Diets for Depression and Anxiety: Foods to Eat, Foods to Avoid

What you eat influences how you feel. And how you feel can alter your body’s ability to benefit from what you eat. Choosing carefully designed diets for depression is more than another option for treating your condition. It’s essential for escaping the endless loop of bad feelings which lead to poor eating which lead to bad feelings which lead to . . .

 . . . you get the idea.

Using nutrition to heal from depression is a complex topic. So for now, we’ll start with a basic introduction to the foods you should eat, the foods you should avoid, and why.

First, let’s get clear on the one big thing your body ultimately needs in order to recover from depression.

Serotonin and Depression

You need serotonin, the chemical associated with gratitude, accomplishment, and social contentment.

Technically, you need serotonin and dopamine. After all, you can’t have serotonin without dopamine. But when it comes to diets for depression, it’s the serotonin we worry about the most.

This is because serotonin and dopamine share the same transporters. And because the body depends on dopamine for the creation of serotonin, dopamine takes priority in certain functions.

One classic example related to depression and anxiety is the effect of reward-seeking behaviors. When you’re depressed, you may try to comfort yourself with quick-fix pleasures, such as alcohol, sex, or social media validation. These things produce dopamine, and if you become addicted, your brain can actually become overstimulated with dopamine.

So why does excess dopamine intensify your depression?

Because there are only so many transporters in your brain that can get dopamine and serotonin where they need to be. And because these two chemicals share the same transporters, and because the body prioritizes dopamine, serotonin never gets picked up. Dopamine keeps stepping in and nabbing all the Ubers while serotonin is left standing on the curb, waiting in vain for a ride.

So when we look at the best diets for depression, our greatest priority is to support serotonin production. Here’s how.

Eat Foods That Support Digestion

Few people realize this, but good digestion is absolutely essential for battling depression.

Let’s start at the beginning. A traumatic event triggers your fight or flight response. When I say “traumatic,” I don’t necessarily mean a life-shattering experience. It could be something as simple as not being seen or heard. Any experience that makes you feel like you need to either run away or charge into battle.

When that happens, your body reacts by shutting down the stomach and sending the blood supply to the muscles. Your digestion is now impaired.

Without adequate digestion, your body isn’t absorbing the macronutrients, cofactors, and amino acids (tryptophan and phenylalanine) it needs to produce serotonin. In order to break out of a depression cycle, your digestion has to be on point.

A few tips for promoting great digestion:

  • Drink water with lemon first thing in the morning. This gets your system started.
  • At meals, eat your proteins first.
  • Don’t consume water right before or right after your meal. Only take little sips to get the food down.

Eat Foods That are High in Iron

Anemia is another issue that has been linked to depression. Put in the simplest terms, anemia refers to a deficiency of hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein that transports oxygen. And iron makes hemoglobin.

Not only is iron essential for treating anemia, it’s also crucial for producing serotonin. Serotonin is made from tryptophan, and iron is involved in every step of the process.

Insufficient iron means insufficient serotonin, which—as we know—leads to depression. That’s why the most effective diets for depression always include plenty of iron.

Get Plenty of Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a group of fat-soluble secosteroids that is critical for all tissues in the body. D3—known as cholecalciferol—is the most important. Regardless of the reason for this hormone deficiency, insufficient levels of Vitamin D3 result in severe psychological consequences. 

This hormone plays an important role in activating genes that release neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and serotonin that affect critical brain function. Various cells located in regions of the brain have Vitamin D receptors. These regions have been linked to depression. 

We have all heard of depression in cities where there is a constant cloud overcast such as Seattle, San Francisco and London. This is because when the sun’s UVB rays interact with a specific protein in our skin, Vitamin D is converted into its active form, D3. Without adequate sunlight, our bodies cannot synthesize Vitamin D from cholesterol. The same thing happens during the winter months. This is what we refer to as “seasonal depression.”

Avoid Foods That Throw Blood Sugar Out of Balance

Here’s an interesting fact: if your blood sugar is out of balance, you can still make serotonin in your body, but not in your brain.

This is because insulin is what transports necessary nutrients across the blood/brain barrier. If your blood sugar is out of balance or you have an inappropriate insulin response, your body will not be able to transport those nutrients to the brain. Without the nutrients, you won’t produce serotonin.

Get Enough Critical Nutrients in Your Diets for Depression

And what are those essential nutrients, exactly?

Copper and vitamin C are both critical for the metabolism of serotonin.

You may also require higher doses of B complex vitamins if you have a MTHFR gene mutation. With this gene mutation, your body does not get enough methyl donors to metabolize the amino acids that make serotonin. You also need vitamin B6 and vitamin B9.

Now, any good multivitamin should have enough micronutrients in them to support the production of serotonin. But none of that matters if any of the above issues are out of balance. To produce the serotonin your body needs, you must have good digestion. You cannot be anemic. Your blood sugar has to be in balance.

Think of it like a car. The wheels might be attached, but there’s no battery, that car isn’t going anywhere. If the wheels are on and the battery is in but the engine is dead, the car still won’t run.

In other words, the most effective diets for depression consist of much more than multivitamins.

On that note, let’s get into the details.

Foods Essential to Diets for Depression

So, what exactly should you eat to help recover from depression?

It’s always best to speak to a nutritional counselor for a customized diet plan, but the above pointers should provide a helpful blueprint. More specifically, consider foods such as:

  • High-iron foods like dark, leafy greens, lean red meat (always organic, grass-fed), and organ meats like liver (unless you have gout)
  • High-magnesium foods like cashews, avocados, and salmon
  • Proteins containing tryptophan such as a eggs, chicken, and especially white fish like cod
  • Citrus fruits for vitamin C
  • Foods rich in methyl donor nutrients and cofactors, including cauliflower, flax seeds, and lentils
  • Copper-rich foods like sweet potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, chickpeas, and tofu

Foods to Avoid in Diets for Depression

Effective diets for depression are about what you don’t eat as much as what you do eat. To promote health and serotonin production, avoid the following:

  • MSG (glutamate overstimulation is linked to depression)
  • Alcohol
  • Refined processed sugar, which creates insulin resistance
  • Foods containing gluten, as gluten damages the epithelial tissue in your intestine, inhibiting the absorption of nutrients
  • Foods high in nitrates, which block iodine. Nitrates are most commonly found in canned, cured, and smoked meats.

Changing your diet can feel like a massive undertaking, especially when you’re already battling depression. But trust me: finding a new nutritional system is one of the absolute best things you can do to recover and move forward. Give your body what it needs to keep you happy, healthy, and whole.

If you could use a little guidance, reach out to us here at PH² Nutrition. We’re always happy to hear from individuals who are committed to their wellness, and we’d love to be your guide on this new journey.