Anxiety and Depression: Can Diet Help?
In November 1944, Dr. Ancel Keys and Dr. Josef Brozek, faculty at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study on the effects of starvation, known as the Minnesota Starvation Study (Baker & Keramidas, 2013). Through this study, it was observed that a lack of nutrients can lead to intense physical and psychological changes such as decreased strength and stamina, as well as increased fatigue, irritability, depression, and overall disinterest (Baker & Keramidas, 2013). This was the first study of its kind to demonstrate the connection between nutrition and mental health.
Seventy-five years later, it is estimated that 20% of the general population has experienced a mental health disorder within the last 12 months, and 29% of the population will experience anxiety and/or depression in their lifetime (Steel, Marnane, & Iranpour, 2014). The common symptoms of anxiety and depression are similar to the psychological changes described by the subjects in the Minnesota Starvation Study ( Kanter, Busch, & Weeks, 2008; Newman, Llera, & Erickson, 2013). Depression is often characterized by: fatigue, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, irritability, trouble sleeping, loss in appetite, and feelings of hopelessness (Kanteret al., 2008). Likewise, anxiety is characterized by: irritability, feelings of being out control, fatigue, weakness, excessive worrying, and trouble sleeping (Newman et al., 2013).
With less than half of individuals affected by mental health issues receiving professional treatment, self-care and diet are becoming increasingly important as potential prevention methods (Opie et al., 2017). Although there is evidence to suggest relationships between some specific nutrients and mental health symptoms, not all of these relationships are well understood. As a result, many require further research before being implemented into practitioner recommendations.
How Anxiety and Depression Impact Diet
In order to understand how nutrition can impact mental health, it’s important to address how mental health impact nutrition. Anxiety and depression can decrease appetite, resulting in a lower intake of essential nutrients that the body needs (Kanteret al., 2008; Newman et al., 2013). Studies also reveal that individuals experiencing anxiety and depression may need increased amounts of certain nutrients to counteract the chronic stress their bodies are experiencing (Baranyi, 2016; Bloch & Hannestad, 2012; Du et al, 2016; Fedoceet al, 2018; Shafieeet al, 2018). Assessing nutrient intake and changing dietary patterns may be an appropriate supplement to pharmacological and behavioral therapies (Opie et al., 2017). Key neurotransmitter relationships (e.g., dopamine, norepinephrine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin) also impact mental health status. As a result, imbalances of these neurotransmitters can contribute to mental health disorders (Nutt, 2008; Zarrindast, & Khakpai, 2015). Individuals experiencing anxiety and depression may feel a decrease in symptoms when increasing consumption of the nutrients listed in the table below:
Nutrition can have an impact on symptoms of depression and anxiety for some people, just as symptoms of depression and anxiety can have an impact on nutrition. Although scientific findings for some of these nutrients are mixed, overall evidence indicates that a general balanced diet can decrease the symptoms of both anxiety and depression. The nutrients with most success in scientific trials are: antioxidants, protein, and vitamin B-6. Those with less consistent results include: omega-3s, folic acid, and vitamin B-12. Seeing as all of these nutrients are part of a healthful diet, proper nutrition can be an option to supplement other treatment methods for individuals with anxiety and depression.
*Please consult with your physician prior to making any changes to medications. It may also be helpful to discuss specific supplements and dietary changes with an expert in nutrition (e.g., registered dietitian) to help make positive changes to your diet that will last and help you feel healthier.
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- Zarrindast, M. R., & Khakpai, F. (2015). The Modulatory Role of Dopamine in Anxiety-like Behavior. Archives of Iranian Medicine (AIM), 18(9).
Megan Jensen,Dietetics Student