I took the first shot almost as a dare. The breakfast buffet at our hotel in Iceland was filled with rare delights — smoked fish, homemade bread, the most famous butter — and there at the front of the line, a large bottle of cod liver oil and a row of neatly lined up. shot glass. Assuming a casual “when in Reykjavik” attitude, I was pulled back by one. 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 was, I believed that consuming an ounce of something that smelled like cat food every day somehow made me happy.
We know that what we eat affects our bodies, but the connection between food and the mind is often overlooked. And as a sleep-deprived, anxiety-prone person facing the darkest, bleakest time of the year, I thought it was worth trying to nurse my way into a better attitude. The evidence is encouraging. “Research has shown that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce rates of depression,” says registered dietician Alyssa Pacheco. Pacheco says “Salmon, sardines, herring, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts are some good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.” And cod liver oil, an old staple of Scandinavian culture that deserves a revival here.
What about omega-3’s? Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow are fans, but their apparent anti-inflammatory, serotonin boosting properties are still debated. A 2020 study from England concluded that “Omega-3 intake does not prevent depression or anxiety,” but a 2018 JAMA review found that fatty acids may help alleviate existing that symptom.
Other foods seem to affect mood in different ways.
“Research shows that probiotics can have a small but significant effect on improving rates of depression,” Pacheco said. “There’s exciting and emerging research coming out in recent years that shows how important a healthy gut microbiome is. Ideally, we’d like to 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 beneficial gut bacteria.”
And while healthy classics like fish and yogurt are … all right, 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 Daidone, Medical Director at True Self Recovery. “It also contains phenylethylamine, which can act as a mood elevator.”
Just as food can lift spirits, it appears it can also bring them down. The relatively new field of nutritional psychiatry is opening up exploration of the ways in which diet and nutrition play a role in mental health. That connection can be particularly keen during comfort food season. As my colleague Michael La Corte recently reported, research in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients found that subjects who ate a high-fat, high-carb croissant in the morning had “significant differences in how they recovered their bodies from stress” in a control group. The study’s authors recommend “biting into fruits and vegetables instead,” an admittedly tall order on days when I want to climb inside a tray of eggplant parm.
“During the colder months, people often crave carbohydrates and may overindulge in comfort foods,” says Dr. Daidon. “While this may provide temporary relief, it can lead to a cycle of mood swings as blood sugar levels rise and fall. A balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can help keep your mood strong.” 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’s not just what you eat, but how often and how important it is. As a certifiably hangry type, I know that my outlook on life becomes bleaker when my blood sugar drops. Eating regular meals with adequate portions — and keeping a granola bar or two in my bag for emergencies — keeps me on a firmer footing for whatever the day brings. .
My daily spoonful of omega-3 rich cod liver oil, with the added mood elevating oomph of 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 no longer have to guess my way through the confusing barrage of pills in my local vitamin aisle.
Alyssa Pacheco says, “While supplements can help, food is always the best option for getting healthy sources of fat in your diet. Food sources of omega 3 fatty acids will also contain of other beneficial nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.” Similarly, he says, “Although probiotic supplements show promise for being part of a treatment strategy for depression, it’s also a good idea to optimize your gut health through foods too.”
I like to say that I just threw some chia seeds into my problems and all my depression and anxiety magically melted away. Hahahahaha no. But adding more probiotics and omega-3s to my diet and limiting my caffeine and alcohol intake — along with exercising, getting out in nature, prioritizing my sleep and connecting with friends — has really made a difference in just a few weeks. I still like French fries and red wine, always have, but I can’t ignore the subtle changes in my mental health lately. Just like the Tin Man, I just need a little oil to loosen myself up.
about nutrition and the connection to mental health
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