If you’ve been feeling extra tired, distracted, or anxious recently, you’re certainly not alone. Between working from our living rooms and teaching our kids math at the kitchen table, to simply watching the nightly news, symptoms of mild depression are on the rise.
A recent survey-study published in the journal JAMA Network Open found the number of U.S. adults who reported symptoms of depression during COVID-19 more than tripled compared to data obtained between 2017 and 2018.
The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a similar poll, which discovered more than 30 percent of adults have been experiencing “symptoms consistent with an anxiety and/or depressive disorder” since the start of the pandemic—where the majority of participants stated that “worry and stress” have affected their mental health.
Even celebrities and politicians have been experiencing the emotional toll. In fact, on the August 5 episode of The Michelle Obama Podcast, the former First Lady confessed that she has been dealing with “low-grade depression” over these last few months.
But there is hope in warding off depressive symptoms.
Numerous factors contribute to depression, with evidence indicating nutrition and lifestyle choices may be linked to your mental health. “Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders are complex, multi-faceted conditions that aren’t well understood,” says Jessica Marcus, M.S., R.D. “However, research suggests that at least some forms of mood disorders are due to blood sugar swings, nutrient deficiencies, and neurotransmitters imbalances.” One prospective study published in Scientific Reports, for example, discovered a possible link between high sugar consumption and common mental disorders, such as depression.
If you’ve been feeling out-of-sorts lately and experiencing changes in appetite, sleep, weight, stamina, or the ability to concentrate, consider incorporating some of these strategies to cope with your symptoms.
1. Sweat It Out
Physical activity may help minimize feelings of sadness, restlessness, and lack of motivation, says Michael Greger, M.D., Fellow of the American College of Legal Medicine, founder of NutritionFacts.org and author of The How Not to Diet Cookbook: 100+ Recipes for Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss.
And the research agrees. An article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that even one workout session can have a positive impact on mood, energy level, attention span, and social interactions.
“The best way to relieve the effects of stress is to relieve the stress itself,” he explains. “To the extent that’s possible, we should try to reorient our lives to avoid major stressors and use exercise to work off what’s unavoidable.”
Greger advises to do any type of movement that brings you joy—walking, running, dancing, swimming, yoga, or even skipping. “I recommend a minimum of 90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk (four miles per hour) walking or 40 minutes of vigorous activity (such as jogging or active sports) each day.”
2. Cut Down On Animal Foods
Your beloved burger and chicken wings are definitely tasty, but they may be contributing to your low mood.
“Components in certain foods may increase the risk of depression, such as arachidonic acid, which is blamed for potentially impairing mood by inflaming the brain,” Greger explains. “The top five sources of this inflammation-promoting compound in the American diet are chicken, eggs, beef, pork, and fish—although chicken and eggs alone contribute more than the other top sources combined.”
A meta-analysis of eight observational studies, which was published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, concluded that meat consumption could be associated with a moderately higher risk of depression.
3. Eat More Plants
Greger encourages following a plant-based plan. The majority of whole plant foods contain phytonutrients that appear to naturally inhibit an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO).
“MAO controls an important class of neurotransmitters called monoamines, which includes serotonin and dopamine,” he states. “People who are depressed appear to have elevated levels of the MAO enzyme in their brains, and it has been theorized that depression may be caused by abnormally low levels of monoamine neurotransmitters.”
Greger says this correlation may explain why research indicates that those who consume a plant-based diet seem to have lower rates of depression.
“Even on a day-to-day basis, studies have shown that the more fruits and vegetables we eat, the happier, calmer, and more energetic we may feel that day and the next day,” he says.
In fact, the vibrant colors in fruits and vegetables correspond to specific antioxidants that help reduce inflammation, along with preventing damage to our cells, which in turn can aid in reducing symptoms of depression, adds Marcus. “Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries contain cell-repairing antioxidants called polyphenols,” she says. A meta-analysis published in Psychiatry Research liked high intakes of antioxidants with a decreased risk of depression.
Meanwhile, “cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale, broccoli, and arugula, contain naturally detoxifying compounds that keep hormones balanced,” she explains.
What’s more, leafy greens are rich in important nutrients like magnesium and the B vitamin folate. “Even though the mechanisms are unclear, low blood levels of magnesium and folate are more common in those who suffer from depression,” Marcus says.
Ready to give meatless meals a try? Check out our Ultimate Guide To Starting A Plant-Based Diet.
4. Nourish Your Gut
“Recent studies suggest a clear gut-brain connection, which is no surprise given that 75 percent of the body’s serotonin—otherwise known as the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter—is produced in the gut,” says Marcus. Basically, this means that an unbalanced microbiome (a.k.a. the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that reside in the digestive system) can cause a variety of health issues, including depression and anxiety, per research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
Incorporate plenty of probiotic-rich fermented vegetables, like kimchi and sauerkraut, to support a healthy lining of the intestines, as well as restore gut flora, Marcus suggests.
5. Slow Down
When in doubt, finding ways to comfort your mind and body can help alleviate worry and anxiety you experience. “Practicing mindfulness techniques, meditating, and listening to music may be effective ways to calm oneself,” Greger says.
According to the American Psychological Association, analysis of more than 200 studies on mindfulness-based therapy, including meditation, show it to be an effective approach for reducing stress and depression.
Go ahead and grab your earbuds, too: When combined with standard care, music-based interventions were found to be a “promising adjunctive treatment” for adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder, according to a pilot study conducted by researchers from University of Toronto.