Battling Mental Illness With Food

Average Jane
Average Jane

I think it is important to acknowledge that depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and all mental health illnesses for that matter come in many different shades and severities. Every person is different and although the same umbrella terms are used, it’s important to understand that difference. Whether you are on medication, supplements, a specific diet, or struggling in silence – it’s all extraordinarily difficult. The things listed below have helped me in my journey, and I extend this information to you all in hopes that it can help someone else.

I have spent the last few years battling with depression and anxiety. It has been a long journey, and every day I strive to make a conscious effort to make positive choices and put my best foot forward. Through all of this I have tried various lifestyle changes to facilitate better mood and lower stress levels. Some of them have worked for me, and some of them haven’t. More than anything I have learned that every human being is so different that there is no cure all. Because mental illness is chemical in nature, creating positive chemical reactions and changes in your body with food is an extraordinarily helpful tool that is often overlooked. Although for some people it is necessary, medication is not the only choice when trying to create a physical change in your body.

To start, I want to touch on serotonin production and the gut. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is associated with mood regulation, sleep, and appetite. The enteric nervous system, which consists of over 100 million neurons that govern the function of the gastrointestinal system is now being referred to by many as, “the second brain,” due to it’s production of the mood-altering neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, amongst other things. Your gut produces and stores between 90% and 95% of your body’s serotonin, as well as about 50% of your body’s dopamine. Scientist are leaning towards the idea that our emotional states are influenced by the nerves found in our gut.

So what does this all mean? In short, it means that what you put in your body is incredibly important, and not only for your physical health. The food that you are eating is your physical AND emotional fuel that helps you to get through the day. Obviously, it’s difficult to eat healthy – people aren’t perfect and we are surrounded by temptation. That being said, there are foods you can add into your diet to help stabilize your mood and increase serotonin and foods that you should avoid like the plague. I have found that when my gut is healthy, my mood is significantly more stable and I think it’s something to seriously consider when evaluating lifestyle changes to overcome and maintain anxiety/depression/mood disorders. I think that the most important thing to consider when eliminating and adding different foods to your diet is to keep in mind the role food plays in your mood, how it can affect your body, and to acknowledge the chemical changes that come with consuming it.

So, let’s start with the hard part – cutting foods out. This can be extremely difficult for certain people, especially if it is a food that has been a part of your diet for the majority of your life. Some people eliminate foods cold turkey; some people just avoid these kinds of foods when possible. Here are some of the guiltiest culprits when it comes to food related mood swings:


Consuming large amounts of sugar can send your mood into a tailspin. If you’re sensitive to mood changes too much of it will send you soaring up to your highest of highs and immediately crashing down into your lowest of lows. One of the best things you can do for your emotional state is to cut sugar out as much as possible. When your sweet craving hits, opt for fruit or dark chocolate with a low sugar content.

White Flour

Many people with mood disorders are sensitive to gluten, and more specifically white flour. It can be detrimental to your mood. Because of its empty calories and high blood glucose content, even eating a small amount can produce mood swings as well as hunger pains. Avoid eating white flour as much as possible. Opt for cooking and baking with whole wheat or gluten-free flours. My favorites are spelt flour and almond meal.

Artificial Sweeteners

Aspartame is a chemical that has been shown to cause headaches, digestive issues, mood swings, and even seizures. It is found in most “sugar-free” foods and has absolutely no nutritional value. Opt for Truvia, Stevia, or some other natural low/no-calorie sweetener.

Others Worth Noting

Alcohol, soda of any kind, coffee, energy drinks, processed, and packaged foods.

Adding foods into your diet can be a little bit easier of a feat. There are many foods that can contribute to a better mood and overall better health.

Here are some of my favorites:


Protein can help to keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. The best way to start your morning is with protein. I try to have smoked salmon, eggs, or nuts with my breakfast, but there are a lot of different options. Adding a little bit of protein to every meal can help to keep your mood stable and your energy level consistent all day long. Try and stick with lean proteins as opposed to fattier proteins like red meat and pork.

Fermented foods

A healthy gut is a good indicator of a healthy mind. With your gut producing significantly more serotonin than your brain, it’s important to take care of it and give it what it needs. Fermented foods are filled with good bacteria and microorganisms that help to balance your intestinal flora. These foods can also help to draw out toxins and heavy metals, so they’re all around a good thing to add to your diet. My favorite fermented foods are sauerkraut and kombucha, both of which are really easy and inexpensive to make at home! If you’re not a fan of fermented foods, try adding a probiotic to your diet.


This has been a really popular topic over the last few years when talking about depression. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression. Fish is a great way to get more omega-3’s in your diet, although it is best to stick to wild caught and not farmed fish. Another great way is supplements. Make sure they’re screened for mercury and other hazardous chemicals. My favorite brand is Nordic Naturals – reasonably priced and well screened.

Spirulina and Chlorella

Spirulina and chlorella are microscopic plants called micro-algae. They grow in fresh water and have been found to contain a vast array of pretty amazing nutritional properties: vitamins, macro minerals, trace minerals, essential fatty acids, protein, and chlorophyll just to name a few. Being so nutrient dense, these plants can help to boost you mood and your energy, as well as aid in the detoxification of your body. These two plants are some of my favorite “super foods.” I buy them in powder form because it is cheaper and put them in smoothies or juices. You can also buy them for a bit more in capsules and pressed tablets at most health food stores.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is found to have high levels of medium chain triglycerides (MCT). MCTs are easily processed by the body, and are a great source of quick energy. The energy boost that comes with coconut oil consumption is similar to that of carbohydrate consumption, only with MCTs there is no insulin surge and therefore no crash later. I try to have coconut oil in the morning because it helps to get my metabolism going and works just as well as a cup of coffee for me. I buy my coconut oil from Costco. They carry a brand called Nutiva – not only is it organic but you can get it in bulk so it’s affordable.

Others Worth Noting

Cacao powder, maca powder, bee pollen, grass-fed butter, chia seeds, and ghee.

Food is only one of the many tools that can be used to combat depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. It is best to try and fight the complex battle of mental illness with as many weapons as possible, and changing your diet with your mental health in mind can be an amazing place to start. Whether you’re trying to climb out of a rut, maintaining your illness with medication, or just dealing with slight mood swings throughout your day – I encourage you to learn more about the food you can put in your body and how it can contribute to helping and hurting your journey towards happiness. Everyone deserves to live a fulfilling life, and everyone has the right to happiness. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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