On Your Health

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Foods That Help Combat Depression

Today we have a post from our guest blogger, Juli Johnson, APRN. Juli works at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute, where she is an Integrative Medicine practitioner. Juli is an advanced practice nurse who has been with INTEGRIS since 2000. In 2014, she graduated from the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine program at the University Of Arizona College of Medicine, where she studied under the Integrative Medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, M.D.

Check back to I On Your Health for new posts by Juli on all things related to Integrative Medicine.


Hi everyone, it's Juli here. As you undoubtedly know, we are smack in the middle of the holiday season. Although I hope this is a joyous time of year for you, both holiday and winter depression are real issues for many people. Some of us feel sad when we don't get enough sunlight. Since many people go to work while it's still dark outside, and leave work after the sun sets around 5:30 p.m. each day, it's quite possible that you aren't getting the proper amount of exposure to sunlight each day.

Still others of you might feel depressed around the holidays if you are far from family, or worried about your finances, or stressed about an over-stuffed social calendar.

But did you know it's possible to eat your way to a happier state of mind? What we eat can have a big impact on how we feel, physically AND mentally. Making changes to your diet might actually help with depression. There's a wealth of research that reveals that certain foods actually provide essential components for good mental health. Your brain needs a lot of energy to work properly. Without enough energy or the right nutrients, your brain won't get what it needs. For example, here is a study that suggests that eating a lot of processed foods, which are low in nutrients, could increase your chance of becoming depressed by 60 percent. Other research has shown that vitamin deficiencies often precede mental health problems.

So remember, what you put in your mouth can play a big role in how you feel! Here are some dietary tips for better mental health.

Reduce processed and refined carbohydrates and eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

These healthy carbs are important for reducing anxiety, as they increase serotonin levels in the brain, which allow you to feel calmer. Examples include apples, pears, strawberries, brown rice, oats, whole wheat pasta, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and cabbage.

Don’t skip meals.

As blood sugar levels fall, stress hormones are released to make emergency fuel for the body. This can lead to jitteriness, irritability and feeling anxious. It is very important to maintain a stable blood sugar level by eating a combination of lean protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates every three to four hours. Some examples include a slice of whole grain bread with nut butter, full fat yogurt with slices of apples and a tablespoon of walnuts, whole grain pita bread with hummus and vegetable sticks, and fish with brown rice and steamed veggies.

Increase your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to your mental health.

Add fish to your diet two times a week and eat some nuts and seeds every day. Also, consider an Omega-3 supplement. The brain is made up of fats, and healthy ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids are absolutely essential to a happy mood and healthy brain function. Try and increase your intake of Omega-3 (most kinds of fish, olive oil, canola oil, walnuts, edamame, flaxseed, sardines, tofu, shrimp, Brussels sprouts, spinach, cauliflower) and to limit your intake of Omega-6. While still important to brain function, Omega-6 fatty acids are very prevalent in modern diets, but don't have all the health benefits of Omega-3. So, whenever possible, decrease your intake of Omega-6 (vegetable oil, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sesame oil, margarine, etc.) in favor of Omega-3.

Avoid caffeine.

This alkaloid, found in coffee, tea, chocolate, many sodas and even certain medications, produces an effect similar to the stress response in our bodies. As little as two servings a day can cause jitteriness and worsen anxiety. Instead, substitute decaf for caffeinated coffee and tea, or choose herbal teas that don’t contain any caffeine. Drink water to stay well hydrated.

Reduce your alcohol intake.

While small amounts of alcohol can be good for your heart health, too much can aggravate depression and also deplete your body of important vitamins and minerals.

Ensure adequate magnesium intake.

Studies suggest that low magnesium can trigger anxiety and depressive symptoms. Some examples of magnesium-rich foods include almonds, cashews and many other nuts. Green vegetables, such as soybeans and spinach, are great sources of magnesium.

Ask your clinician if you should have your vitamin B12 and vitamin D levels checked.

Deficiencies in these vitamins can increase the risk of depression and you might need to take a supplement. Otherwise, get 10 minutes of sun two to three times per week, exposing 25 percent of your skin without sunscreen to increase vitamin D levels. Also, look to add things to your diet that are rich in B vitamins and folate. Foods rich in folate include spinach and other leafy vegetables, legumes and whole grains – all conspicuously absent in many diets. Foods rich in B vitamins include liver, clams, breakfast cereals fortified with Bs, salmon, trout, beef, yogurt, haddock, tuna, milk, cheese and eggs.

For more information on combating holiday depression, check out Minimize Stress, Maximize Cheer.

Juli offers an Integrative Medicine Clinic every Tuesday at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute Wellness Center. If you’d like to talk to Juli about Integrative Medicine give her a call at 405-773-6400. For more info, please watch Juli’s video.

Juli Johnson

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