Eat Well to Feel Well
Thanksgiving Fare That Boosts Mental Health
by Christy Ratliff
Across America, people of all ages are struggling with mental health issues. Nearly one in five people is living with a mental health condition, and the number of people seeking help for anxiety and depression is skyrocketing, reports Mental Health America. According to the organization’s 2021 State of Mental Health in America Report, suicidal thoughts are increasing among both adults and children, and 9.7 percent of youth is experiencing severe major depression compared to 9.2 percent last year. The highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant has only exacerbated these mental health challenges.
The hope and help we seek may be as close as our own kitchen. Accumulating research shows that a diet rich in highly processed foods may increase the risk of developing or worsening various mental health conditions. But a nutrient-based diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables; omega-3 fatty acids; nuts, seeds and legumes; whole grains, fresh herbs and spices; fish and olive oil, may help to support and enhance mental health. We can start this Thanksgiving by serving up healthier, nutrient-rich options to alleviate anxiety and depression, stabilize mood and promote mental health and wellness.
“The gut/brain connection helps us understand the food/mood connection,” explains Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist and author of the national bestseller This is Your Brain on Food. “The enteric nervous system—that is, the nerves supplying the gastrointestinal tract—totals over 100 million neurons and communicates directly with the brain, or central nervous system, by way of the vagus nerve, which is responsible for our ‘rest-and-digest’ response.
“It’s also vital to note that the gut contains the highest number of serotonin receptors, and the gut itself produces all the neurotransmitters that are also made in the brain, including serotonin, often called the happiness hormone. In turn, these neurotransmitters are implicated in sound mental health or potential problems when they are deficient.”
“What we eat affects mental health in many ways,” adds Amy Spindel, a functional holistic nutritionist in Plano, Texas, and founder of FoodWithThoughtNutrition.com. “Nutrient deficiencies can cause poor neurotransmitter production. Insufficient vitamin B6, folate and vitamin B12 can be implicated in depression and anxiety symptoms, as they are all needed for various stages of neurotransmitter production, especially serotonin, dopamine and GABA.”
“Traditional sugary, high-carbohydrate foods promote unstable blood sugar and selectively feed inflammatory gut microbes,” Spindel says, suggesting that we skip the typical foods many of us associate with the holidays such as pecan pie, marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole and canned cranberry sauce. “Blood sugar fluctuations cause the body to scramble in an attempt to re-regulate glucose, which may mean spikes of cortisol or adrenaline, as well as insulin. The end result can be depression and anxiety from excessive stress hormones and a glucose-starved brain.”
But making such changes, particularly during the holidays, isn’t easy. “If the thought of changing up the traditional Thanksgiving menu gives you pause, you are not alone—and this is why I believe in adding in habits (and in this case, dishes) which have a positive ripple effect on our bodies and our brain, allowing for a self-sustaining cycle in our lifestyle,” advises Naidoo.
“As a nutritional psychiatrist, I feel that we are more emotionally nurtured by a feeling of abundance in ‘adding’ new Thanksgiving dishes than thinking about this as ‘excluding’ foods,” she notes. “For example, tossing a fresh, folate-rich spinach and arugula salad with bits of antioxidant-rich strawberries, crisp roasted chickpeas and omega-3-rich olive oil adds color, flavor and a plethora of mood-nourishing ingredients to the dinner table. Even adding extra veggies to existing dishes, such as allicin-rich garlic to green beans or extra celery and fresh herbs to stuffing, adds in powerful phytonutrients with gut-loving fiber.”
“Thanksgiving favorites that are ample in neurotransmitter-producing nutrients include turkey, shellfish, sweet potatoes and acorn squash, asparagus, leafy greens, oranges and green beans,” Spindel adds.
While it’s true that we cannot control a global pandemic or solve the mental health crisis in America with positive thinking alone, we can minimize our feelings of powerlessness and despair by making small but significant dietary changes—not just on Thanksgiving, but every day of the year.
Christy Ratliff is a professional health and wellness writer based in Central Florida.
Feel-Good Recipe Ingredients
Some study-proven foods to enhance mood found in the following recipes include:
- Pistachios. These tree nuts, which are actually seeds, are rich in healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. According to a Pennsylvania State University study, eating pistachios may reduce the body’s response to daily stress.
- Honey. A National Institutes of Health study shows that the nutrients in raw honey may enhance mood and help with insomnia. It’s also rich in antioxidants, which contain anti-inflammatory properties that help protect the brain.
- Fresh herbs. Sage provides natural anti-anxiety properties, while thyme and rosemary are rich sources of micronutrients and flavonoids, shown to protect against inflammation in the brain, a key factor in major depressive disorder.
- Apples. Nutrient-rich apples are a good source of quercetin, a plant flavonoid, which studies suggest may be beneficial for mental health.
- Green beans. An excellent source of vitamin A, green beans help fight inflammation and support the nervous and immune systems. They are high in folic acid, a B vitamin that studies have shown to potentially lower the risk of depression.
- Tomatoes. Several studies show that regular consumption of tomatoes may help ward off depression.
- Olive oil. Multiple studies show that low levels of olive oil, in conjunction with a Mediterranean-style diet, has a positive impact on mental health and brain function.
- Cornmeal. Naturally gluten-free, cornmeal is an excellent source of folate, an important B vitamin. Research from the National Institutes of Health suggests that those with low levels of folate are more likely to experience depression.
- Raisins. A great source of vitamin B, raisins can help the brain produce serotonin, an important neurotransmitter for reducing many anxiety-related symptoms.