Food, Herbs, Nutrients, Lifestyle and Depression

November 13th, 2020 | Posted in Info

Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, with more than 264 million people affected. On average, depression first appears during the late teens to mid-20s as result of a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological factors (1). This year the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased levels of psychological distress in the general public, including symptoms of anxiety and depression. Such distress is associated with alterations in immune function, including an elevated risk of viral respiratory tract infections.

This month’s blog will look at how we can eat to support our mental health as well the role of lifestyle, herbs, essential oils and supplements.

Eating for Mental Health

There is growing evidence for the relationship between nutritional deficiencies, diet quality and mental health (2). Here’s some of the latest research into foods and diets that can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as improving physical health.

Mediterranean Diet and Depression

Following the Mediterranean diet is negatively correlated with chronic illness and depressive symptoms (3,4). The diet is based on a daily intake of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, fish, white meats, and olive oil. It may include moderate consumption of fermented dairy products, a low intake of red meat, and wine.

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet may be due to the high levels of antioxidants or polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet (5,6). Antioxidants such as green tea polyphenols, isoflavonoids from soy and sesamin from sesame seed have all been shown to reduce depression and anxiety (7,8,9). And you may be delighted and unsurprised to learn that polyphenols in chocolate have a positive effect on mood (10).

Anti-inflammatory Diet and Depression

High levels of inflammation are associated with an increased risk of depression. Anti-inflammatory foods that are associated with a lower risk of depression include olive oil, fish, nuts, fruit, vegetables, beans and lentils.. Herbs and spices are packed with anti-inflammatory antioxidants, these include sumac (11), turmeric, black pepper, cumin, cloves, ginger, garlic, coriander, and cinnamon.

Breakfast and Depression

Breakfast plays an important role in the academic performance and mental health of adolescents (12). One study into student health in 28 countries found that skipping breakfast was associated with depression, lower happiness, loneliness, sleep problems and poor academic performance (13).

Meat and Depression

A systematic review found that there was a significant association between red and processed meat intake and risk of depression (1).

Ultra-Processed and High Calorie Foods and Depression

Consumption of sweetened drinks, sugary foods, fried foods, processed meats, baked products and ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of depression (14,15)

Almond Enriched Diet and Depression

Almonds have been shown to improve hyperglycaemia and depression symptoms. A study into the effect of an almond-based low carbohydrate diet compared to a low fat diet on people with type 2 diabetes found that the almond based diet improved depression and blood sugar balance. Part of the beneficial effect may be the fact that the almond enriched diet stimulated the growth of Short Chain Fatty Acid producing bacteria in the gut (16).

The Microbiome and Depression

The health of our microbiome affects every aspect of our health including mood, behaviour, energy, weight, cravings, hormone balance, immunity, and overall wellness. To increase the diversity of organisms in the gut eat a wide range of plant foods and include small amounts of fermented foods and beverages. These have a beneficial effect on the microbiome and brain function (17). Fermented foods include yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tamari, kimchi and kombucha.

Support Serotonin and Tryptophan

Serotonin plays an important role in mood and sleep. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin. Eating a tryptophan rich diet may help those who are susceptible to depression (18,19).Tryptophan needs vitamin B6 to be converted into serotonin, and insulin to cross the blood brain barrier. Eating tryptophan rich foods with carbohydrates and B vitamin rich foods will maximise the benefits. Tryptophan is found in chickpeas, chicken, turkey, eggs, cacao, tahini, pumpkin seeds, rice, bananas, tofu and oats. Vitamin B6 is found in eggs, spinach, fish, poultry, green vegetables, sunflower seeds, brown rice, bananas.

Keep blood sugar stable – having protein and fibre with each meal helps to avoid the blood sugar roller-coaster and dips in mood.

Get seedy – hemp, chia, pumpkin and flax seeds all contain the omega 3 and 6 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), as well as being good sources of protein and antioxidants.


What we eat can affect our mood through various pathways. Eating a varied, largely plant based, unprocessed diet results in a higher intake of nutrients, fibre and antioxidants, all of which support physical and mental health. Include healthy fats, herbs, spices, and fermented foods for extra benefits.

See blog posts on Nutrients for Mental Health, Herbs for Mental Health and Lifestyle Tips for Mental Health for other ways to improve how you feel.


1. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Sep 14;17(18):E6686. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nucci D et al.
2. Psychosom Med. 2019 Apr;81(3):265-280. The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Firth J, Marx W, et al.
3. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Sep 26;17(19):E7053. Linking Mediterranean Diet and Lifestyle with Cardio Metabolic Disease and Depressive Symptoms: A Study on the Elderly in Europe. Castello JV, Tubianosa C.
4. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2020 Jul 30;16(Suppl-1):156-164. Mediterranean Diet and its Benefits on Health and Mental Health: A Literature Review. Ventriglio A et al.
5. Int J Health Plann Manage. 2019 Sep 12. Evaluating Mediterranean diet adherence in university student populations: Does this dietary pattern affect students’ academic performance and mental health? Antonopolou M, Mantzorou M et al.
6. Clin Nutr. 2019 Oct;38(5):1995-2001 Feeding melancholic microbes: MyNewGut recommendations on diet and mood. Dinan T, Stanton C et al.
7. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019 Sep 5;8(9). pii: E376. Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and Depression. Huang Q, Liu H et al.
8. J Affect Disord. 2019 Oct 5;261:121-125. Daily dietary isoflavone intake in relation to lowered risk of depressive symptoms among men. Cui Y, Huang C et al.
9. J Agric Food Chem. 2019 Nov 1.Supplementation of Sesamin Alleviates Stress-Induced Behavioral and Psychological Disorders via Reshaping the Gut Microbiota Structure. Wang Q, Jia M. et al
10. J Psychopharmacol. 2013 May;27(5):451-8. Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Pase MP et al.
11. Phytother Res. 2020 Jul 1. The beneficial effects of sumac (Rhus coriaria L.) supplementation along with restricted calorie diet on anthropometric indices, oxidative stress, and inflammation in overweight or obese women with depression: A randomized clinical trial. Hariri N et al.
12. Nutr Diet. 2020 Oct 12. Sociodemographic and clinical factors associated with breakfast skipping among high school students. Ju-Yeon Lee et al.
13. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2020 Aug 18;13:2889-2897. Skipping Breakfast and Its Association with Health Risk Behaviour and Mental Health Among University Students in 28 Countries. Pengpid S, Peltzer K.
14. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2017 Winter;29(1):39-44. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015 Jan;28(1):1-6.The gut microbiome and diet in psychiatry: focus on depression. Dash S, Clarke G et al.
15. Cien Saude Colet. 2020 Oct;25(suppl 2):4151-4156. Lifestyle behaviors changes during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine among 6,881 Brazilian adults with depression and 35,143 without depression. Werneck AO et al.
16. Nutrients. 2020 Oct 3;12(10):E3036. An Almond-Based Low Carbohydrate Diet Improves Depression and Glycometabolism in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes through Modulating Gut Microbiota and GLP-1: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Ren M et al.
17. Foods. 2018 Dec 3;7(12):195. One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota. Bell V et al.
18. Neurochem Int. 2013 Feb;62(3):324-9. Effect of diet on serotonergic neurotransmission in depression. Shabbir F, Patel A et al.
19. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2016 Jan;19(1):55-61. Mood, food, and cognition: role of tryptophan and serotonin. Strasser B, Gostner JM, Fuchs D.