Let me ask you a question: Are you feeling down in the dumps lately? If you are, you’re not alone. This time of year can be hard on mental health. The excitement of the holidays are behind us and many of us are staring down the long, cold, sunlight-deprived winter months to come. Add the pandemic and social distancing to that, and this year more than any prior, it’s a recipe for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), anxiety, and depression. SAD is a type of seasonal depression that occurs during the darker winter season, for many due to lack of sunlight and a drop in vitamin D levels, otherwise known as the “winter blues.”
But here’s the good news: there are 3 gut-healing foods that not only support your body’s detoxing abilities, they can also support your mental health.
Anxiety, Depression, and The Gut
The statistics on anxiety and depression are hard to argue with. For example, did you know that in the last month alone, 44 Million Americans have taken an antidepressant ? It’s true. About one in 5 Americans live with a mental illness, and more than 20% of U.S. adults have struggled with anxiety this year , which comes out to about 64 million people. Anxiety is starting to affect young people more and more, with the number of college students with anxiety doubling in the last 10 years.
Those facts are pretty striking aren’t they? I think so.
If you’re wondering what’s causing all this anxiety and depression, the truth is that it’s a combination of genetic factors, our go-go-go professional and academic culture, severely lacking mental health support system, and of course, lifestyle factors that put us at risk for these mental health issues. Also on the list are gut health issues, which play a shockingly big role in anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that gut bacteria imbalances can be linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety. In fact, many essential brain chemicals are produced in the gut in greater quantities than the brain.
For example, more than 90% of serotonin — the neurotransmitter targeted by most antidepressants — is produced in the gut.
When there’s an imbalance in gut bacteria, it disrupts not only the production of important neurotransmitters but also the gut-brain axis, which communicates via the vagus nerve between the gut and the brain and vice versa. And yet, there’s still a lot we don’t know about exactly how the gut contributes to mental health issues, which is why a new study showing how anxiety and depression can be tied back to specific gut bacteria is such a big deal.
New Study On Depression, Anxiety, and Gut Bacteria
Published in the scientific journal JAMA Psychiatry , this new research found that people who are sad, depressed, or anxious, don’t have enough of two specific bacteria, called Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus , in their gut. So what’s so specific about these two types of bacteria? Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus are both healthy gut bacteria that have strong anti-inflammatory effects on the gut. When you’re lacking in these bacteria, chronic gut inflammation can develop. First, inflammation is in the gut, but inevitably it extends to the brain and the rest of the body, igniting mental health issues like anxiety and depression and even conditions like bipolar disorder and psychosis.
And that’s not all the study found, either. The results of the study also showed that people with mental illness had higher levels of a bacterium called Eggerthella — which sounds like a villain in a Disney movie to me! — in their gut as well. From what you’ve learned so far, it’ll come as no surprise that Eggerthella , our gut Disney villain, has pro-inflammatory effects, meaning it triggers inflammation in the gut and consequently in the brian.
People with such mental illnesses are more likely to have a gut characterized by a lack of anti-inflammatory bacteria and a higher number of pro-inflammatory bacteria.
Now that we know the truth about mental health and gut bacteria, the next question is: How the heck do you get more beneficial Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus and fewer pesky Eggerthella ? Well — SURPRISE! The answer lies in the foods on your plate.
The Best [+ the Worst] Foods for Gut & Seasonal Depression
If you want to rebalance the gut, heal inflammation, and optimize mental health, here are three foods to avoid and three foods to eat more of:
Top 3 Foods To Avoid for Seasonal Depression
And when I say sweeteners, I mean ALL SWEETENERS, including sugars that are often (and INCORRECTLY) referred to as “healthy,” like coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup. These can feed unhealthy gut bacteria, which are pro-inflammatory and end up crowding out beneficiary probiotic bacteria. I also mean artificial sweeteners, especially those that are known as gut-disruptors like Splenda and Aspartame. Instead of refined sugar or chemical alternatives, try out one of my favorite sugar substitutes — allulose — in your recipes. A 2010 study showed that allulose led to lower blood sugar levels after a meal and had beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity. Plus, you can replace sugar with it at a 1.5 to 1 ratio (allulose : sugar) in many recipes, which keeps things simple.
2. Wheat / Gluten
When it comes to inflammation in the gut and brain, gluten is one of the most common offenders. In people with Celiac disease, gluten causes a full-blown autoimmune reaction in the body. And it’s not self-limited to those with Celiac disease, either; you can also have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, which can also spike inflammation and lead to both gut and brain health issues. The good news is that there is an exciting range of gluten-free flours that can make gluten-free living convenient and healthy, but even more importantly — TASTY.
Struggling with seasonal depression is possibly the best reason to cut back on the cocktails, wine, and beer. Alcohol not only directly damages the gut and gut lining, it gets immediately converted to sugar and contributes to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. A healthy liver can often handle a small amount of alcohol, but for people who enjoy quite a few drinks regularly, the body’s detoxification system can become overloaded and inflammation can ensue. If you drink alcohol, keep in mind your limits: One drink a day for women and two a day for men. It’s important to know your pours, too! One drink is 1.25 ounces of whiskey or spirits, four ounces of wine, or a 12-ounce beer.
As you can see, the holidays create the perfect storm for anxiety and mood swings. If you deal with an unpredictable mood or high stress levels at this time of year, you’re not alone!
The good news is there are plenty of ways you can lower your anxiety over the holidays as well as seasonal depression.
How do you lower holiday anxiety?
Holiday anxiety can range from general discomfort to full blown panic attacks, requiring anti-anxiety medications. If you find yourself anywhere on the spectrum of holiday anxiety scale, it’s important to remember the gut-brain connection is your ally. Rather than wait for the anxiety to hit you, then react to it – which is basically too late – there are strategies that can help you pre-empt anxiety before it happens.
You can start with these five hacks. Trust me. They’ll help bring a little more peace and calm to your holiday season.
Top 3 Foods to Add for Better Mental Health
You knew I wouldn’t tell you to take out the bad stuff without adding some good stuff in for good measure! One of my favorite gut health superfoods is Kefir. You can find it made from cow’s milk (in this case, always opt for organic, grass-fed cows milk), or other sources like goat milk and dairy-free cashew or almond milk. Kefir is a fermented food, which means it’s chock full of the beneficial probiotic bacteria that fight inflammation and support good mental health. The benefits of fermented foods are practically endless, so Kefir is something I always like to keep in my routine.
Sauerkraut is one of the most underappreciated superfoods. Not only is it fermented and full of healthy bacteria, it’s also filled with fiber and antioxidants for a complete healthy snack. If you’re shopping for sauerkraut, shop local and get it at your local farmer’s market when possible, opting for raw, unpasteurized products. Or, you can try fermentation at home ! Sauerkraut is probably the best place to get started fermenting at home. All you’ll need is:
- A jar
- A rubber band
- A paper towel or clean dish towel
- Cabbage (you can use any kind but usually I like green cabbage)
Check out my friend — the Fermentationist — Summer Bock’s amazing FREE Video Workshop for Making Fermented Veggies At Home .
3. Dark leafy greens
Rebalancing the gut can seem complicated at first, but when in doubt remember the 3 Steps for Healing the Gut — WEED , SEED , and FEED . In order to heal the gut, you need to:
- Start by WEED ING — meaning TAKING OUT the bad stuff in the diet;
- Then SEED the gut with PROBIOTIC BACTERIA that help support a healthy gut ecosystem and in turn support the gut-brain axis;
- And finally, FEED your gut with pre- and probiotic-rich foods, like the ones we just talked about.