights some of the diet and lifestyle interventions that can often dramatically aid in alleviating feelings of anxiety and depression and may even take them away all together.
Exercise is an integral part of mood management. Numerous well-designed studies have found exercise to be effective in elevating mood and reducing symptoms of depression. Anxiety symptoms have also been shown to improve with increased physical activity, especially mindful movement, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. Basic exercise such as walking can also help improve mood and it is very easy to do and completely free!
Exercise stimulates the body to produce serotonin and endorphins, which are feel good chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) that alleviate depression, but exercise also helps to improve self-esteem, boost self-confidence, create a sense of empowerment and can have a social aspect all of which are great for elevating mood.
The brain is a highly metabolic part of the body and needs a steady stream of nutrients to function. A poor diet may not provide the nutrients necessary to produce neurotransmitters provoking symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. If you are living on junk food and beer and not exercising, the body and brain are nutrient depleted and it would be no surprise that you wouldn’t be feeling at your best both physically and mentally.
- Eat 5-7 different types of vegetables per day and 2 pieces of fruit. This could be a big jump from a junk food diet! Start with one or 2 pieces per day then work up from there. Fruit and vegetables are loaded with essential nutrients for brain function.
- Replace highly processed carbohydrates such as white flour, rice and pasta with the brown, high fibre version. Blood sugar balance is vital to keep mood stable. Do you experience feelings of ‘hangriness’ where you are very anxious and aggressive until food intake? Do you experience mid afternoon sleepiness on a daily basis? These are signs that you are on a blood sugar rollercoaster and perhaps also a mood rollercoaster.
- Ensure adequate protein in your diet. Neurotransmitters in the brain are predominantly comprised of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. If you are consuming large plates of carbohydrates and forgoing your proteins you won’t have enough of these building blocks to manufacture the very important mood improving neurotransmitters. My rule of thumb is make sure you have protein (in meat or vegetarian form) in every meal.
- Reduce caffeinated drinks to 1-2 per day. Caffeine is a neuro-stimulant so if you are drinking 3+ fully caffeinated drinks per day, you may be increasing feelings of anxiety. Everyone handles caffeine in very different ways. Some people can have 5 coffees per day and it doesn’t affect them at all. However, some people are completely caffeine intolerant and one coffee will cause anxiety, stress and insomnia. Try cutting the caffeine out for a week or 2 and you may see some improvements.
- Reduce alcohol to 2 standard drinks per sitting or cut it out completely. Alcohol is a depressant, and is also used as a method of self-medication to help people get through depressed times. Heavy alcohol consumption can also lead to other health implications such as gut and liver damage. It also leads to chronic fatigue which can make life feel more difficult at the best of times.
Did you know that the brain and gut are linked via the gut brain axis, a vital part of the nervous system. Therefore, cognitive and emotional centres of the brain are directly linked with peripheral gut functions. This makes sense when you think that if you are excited or stressed, it can have a direct affect on your digestive function. The large bowel part of your gut is also home to a huge number of commensal bacteria that scientists are only now beginning to understand. The mix of gut bacteria in the gut is very varied between all human beings and can be influenced by diet, lifestyle, toxin exposure, antibiotic use, bacterial exposure and even household pets. The latest research has shown that the commensal bacteria in our gut can have a profound effect on mood via communication through the gut brain axis. Therefore, if you are suffering from conditions such as gut pain, constipation, diarrhoea, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome etc. you are also more likely to have depression and or/anxiety. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg – what came first, the depression or the gut symptoms? In my experience, getting someones gut working better (something I believe nutritionists do particularly well!) can have a beneficial effect on mood.
Our hormones are highly influential mediators of mood. Hormones are maintained in homeostasis (or are supposed to be!) but can be influenced by a bad diet, stress, toxin exposure etc. If there are signs that your hormones are disrupted eg. low testosterone, high estrogen, heavy painful periods, endometriosis, fibroids etc. then this can have a profound effect on how you feel on a day to day basis. Hormone balance can be achieved through gradual diet and lifestyle changes.
The key to making positive changes to your diet and lifestyle is to take a gradual approach. I try to not overwhelm my clients with too many changes at one time. If you want to make some of the alterations I have suggested then try one at a time and then try another one a week or 2 later.
Finally, if you feel that you are too overwhelmed to even try these changes, speak to a friend or family member and tell them how you feel. Also, there are great organisations out there to help you such as:
If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, I hope that this article will help you feel happy and healthy again.