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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Mental Health Diet : Using Food as Medicine for Anxiety and Depression

Apr 29, 2019 11:49PM ● By Bridgitte Carroll

Diagnosed mental health disorders have been on an incline in recent years. The availability of mental health services has also increased; however, many times the predominant discussion surrounding treatment includes pharmaceuticals. While these may be indicated in many cases, the medications prescribed don’t address the root cause of the dysfunction.

Inflammation is a driving force in developing most chronic diseases, including mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Whether it is in conjunction with medication or alone, consuming an anti-inflammatory diet, focusing on gut health and using targeted supplementation allow someone to improve their mental health symptoms in the short term but also prosper in the long term with optimal health.

Anti-inflammatory diet

The greatest strategy to decrease inflammation and thus support optimal mental health is through consuming an anti-inflammatory diet where food is used as medicine. An anti-inflammatory diet is high in phytonutrients, which are the beneficial, health-promoting compounds in plants. They are simple to recognize as each color of the rainbow connects to a different group of these beneficial plant compounds. When grocery shopping, try adding new colors of recognizable vegetables like purple carrots or orange sweet potatoes. It’s also important to create balance within each meal by including healthy fats like avocado or olive oil, protein like salmon or pastured chicken, carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and plentiful color with a wide variety of vegetables.

Removing foods can play an important role in reducing the body’s inflammatory response. Gluten, refined sugar and caffeine are the most problematic when it comes to mental health. Gluten decreases the protective barrier in the gut, causing microscopic openings in the gut lining that negatively influence the body’s inflammatory response (also termed “leaky gut syndrome”). Sugar can cause an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, specifically leading to an overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast that can lead to mental health dysfunction.

Whether it is in conjunction with medication or alone, consuming an anti-inflammatory diet, focusing on gut health and using targeted supplementation allow someone to improve their mental health symptoms.

Additionally, caffeine may also play a role in anxiety as it increases our stress hormone cortisol. If you’re not ready to give up your morning cup of Joe, consider switching to half-caffeinated or adding adaptogens or medicinal mushrooms such as lion’s mane or reishi. To determine if these foods or food groups are causing dysfunction, remove for three months then introduce one at a time, one week apart. Take note of how the body feels during this reintroduction phase.

Gut Health

It is imperative to evaluate the health of the gut when rebalancing the system from mental health dysfunction. The gut is also known as “the second brain” as it connects directly to the brain through the vagus nerve which allows bi-directional signals to and from the gut to the brain. If one is out of balance, it will influence the other.

The health of the gut is largely determined by its balance of good and bad bacteria; this bacterial community is called the microbiome. Too much or the wrong types of the pathogenic bad bacteria play a large role in mental health and can increase dopamine levels, exacerbating anxious feelings. Additionally, serotonin is made in the gut and can be dysregulated when the microbiome is imbalanced.

Overall gut health can be evaluated by a comprehensive stool test or working with a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner. After determining imbalances, a personalized protocol is developed and may include removing pathogenic bacteria with targeted plant compounds and increasing beneficial bacteria through probiotics and food.


Supplementation can be very useful in seeing and feeling quick results. To reduce the inflammatory burden on the system, certain forms of curcumin, fish oil, CBD and probiotics can be beneficial. There are other herbs called adaptogens that don’t address the root cause of dysfunction but can be a safe alternative to pharmaceuticals and allow someone to feel better within days. It’s helpful to note that herbs are synergistic, which means that they typically work better in a blend of several different herbs versus one single herb. They also are powerful and may interfere with other supplements and medications. Each person should seek a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner or reputable wellness store that can guide them with choosing the best supplement or protocol for their unique body.

Bridgitte Carroll, MS, RDN, LDN, is an integrative and functional dietitian in Waltham. She works one-on-one with clients utilizing a systems approach to get to the root cause of bodily imbalances. She is currently accepting new clients at Johnson Compounding and Wellness, 577 Main St., Waltham. For more information, call 781-893-3870 or visit