I took the first shot almost as a dare. The breakfast buffet at our hotel in Iceland was filled with extraordinary dishes – smoked fish, homemade bread, the most excellent butter – and right at the front of the line, a huge bottle of cod liver oil and a row of shot glasses lined up neatly. Adopting a casual “when in Reykjavik” attitude, I knocked on the back once. The taste was exactly as unpleasant as I thought it would be – and I’ve been drinking it every morning ever since. As strange as it sounds, I’ve come to believe that eating an ounce of something that tastes like cat food every day somehow makes me happy.
We know that what we eat affects our bodies, but the connection between food and the brain is often overlooked. And as an already sleep-deprived, anxiety attack-prone person facing the darkest, most depressing season of the year, I thought it only fair to try to nurture my way to a better outlook. The evidence is encouraging. “Research has shown that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce depression rates,” says registered dietitian Alyssa Pacheco. “Salmon, sardines, herring, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts are some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Pacheco. and cod liver oil, an age-old staple of Scandinavian culture that deserves a renaissance here.
What about Omega-3? Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow are fans, but their apparent anti-inflammatory, serotonin-boosting properties are still up for debate. A 2020 study in England concluded that “omega-3 intake does not prevent depression or anxiety,” but a 2018 JAMA review found that the fatty acid may be helpful in reducing existing symptoms.
Other foods appear to affect mood in different ways.
“Research shows that probiotics may have a small but significant effect on improving depression rates,” says Pacheco. “Exciting and emerging research that has emerged in recent years shows how important a healthy gut microbiome is. Ideally, we should strive to have a diverse gut microbiome – or a variety of different, beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract. Fermented foods such as Greek yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh can also provide your body with these beneficial gut bacteria.”
And while there are healthy classics like fish and yogurt… Good, I love that my favorite indulgence is also a mood booster. “Dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure,” says Paul Dedon, MD, medical director of True Self Recovery. “It also contains phenylethylamine, which may act as a mood elevator.”
Just as food can lift spirits, it seems it can also bring them down. The relatively new field of nutritional psychiatry is exploring the ways in which diet and nutrition play a role in mental health. This connection can be especially deep during the season of casual dining. As my colleague Michael La Corte recently reported, research in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients found that people who ate a high-fat, high-carbohydrate croissant in the morning had “less stress” than a control group. There was a significant difference in how to recover. The study authors recommended “munching on fruits and vegetables instead,” an admittedly tall order for days when I feel like climbing inside a tray of eggplant Parm.
“During the colder months, people often crave carbohydrates and may overeat comfort foods,” says Dr. Dadone. “Although this may provide temporary relief, it can lead to a cycle of mood changes due to rising and falling blood sugar levels. A balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat proteins and whole grains can help stabilize your mood.” He also recommends filling up on complex carbs. “Foods like pumpkin seeds, apples, chickpeas,
Strawberries, and oatmeal are complex carbs that can increase the production of serotonin, often referred to as the feel-good hormone.”
But it is not just what you eat that matters, but also how often and how much you eat. As a certified hungry person, I know that when my blood sugar drops my outlook on life becomes bleak. Eating plenty of regular meals — and keeping a granola bar or two in my bag for emergencies — gives me a much stronger foundation for whatever the day brings.
My daily spoonful of omega-3-rich cod liver oil, which has the added mood-boosting oomph of vitamins A and D, is definitely an acquired taste. But the body seems to absorb the nutrients better this way than in capsule form, and I don’t have to find my way through a confusing barrage of pills in my local vitamin aisle.
Alyssa Pacheco says, “Although supplements can be helpful, food is always the best option for including healthy fat sources in your diet. Food sources of omega 3 fatty acids also contain other beneficial nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. ” Similarly, she says, “Although probiotic supplements hold promise as part of a depression treatment approach, it’s also a good idea to optimize your gut health through foods.”
I wish I could say that now I just throw some chia seeds on my problems and all my depression and anxiety magically goes away. Hahahaha no. But adding more probiotics and omega-3s to my diet and limiting my caffeine and alcohol consumption — as well as working out, getting out in nature, prioritizing my sleep, and reaching out to friends — really helped in just a few weeks. There has been a difference. I still love French fries and red wine, I always will, but I can’t ignore the subtle changes in my mental health lately. Like the Tin Man, it turns out I just needed a little oil to loosen myself up.
About the relationship between nutrition and mental health
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