The pandemic of 2020 impacted many things: Careers, work-life balance, social habits, and waistlines. For many, it also impacted mental health.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that in 2020, one in three young adults aged 18-to-25, and one in five adults, have experienced mental illness. Along with the complexity of mental illness, the factors increasing the risk of mental illness include:
- Social isolation
- Disrupted sleep habits
- Abnormal daily routine
- Psychological stress
- Increased screen time
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Change in diet
While some benefit from medication, it’s not always the answer. Research shows that patients do not often favor medication. The American Society of Nutrition reports that 30-40% of patients diagnosed with a mental illness do not adequately respond to pharmacological or psychological treatments.
Mental illness disorders like depression and anxiety are very personalized and affect each individual differently. Like any illness, early prevention, education, and interventions should be prioritized and discussed with a primary care physician.
Depression is complex – and so is food. That makes dietary research regarding depression difficult because we must also consider individual dietary patterns, differing environmental, socio-economic, lifestyle factors, and regional food scarcity. A diet rich in added sugars and food insecurity issues significantly predicts depression. Research shows that individuals who eat according to healthy dietary patterns have a decreased incidence of depression.
Anti-inflammatory Diet & Lifestyle
One study in the World Journal of Psychiatry reports that depressive disorders are often accompanied by the production of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. When compared to healthy individuals, cytokine biomarkers are higher in people with depressive disorders. That means cutting inflammatory-based foods – or following an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle – may help.
Another study links depression and anxiety to dysfunction in gut microbiota. Research in the microbiome-gut-brain axis started when comorbidity was observed between anxiety, depression, and inflammatory bowel disease. Research shows the microbiota composition – what’s in your gut –is different in people with anxiety and depression. This research validates the hypothesis that a change in gut microbiota composition and function contributes to how diet may affect depression and anxiety.
Supplements & Interventions
Consider dietary and supplementation interventions – guided by a Registered Dietitian – when evaluating your tools to tackle depression and anxiety. These are both cost-effective and low-risk. Vegetarian and plant-based diets can alter the microbial composition and decrease gut inflammation. Research from the Nutritional Journal links a gluten-free diet with probiotic supplementation to reduce inflammation of the immune system and central nervous system.
Supplements of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids can positively affect mood, and magnesium and vitamin D deficiencies are common in patients with depression and anxiety.
Here are some simple dietary guidelines that may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression:
- Consume a diet rich in whole fruits and vegetables. Limit processed foods.
- Limit intake of added and refined sugars.
- Increase intake of omega-3-rich foods like salmon, pecans, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and cold-pressed olive oil. Supplementation is also an option.
- Increase intake of prebiotic foods: legumes, oats, bananas, apples, Jerusalem artichokes, and garlic.
- Consider a trial elimination of gluten for eight to twelve weeks.
Consider These Anti-inflammatory Lifestyle Modifications:
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of low to moderate exercise each week.
- Discover healthy forms of stress management.
- Strive to maintain a regular sleep schedule.
- Stop smoking.
- Begin to re-socialize yourself with a healthy community of people.
- Limit exposure to technology and unhealthy narratives.
Food Sensitivity Testing
Food sensitivity testing has been a beneficial tool in helping patients understand what individual foods are causing inflammatory-based reactions and creating gut dysfunction. Instead of giving generalized dietary recommendations, this testing provides objective data that outlines personalized nutritional advice. This is a great resource and low-risk option for patients struggling with anxiety and depression, especially patients who have found their mental disorders medication-resistant. For proper interpretation, education, and easy implementation, a registered dietitian specializing in food intolerances, is necessary.
What People Are Saying:
Here are a few testimonials from Couri Center patients who have noticed improvements to their mental health with the use of food sensitivity testing and the TLC: Total Lifestyle by Couri programs:
“I did not realize the food I was eating was making me feel so bad. I struggle to complete everyday tasks, like cooking or cleaning. I was only going to work, eating, and sleeping. Since changing my diet, I feel better, enjoy cooking, my house now is organized, and my work/life balance is improving. Thinking more clearly leads to making better life decisions. It feels great to enjoy life again.” -DM
“My son had a year of repetitive strep throat infections and was on strong antibiotics. After that, he fell into a serious depression. That was in sixth grade, 10 years ago. Since that time, he has struggled with medication-resistant depression that has gotten in the way of work, school and relationships. The psychiatrist was talking to him about scary procedures. I brought him to Leslie. His food intolerances were similar to mine, but he was smiling, laughing, and playing with the dogs within a few months. He is applying for work and talking about going back to school. His skin is clear. I can see in him the person he used to be.” -C
“Informed dietary changes, in addition to supplementation, have profoundly improved my life. The most noticeable effects on my mental health would be an overall sense of well-being, increased mental clarity, and sharpness. I have tried several different antidepressant medications in the past that worsened symptoms of depression and anxiety and absolutely did not work for me.
I am beyond grateful for the professional help and vast knowledge gained through Leslie and the process of the nutritional TLC program at the Couri Center. The only change I would make is to have requested Couri Center’s help much sooner.” -JE
In partnership with other medical providers, a change in diet and lifestyle can positively affect those who struggle with depression and anxiety. For patients looking for additional information or who may not be responding to traditional options, the TLC: Total Lifestyle by Couri program provides patients a comprehensive perspective on what may be causing unwanted symptoms.
Leslie is accepting new patients. Schedule online or call 309-692-6838. We’re here to help.
Leslie Rusch-Bayer, MS, RD, LDN, CPT