Making The Connection Between Diet and Depression

Pomegranates are high in vitamin c and contain antioxidants which can help prevent depression

Pomegranates are high in vitamin c and contain antioxidants which can help prevent depression

We all experience sadness every now and again, especially during certain times in our lives and in the face of extremely difficult circumstances. There are times when it’s completely appropriate to feel sad, and that sadness is something that we can’t expect to be cured through diet, it’s a normal part of the human experience. But when the sadness is persistent and seems to follow us around wherever we go, that is called depression.

Clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in our brain, which is a problem that can sometimes be solved through making better dietary choices. 

There are many studies demonstrating the relationship between higher fruit and vegetable consumption and a lower risk of depression. Generally the research shows that the more whole plant foods you eat, the lower your risk of depression.

There are a number of components through which which fruits and vegetables prevent depression. Lycopene, the red pigment predominantly found in tomatoes, but also present in watermelon, pink grapefruit, red cabbage, and carrots, is the most powerful antioxidant amongst the carotenoid family. If you measure the levels of carotenoid phytonutrients in nearly 2,000 people across the country, a higher total blood carotenoid level was associated with a lower likelihood of elevated depressive symptoms, and there appeared to be a dose-response relationship, meaning the higher the levels, the better people felt.

Polyphenols, found in fruit and vegetables fight oxidative stress and improve the functioning of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for regulating our moods. And vitamin C, found in high amounts in many fruits and vegetables, is actually a cofactor in the production of Dopamine

So with this direct effect on our neurochemistry, it should be no surprise that fruits and vegetables have the ability to lift our mood. Does this mean that the answer to depression is just to eat more fruits and vegetables? Well, not quite.

It turns out certain foods actually have the ability to make us more depressed. Arachidonic acid is a type of Omega 6 fatty acid found in animal-based foods with the highest amounts found in chicken, eggs, beef, sausage, and fish. The oxidation of Arachidonic acid creates pro-inflammatory compounds in our body. This inflammation in our brain adversely impacts our mental health.

In this study on women, higher levels of Arachidonic acid were associated with a 45% higher risk of suicide and 47% increase risk in major depressive episodes. 

When people are put on a plant based diet that limits Arachidonic acid, they experienced an improved mood after just 2 weeks. Plant based diets were also associated with 30% less markers for inflammation. So when choosing a diet that will have the greatest affect on our mood, it's not just about adding in more fruits and vegetables, but also removing the animal based foods that cause inflammation, as depression may actually be a physical disease which is exacerbated by proinflammatory compounds. 

Thank you to Mic. The Vegan and Dr. Michael Greger of for gathering and organizing so many of these studies on diet and depression and making them visible and accessible to more people. Watch Mike's recent video on the subject and also this video by Dr. Greger to learn more about how our diet affects our mood. 



Could Gut Bacteria Be Causing Your Anxiety?

Ever had a gut feeling? Or a sensation of butterflies in your stomach? Our gut and our brain may be more connected than than it might seem. 

Illustration by Gaby D'Allesandro

Illustration by Gaby D'Allesandro

The digestive system and the bacteria colonies that inhabit it, are known as our second brain. The good bacteria, called symbionts, are responsible for regulating immune function, aiding digestion and absorption, making vitamins, and reducing bloating. These good bacteria require fiber and are nourished by whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Pathobionts, which are the disease causing microbes, are fed by meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods/fast food. 

We can choose which bacteria we want to nourish and thrive, by eating the foods that the good bacteria like to eat, fiber-rich whole plant foods. Eat more fiber and these anti-inflammatory bacteria will thrive, eat less fiber and they will die off. 

Through research on laboratory mice, we have seen how gut bacteria can have a direct effect on mood and demeanor. They were able to reduce anxiety in stressed mice by feeding them the healthy microbes from fecal material collected from calm mice. They also fed the mice probiotics to encourage the continued growth of healthy bacteria, and over the next few weeks their stress levels continued to diminish (1).

The absence of these good gut bacteria has been linked not only to anxiety, but also eating disorders, PTSD, depression, obesity, autism, IBS, and many other chronic conditions. It might be that many mental and physical health conditions are due to unhealthy populations of gut bacteria, and can be corrected with proper diet. 

When I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD from childhood trauma, as well as anorexia, at the time my diet consisted of daily egg and cheese sandwiches, pringles, and nutter butter cookies. I had no interest in food, so I chose what was most convenient and foods I had always liked as a kid. For about four years I ate this way, and my mental and physical health began to deteriorate. I tried many medications to dull the symptoms, and while they were helpful in some ways, they didn't ever solve the problem. 

I did eventually find a depression medication that worked well for me, and while on it I started to care about my health and wellbeing again. This snapped me out of it just enough that I was able to develop a genuine interest in which foods were healthy and also the ethics of my food choices. I was ready to face the truth of the cruel and also unhealthy foods I was eating and went vegan overnight after watching a few documentaries. At first I still ate some processed vegan foods, but slowly I learned how to cook vegetables, beans, whole grains and other healthy plant foods and made these the main focus of my diet. 

I felt so much better immediately that I was able to go right off my medication, and I continued to feel more clarity and calmness while the anxiety and depression diminished. The apathy I felt around food, which was fueled by my depression and causing a lack of appetite, had completely disappeared and was replaced by a curiosity and enthusiasm to try new healthy recipes. 

If you suffer from any emotional imbalances or patterns of anxious thoughts, one of the first things you try should be a whole foods plant based diet. Gradually, make more of your meals based around unprocessed plant foods and save the junk for special occasions. You will feel a major shift in your wellbeing and ability to handle all of the ups and downs life throws at us. When our gut bacteria are happy and well fed, so are we. 


How to Stop a Panic Attack Immediately

A couple of years ago, I used to suffer from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. While living in New York City, simply stepping outside and walking along the crowded streets, was enough to send me into a full blown state of panic. I remember feeling like an elephant sat down on my chest, I wanted to run but my body felt frozen and unable to move, and then suddenly it would become very hard to breathe- this was always the scariest part.

What doesn't work:

So naturally, I went to see a psychiatrist, and he wanted to put me on heavy duty benzodiazepine medications. I took these medications, and he kept having to raise the dose as my tolerance increased and the panic attacks got worse and worse. The higher the dose of medication, the more I lost my sense of self. I would forget what I was saying mid-sentence and couldn't retain any information, I basically had the memory of a goldfish. This was not a sustainable way to manage my anxiety.

When I would go for my therapy appointments, the doctor would tell me I needed to sit very still and focus on taking deep breaths. Whenever I did this I felt the panic actually increase. How could I sit still with this fear coursing through my veins and while my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest? Sitting still and focusing on breathing always made it 10x worse. I began to feel like I must not be doing something right. I was following all of his instructions but was getting worse rather than better. I was losing all hope.

Why our bodies have this panic mechanism:

First, we have to understand what anxiety is and why we have this mechanism to panic in the first place. Doctor Doug Lisle of Esteem Dynamics explains all of this perfectly in this video, but I will try to sum up the basics here. If we look at what anxiety is, essentially it is a warning device to tell you to avoid something. To figure out why we have this mechanism, we must look back in time at our ancestral history.

About 100,000 years ago all human beings were in Africa, so a lot of what our bodies became adapted to are the problems that would have faced our african ancestors during this time. So you're walking through the tall grasses and all of a sudden you see a lion. Immediately, you're going to freeze, as not to catch the attention of the predator. This same behavior happens with panic attacks. The next thing that happens in this situation, is you start to sweat. This is meant to cool you down ahead of time so that you can be prepared to run without becoming overheated which would slow you down. Your breathing also becomes restricted, which is a mechanism designed to raise your blood pressure and allows the cardiovascular system to push blood away from your viscera and into your the muscles of your legs, preparing you to run for your life.

What does work:

Your body is trying to protect you and this fight or flight mode is it's best defense in times when you actually need to get to safety. Every single one of these uncomfortable symptoms are there to save your life. A panic attack isn't really an attack, it's an adaptation. So how can we work with this adaptation, rather than against it?

Sitting down and breathing deeply usually won't help, and cognitive therapy where you're told that it's not a big deal, that there's nothing to worry about, usually doesn't help either. What actually does work, is to let the system do what it wants to do. As a prey species, the only thing that will break the freeze to move through the process as it would have naturally occurred. When you have a panic attack, you can stop it in its tracks by getting up out of your chair and running in place. What you'll find is after roughly 15 minutes of jogging in place you'll be tired and out of breath and you'll feel like sitting down. Your breathing will now be deeper, and your brain will see that and decide you must've outrun the predator. It will then start dialing down the adrenaline, and your state will return to normal.

Alternatively, if you're in a public place or seated and you can't just start jogging in place, you can exhaust your leg muscles by crossing your legs and pushing them together for 30 seconds or so repeatedly or until your muscles feel tired. Once your muscles have been exhausted your brain will stop sending out the panic signal and your body will calm down automatically.

I've found this practice to be more helpful than anything I've ever tried because it allows me to move through the anxiety and work with it, rather than suppress it and fight against it. While I rarely experience panic attacks now that my body has fully adjusted to being off medication for a few years, when I do feel anxious it's a lot less scary now knowing that I have this method to help me through it if I need it.

Now you have the tools to short-circuit the attack. Try it out yourself the next time you experience anxiety or a panic attack and see if it could help you too!