They say we are what we eat—and there is a significant body of research available now that shows how closely the mind and gut are connected and how the two can influence each other. But what are the foods that can calm our frayed nerves or help relieve the symptoms of depression, chronic stress, and anxiety? Does nutrition really play a role in taking care of our mental health?
Ayurvedic Understanding of Life
According to the principles of Ayurveda, all manifest life forms are made up of the five elements—air, ether, fire, earth, and water—that combine to give us a unique physical and mental constitution based on three bio energies. These energies, or doshas, are vata (primarily air element), pitta (fire element), and kapha(earth element). Ideally, they should be balanced for us to lead healthy, happy, and disease-free lives. But influences such as the environment, lifestyle habits, diet, and genetics, almost guarantee that one or more of our doshas that are out of balance. When the doshas are impaired for too long, they can manifest as illnesses in the body. Ayurveda aims to bring about and maintain balance in the three doshas holistically through a combination of modalities including panchakarma treatments, diet, herbs, yoga, and suggested lifestyle changes.
The Doshas and Depression
Imbalances in two or more of the doshas can lead to mental illnesses that Ayurvedic texts describe as ‘Unmada.’ Many of the modern clinical symptoms of depression find a mention in these ancient texts, as well as in indication of illnesses. Signs of Unmada are lack of clarity, fickle mind, unsteady vision, incoherence in speech, a sense of emptiness in the heart region, emotional numbness, an inability to conduct oneself properly, loss of memory, and a wavering mind. Ayurveda classifies depression and its symptoms based on the three dosha types and the treatments will differ based on the type of dosha imbalance that has caused depression.
Triggers for vata type of depression can be emotional losses—loss of a family member or friend, or a job loss. Weakness, feeling emptiness in the heart region, and loss of appetite are symptoms of depression linked to vata dosha.
This type is indicated by continued attachment to the lost person or object, sluggishness, poor appetite, self-induced isolation, and excessive sleep.
Pitta depression typically occurs after some sort of perceived failure in life or burn-out and is indicated by irritability, anguish, and loss of will, among others.
The Gut and Depression Connection
Mental state, anxiety, and depression affect digestive health, and new research indicates that the opposite is also true, emphasizing the role of a leaky gut, the gut microbiota, and dysfunction of the gut-brain axis on depression symptoms. Balance the gut microbiota, balance the mind—experts even suggest that gut bacteria can actually communicate with the brain.
Stress and depression can affect the function (contraction and movement) of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and cause inflammation and infections. Research also suggests that stress can have significantly harmful effects on patients of GI disorders because they are more sensitive or responsive to pain signals from the gut sent to the brain.
Inflammation in the stomach can reflect as depressive symptoms in some people. These symptoms can be made worse in patients with leaky gut—toxins produced from bacteria on the digestive walls move into the bloodstream. A 2017 study showed that people who received nutritional counseling and moved to healthy diet for 12 weeks, showed improvement in their mild-to-severe depression symptoms.
Calming Foods to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Vata and pitta doshas govern mental and related physical functions, so it makes sense that bringing these into balance and a state of calm would reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. These doshas also have a say in body’s autonomic balance. Autonomic balance is said to be ideal when the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the rest and relaxation function in the body, is active for a prolonged period of time. Stress is a result of an overactive or overworked sympathetic nervous system.
What to Eat
Eat meals that contain fresh ingredients that are free from processed foods, refined sugars, stimulants, or chemicals. Your diet should be wholesome, nourishing, and grounding. Incorporating the following into your diet can help maintain dosha balance.
- Include fruits like berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and amla), oranges, and bananas in the diet. They reduce pitta and are rich in antioxidants. Berries also reduce cortisol production—a stress hormone.
- Coconut water calms and nourishes the body, is rich in potassium, and fights muscular stress.
- Milk is incredibly soothing for the nervous system apart from being a powerhouse of nutrients that the body needs to have a stronger mind-body complex.
- Nuts reduce mental stress. A source of good fats, nuts are rich in linoleic acid, magnesium, and antioxidants that help the body and mind counter stress by containing the cortisol levels. One method to have nuts is, having soaked almonds every morning. Or, have raw almonds before meals to help you absorb nutrients better.
- Dark chocolate can also help you reduce stress as it releases feel-good hormones in the body. Naturally occurring sweet foods reduce pitta and vata.
- Incorporate calming spices and herbs like ginger, cardamom, basil, Brahmi, Ashwagandha, chamomile, and mint into your diet.
- Intake of ghee or clarified butter in food to increase ojas—the ultimate energy reserve of the body and mind. (Depression is caused by reduced ojas.)
Vitamins are needed for synthesis of serotonin, a hormone responsible for moods and happiness. Studies show that vitamin D helps reduce symptoms of depression. Important sources of vitamin D are sun and dietary sources like fortified dairy products.
Intake of selenium is linked to improved mood and reduction in anxiety. Selenium can be found in whole grains and Brazilian nuts.
Omega 3 fatty acids can potentially help heal depressive disorders due to their anti-inflammatory properties and ability to easily travel directly to mood-related molecules in the brain. These can be found in fish, fish oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts.
Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E are needed in the body to fight oxidative stress—the imbalance between the rogue free radicals and antioxidants present in the body that fight to keep them from causing cell damage. Free radical build-up can lead to health problems including anxiety and depression, an intake of antioxidants may help manage or reduce those problems. Sources of antioxidants include berries, soy, fresh fruits, avocado, leeks, onions, garlic, eggplant, grapes, pumpkins, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach, parsley, milk, and nuts.
B vitamins, especially B12 and B9 are needed to protect the nervous system and brain health. They also reduce the risk of mood disorders. Some foods you can find these in are salmon, leafy greens, eggs, milk, legumes, yogurt, and sunflower seeds.
Foods to Avoid
- Refined sugar, or too much sugar can lead to a decrease of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is responsible for depression and anxiety.
- Alcohol can lead to dependency and withdrawal symptoms apart from aggravating depression symptoms.
- Processed foods are high in sugar, carbohydrates, and low in vitamins and minerals.
- Trans fats, red meat and corn oil
- Daily caffeine intake should be limited and reduced after noon in depression patients.
And finally, eat mindfully—with full awareness and without distractions. Be sure to give the body mindful rest after eating and consider incorporating the practices of yoga, meditation, and pranayama (deep breathing) every day.