Column: Foods To Combat Anxiety & Depression

May 6, 2020 | 1 Comment

[Opinion column written by Agathe Holowatinc]

Recently, I was asked: “Agathe, is there such a thing as foods that help combat anxiety and depression? If so – what are they?”

And so that’s what I’d like to focus on today in my post, because it’s a very timely question, given the global panic around coronavirus [Covid-19], the lockdown, the uncertainties we have about our jobs and finances.

The good news is that the answer is yes!

Agathe Regina Holowatinc Bermuda May 2020

Research

In the past decade, an increasing body of research has arisen that explores the link between health and happiness, with numerous studies that directly examine the impact of the foods we eat on the prevalence and severity of anxiety and depression. It has been said that “Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel.

Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” [free radicals] produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells” [Selhub, 2020).

Furthermore, here is a quick quote that will shock and surprise you about where the majority of that wonderful feel-good chemical serotonin lives in your body – it’s your gut! Not in your brain! This quote is taken from an excellent article published on the Harvard Health Blog [my emphasis]:

How the foods you eat affect how you feel

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.

What’s more, the function of these neurons — and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin — is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health.

They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.” [Selhub, 2020].

Moreover, it is important to note that: “Studies have compared traditional diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical Western diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet.” [ibid.]

That’s right – studies are consistently showing that what you eat has a significant impact on your risk of anxiety and depression and on the severity of your symptoms.

A Few Simple Rules

Here are my top tips for eating to combat anxiety and depression, based on what the research shows:

1. Eat a healthy and balanced diet along the lines of a Mediterranean diet [or based on the FUELLED food pyramid if you have a copy of my book, which has its basis in the Mediterranean diet]. This is a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, good fats, nuts and seeds, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and that contains only modest amounts of meats and dairy [and those you always want to try to buy organic and grass-fed].

They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the “Western” dietary pattern.

2. Stay well hydrated!! Dehydration precipitates and/or mimics symptoms of anxiety and/or depression – something you do not want. Keep refilling that water glass guys!

3. Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as research shows that these enhance mental health, fuel your brain function, and work to combat anxiety and depression.

Examples include:

  • Wild caught salmon [you can use the tinned variety]
  • Hemp seeds
  • Hempseed oil
  • Milled flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • UDO’s Omega 3-6-9 Blend Oil
  • Walnuts
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Anchovies
  • Other fatty fish and fish oil [wild caught not farm raised]
  • Don’t skimp out on your good fats! And if you cannot get them in your diet, it’s worth the money to supplement with them

4. Eat prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods because these make your gut microbiome much healthier and your gut health affects your mental health. Prebiotics are a special form of dietary fiber that helps the good bacteria in your gut grow and flourish – it feeds your own good gut bacteria, whereas probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be found in fermented foods that help your gut thrive when you eat them.

Upping your intake of prebiotics and probiotics has been linked in studies to a long list of powerful benefits.

Some prebiotic-rich foods are:

  • Raw leeks
  • Raw garlic
  • Raw or cooked onions
  • Raw asparagus
  • Raw Jicama
  • Under-ripe bananas – as in maybe just a bit green at the ends, not fully yellow yet and certainly not spotted with brown spots

Examples of probiotic-rich foods include:

  • Sauerkraut naturally fermented in brine and not vinegar
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Salted gherkin pickles
  • Brine cured olives
  • Miso
  • And of course, you can also take a convenient probiotic supplement, which is what I do daily

5. Eat regular meals to prevent hypoglycemic states [i.e. do not let your blood sugar level drop too low, as this can precipitate and/or mimic symptoms of anxiety and/or depression – something you do not want.

Cut Out:

1. Cut back on sugar, processed foods and sugary sodas

2. Cut back on caffeine, alcohol, and smoking cigarettes

Like dehydration, these can precipitate and/or mimic symptoms of anxiety and/or depression – something you do not want.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about how food affects mental health, I would recommend the following great articles:

Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publishing. [last updated 2020]. Online:

  • Touches on serotonin
  • Terrific article and excellent suggestion for people to take probiotics and follow a traditional diet like the Mediterranean diet that is “high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the Western dietary pattern. In addition, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics.”
  • I would add that research has shown that good fats – taking Omega 3 oil, eating walnuts or eating fatty fish [and taking in sources every single day] – enhance mental health
  • There are links for further reading at the bottom of this article as well

Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publishing. [last updated 2019]. Online:

  • Another terrific article that provides helpful advice as to what to eat.
  • Very important piece: “Other foods, including fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, contain omega-3 fatty acids. A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. [This study used supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids]. Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only.”

My favourite article: Eating well to help manage anxiety: Your questions answered. Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publishing. [posted 2018]. Online:

  • Excellent notes about nutrition.
  • Excellent notes about how certain foods like low blood sugar [not remembering to eat a high fibre diet with good fats with your carbohydrates], dehydration and alcohol precipitate or mimic symptoms of anxiety.
  • Excellent notes about why sugar is so bad for mental health. And yes, that includes flour and bread.

Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25[8]:1725-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229. Epub 2011 Jul 19. Kiecolt-Glaser JK1, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Online:

  • Abstract only but this is the important part: “These data suggest that n-3 supplementation can reduce inflammation and anxiety even among healthy young adults. The reduction in anxiety symptoms associated with n-3 supplementation provides the first evidence that n-3 may have potential anxiolytic benefits for individuals without an anxiety disorder diagnosis.”

Foods to Avoid If You Have Anxiety or Depression. WebMD slideshow. [Not the most academic source, however, I 100% back them up on their 14 suggestions.]. Online:

Okay, that’s a good start, I think! I hope that was educational while being helpful in a practical sense too. Feel free to share this post with someone you care about.

Stay safe and healthy everyone!

- Agathe Holowatinc is a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, co-founder and director at FUELLED Bermuda Ltd., published author, health food private chef and health industry entrepreneur. She is a passionate advocate of real food, holistic approaches to health and communicating big ideas in a simple way. Visit fuelledlife.com or call or WhatsApp on 532-0426.

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  1. Recovery on the Rock says:

    This is an excellent article and I would like to see more of these with recipes for some of these healthy suggestions. Maybe some online cooking shows with local farm products.

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