I took the first shot almost on a dare. The breakfast buffet at our hotel in Iceland was full of extraordinary delicacies – smoked fish, homemade bread, the finest butter – and right at the front of the line, a big bottle of cod liver oil and a line neatly lined up. Shot glasses. Assuming a relaxed “when in Reykjavik” attitude, I knocked one out. The taste was just as unpleasant as I thought it would be – and I’ve been drinking it every morning since. As strange as it sounds, I’ve come to believe that eating a little bit of something that tastes like cat food every day makes me happier.
We know that what we eat affects our bodies, but the connection between food and the mind is often overlooked. And since I was already a sleepy, anxiety-prone person facing the darkest and dreariest season of the year, I thought it was worth trying to feed my way to a better attitude. The evidence is encouraging. “Studies have shown that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce depression,” says registered dietitian Alyssa Pacheco. Pacheco states that “salmon, sardines, herring, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.” And cod liver oil, an old-fashioned staple of Scandinavian culture that deserves a renaissance here.
What is omega-3 all about? Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow are fans, but their apparent anti-inflammatory, serotonin-boosting properties are still debated. 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 acids may help alleviate existing symptoms.
Other foods seem to affect mood in different ways.
“Studies show that probiotics can have a small but significant effect on improving depression,” says Pacheco. “Exciting and emerging research has come out in recent years showing how important a healthy gut microbiome is. Ideally, we want to aim for a diverse gut microbiome – or a variety of beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract. Fermented foods such as Greek yogurt, kefir , kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh can also provide the body with these beneficial gut bacteria.”
And while healthy classics like fish and yogurt are… fine, I love that my favorite indulgence is also a mood lifter. “Dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure,” says Paul Daidone, medical director of True Self Recovery. “It also contains phenylethylamine, which can act as a mood enhancer.”
Just as food can lift moods, it also seems to lower them. The relatively new field of nutritional psychiatry is opening up research into the ways in which diet and nutrition affect mental health. This connection can be especially keen during the comfort food season. As my colleague Michael La Corte reported recently, a study in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients found that subjects who ate high-fat, high-carb morning croissants had “a significant difference in how their bodies recover from stress” compared to a control group. The study authors instead recommended “snacking on fruits and vegetables,” albeit a tall order on days when I feel good about climbing into a tray of eggplant parm.
“During the colder months, people often crave carbohydrates and may overeat in restaurants,” notes Dr. Daidone. “While this may provide temporary relief, it can lead to mood swings as blood sugar levels rise and fall. A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains can help keep your mood stable.” He also recommends filling up on complex carbohydrates. “Foods like pumpkin seeds, apples, chickpeas,
strawberries and oatmeal are complex carbohydrates that can increase the production of serotonin, often called the feel-good hormone.”
But it also doesn’t matter what you eat, but how often and how much. As a proven hungry guy, I know that my outlook on life turns darker when my blood sugar drops. Eating regular meals with adequate portions – and keeping a granola bar in my bag for emergencies – keeps me on a firmer footing for the rest of the day.
A daily spoonful of omega-3-rich cod liver oil with added mood-boosting vitamins A and D is definitely an acquired taste. But the body seems to absorb nutrients better this way than in capsule form, and I don’t have to guess my way through the confusing barrage of pills in the local vitamin aisle.
Alyssa Pacheco says, “While supplements can be helpful, food is always the best source of healthy fats in your diet. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids also contain other beneficial nutrients, such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.” Similarly, she says, “Although probiotic supplements promise to be part of the treatment of depression, it is also a good idea to optimize gut health with the help of food.”
I wish I could say that now I just throw a few chia seeds at my problems and all my depression and anxiety have magically melted away. Hahahahaha no. But adding probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids to my diet and limiting my caffeine and alcohol consumption—along with exercising, getting in nature, prioritizing sleep, and catching up with friends—have really made a difference in just a few weeks. . I still like french fries and red wine, I always will, but I can’t ignore the subtle changes in my mental health lately. Just like the Tin Man, it turns out I just needed a little oil to loosen up.
about the connection between nutrition and mental health
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