As someone who has struggled with life-threatening depression herself, I relate and sympathize to people who want a fast solution; I certainly did. Depression is isolating and can make everything in life seem impossible. It can also hit out of nowhere and stay around for years with waves on and off throughout your life. Depression can also be genetically passed down and is often associated with other mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, anxiety, panic disorders, and often even related to autoimmune disorders.
When I began to learn about nutrition and functional medicine, I quickly learned that drugs really didn’t have that much to offer in comparison to natural options. Chemically produced in a lab, synthetic prescription drugs can only do so much and create more damage than good. However, the benefits of natural foods have been around since the beginning of time. They do not change, our bodies recognize them as direct nutritional food, and believe it or not, our brains actually love them.
When I implemented holistic health options into my life 10 years ago to come off antidepressants, I turned to natural medical doctors for options, including Julia Ross and Mark Hyman, along with John Hopkins University. All sources I found advised removing sugar from the diet, which I found immediately helpful for not just depression and anxiety but also epilepsy, disordered eating, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Next to go were all refined grains and most processed foods. In addition to removing these foods, healthy foods are immediately added and required to nourish the brain for the production of necessary neurotransmitters in the body such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
Amino acids are also required by the body, along with fresh produce and high-quality fats for optimal brain health. Once removing harmful foods and implementing beneficial foods, near immediate relief can be seen within a period of two weeks though recovery is an ongoing process and returning to unhealthy eating habits can reintroduce symptoms.
When you give your body (and brain) what it needs, it’s as if a fog is lifted because neurotransmitters have the best fuel possible for what they need to actually function as they were meant to.
Here are 10 plant-based foods that promote optimal brain health better than drugs:
1. Chia Seeds
Forget that they are trendy; chia seeds are packed with amino acids, iron, and contain B vitamins that are must-haves for a healthy brain. Because they’re a complete protein they also assist with optimal neurotransmitter function and the production of serotonin in the body.
Finally, they’re a great source of omega-3’s and fiber. Omega-3s help reduces depression, anxiety, and assist with healthy blood sugar levels. When blood sugar falls, insulin spikes and then falls which triggers a bad mood (and often sugar cravings) which creates a vicious cycle in the brain.
2. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a fantastic carbohydrate that contains L-tryptophan, an amino acid directly related to help prevent depression and anxiety. Sweet potatoes also reduce blood sugar levels and are high in vitamin B6, a natural anti-depressant. Many people suffering from depression are critically low in B vitamins, therefore implementing foods that contain them is an easy and quick solution.
Sweet potatoes are also high in magnesium and potassium which reduces cortisol and high blood pressure that increases with stress.
Avocados are high in beneficial fats for the brain including monounsaturated fats that have been linked to a healthy brain and heart. Avocados also contain magnesium, trace amounts of omega-3’s, B vitamins and potassium.
They contain especially high levels of folate as well, a B vitamin that directly reduces stress and anxiety, and promotes healthy brain function overall. See all our avocado recipes for plenty of ways to use them in your meals, snacks, and even in desserts!
Flax is one of the best sources of omega-3s, even higher in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) than chia. Flax is also packed with fiber to reduce blood sugar levels and contributes to better blood pressure too. Sprinkle a little flax on your foods however you can; it has a great nutty taste, and it can be added to everything from veggies to healthy desserts!
5. Gluten-Free Oats
Oats are loaded with brain benefits, but for best results, choose gluten-free. Why? Because even if you’re not allergic, there are many studies that do link gluten to depression, so if you suffer depression, why not play it safe? Oats are some of the best foods for improving brain health because they’re packed with B vitamins, protein, magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium. These all work together to release feel-good hormones, promote steady energy levels in the body, reduce blood sugar and blood pressure, and can even assist with sleep health and sugar cravings.
Choose plain oats (without added sugars) and add in some almond, cashew or coconut milk for a delicious dairy-free breakfast. Top it with berries and stevia for natural sweetness, or go overnight oat style and add in some chia and coconut yogurt!
This might sound a little too simplistic, but believe it not, this humble veggie is great for your brain. It’s a great source of vitamin B6, protein, and calcium which all promote relaxation and a happy mood. Broccoli is also great to reduce anxiety, insomnia and can help reduce sugar cravings. Try to have a cup a day; there are so many delicious ways to prepare it!
The complete protein we all love and can’t get enough of is also a great natural anti-depressant. This mighty little seed is high in magnesium, iron, B vitamins, and all essential amino acids. Quinoa is a wonderful gluten-free replacement to couscous and also more nutritious.
Quinoa’s high mineral content directly plays a part in the release of serotonin, GABA, and even melatonin which can help you sleep easier. Its natural carbohydrates are also slow-releasing which is optimal for blood sugar and a longer lasting happy mood. You can bake with the whole seed, cook it up like rice or soak it overnight with oats for a healthy porridge.
Hemp seeds are extremely high in omega-3s, complete protein, and fiber. They are wonderful mood enhancers, and they promote relaxation and happiness in the body. As most people know, hemp is not the same as marijuana and contributes to drug-like properties to the body.
It is one of the top vegan foods promoted by Julia Ross, a medical doctor and expert in natural brain health and depression relief through dietary therapy; she is also the author of the best-selling book, The Mood Cure that tackles natural relief for depression through diet and proper supplementation. Hemp is also one of the richest sources of magnesium and iron that are critical to healthy brain function, and one of the best for improving dopamine production in the body without chemicals or stimulants.
Walnuts are another amazing food for your brain. Walnuts are the only nut to contain traceable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and they’re high in magnesium as well. They also decrease inflammation in the brain that can interfere with a healthy mood and contribute to healthy cholesterol levels often affected by those with depression.
Walnuts are even helpful for inducing melatonin in the body which can help you sleep, and they naturally prevent sugar cravings when eaten in place of sweets. Enjoy 1/4 cup a day to benefit the most. Walnut butter is another option that provides the same benefits.
The best food of all must be saved for last … leafy greens are phenomenal for depression. They are high in magnesium, B vitamins, iron, and they promote a happy mood naturally because they contain grounding properties and life-giving properties by nature.
Greens can help stabilize blood pressure, improve healthy blood flow to the brain, reduce sugar cravings, improve amino acid uptake, are high in vitamin C to improve iron absorption and may also contain trace amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Choose kale, romaine, chard, dandelions, arugula, collards, spinach, butter lettuce, leaf lettuce, and herb and spring mixes as the healthiest options.
And don’t forget…
Probiotic-rich foods are also vital for brain health; our gut bacteria is what produces serotonin in the body. Though a healthy diet and elimination of sugar, refined grains, and most processed foods is a great place to start, adding in fermented and cultured foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and apple cider vinegar can provide even more benefits. Choose dairy-free options for kefir and yogurt such as coconut or almond alternatives.
When I added in these foods to my diet and removed sugar and refined grains, along with a few others and a high-quality multivitamin, I saw near immediate relief after suffering depression nearly 11 years of my life. I also implemented a healthy exercise routine which is recommended for optimal brain function since it stimulates feel-good hormones in the body. I have been medication free since. Again, mental illness is not to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes even natural options do not work for some people and further help will be needed.
However, if you suffer from depression and think there is no way out, please give natural options a try first. Nature is more powerful than we will ever know and our bodies are capable of so much when we give them exactly what they’ve always needed from the start.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
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