These days, so many people are feeling stressed, depressed, and anxious. If you’re one of them and you’re looking for natural ways to feel better, look no further than your fridge. The foods you put in your body can have a powerful impact on your moods and mental well-being.
I recently interviewed Dr. Uma Naidoo, a psychiatrist and professional chef who is the author of This Is Your Brain On Food: An Indispensible Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More. I feel like she’s a kindred spirit in the effort to get people to use food as medicine to enhance the brain and mind.
Here are 7 nutritional strategies we spoke about that you can use to feel better, even in the worst situation.
1. Feed your gut for fast change. The gut-brain connection is a bi-directional superhighway that influences how you feel. Approximately 95% of your receptors for the happiness neurotransmitter serotonin are found in the gut. This means that what you eat on any given day will impact how you feel emotionally. “People don’t realize this, but your gut bacteria can start to change in just 24 hours,” says Dr. Naidoo. If you want to boost your mood and calm stress and anxiety, eat prebiotic foods (such as asparagus, garlic, apples) and probiotic foods (such as kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut) that promote healthy gut bacteria.
2. Find the foods that work for YOU. Just as each of us has a one-of-a-kind personality, we all also have unique microbiomes with varying amounts of gut bacteria. This means that when it comes to eating plans, one size doesn’t fit all. What works for your spouse, your kids, or your BFF may not work for you. They may feel great eating a keto plan, while it makes you feel anxious and irritable. Or they may feel happier when eating more smart carbs, while that makes you feel spacey. From the many healthy foods and recipes on my website, find the ones you love and that love you back!
3. Avoid foods that fuel stress, anxiety, and depression. You may know that trans fats—found in some microwavable popcorn, fried fast foods, doughnuts, muffins, and more—are known for being harmful to physical health. But did you know that they can affect mental health and behavior too? According to Dr. Naidoo, “They are related to increases in depression and anger.” Other foods that are mood killers include sugar, gluten, processed foods, vegetable oils, fast foods, and preservatives like nitrates that are found in some meats.
4. If you have a sweet tooth, find natural alternatives. Artificial sweeteners are known to impact serotonin levels in the brain and can increase symptoms of depression. Like me, Dr. Naidoo is a proponent of alternatives like stevia and erythritol. They don’t impact insulin, and they aren’t fermented by the gut bacteria. If you feel like you need a dessert, there are healthy options, and you can find many dessert recipes on my website.
5. Eat foods that soothe stress and anxiety. There are many foods that can calm anxiousness, including fatty fish like salmon, plant-based foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (think walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds), and foods that are high in vitamin D (like sardines, mushrooms, and tuna). One of Dr. Naidoo’s top recommendations is turmeric, which contains curcumins, a compound that supports calmness and helps cope with mental strain. Turmeric is used to make curries and can be used in soups, stews, veggies, and many other dishes. “When cooking with turmeric, add a pinch of black pepper to help with absorption,” says Dr. Naidoo.
6. Stop thinking numbers, start thinking colors. Most people want to know how many grams of this or how much of that they should be eating. Dr. Naidoo suggests an easier way to get the foods you need for better mental well-being. “I tell my patients to add as many colors as possible to their meals,” she says. “On average, they end up eating 5-6 veggies a day.”
7. Start with one healthy habit. Personally, I’m a “jump the canyon” kind of person. When I start a new program, I’m all in. But I’ve realized that not everyone is like me. And Dr. Naidoo has found that many of her patients also need smaller steps. She says she’s found one rule that works: “If you can embrace just one habit, it will stick.” So, if you’re struggling, make start by making one small change to your eating habits that will help you feel better.