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We all know that eating well optimizes our physical health and supports our brain function. However, most people don’t realize the influence food can have on our mood. This impact is particularly important for individuals with disabilities to be aware of because we are at higher risk of experiencing conditions such as depression and anxiety. These can negatively impact our ability to function in all areas of our lives, including school, work and relationships. Studies show that symptoms of depression may be two to 10 times more common in people living with disabilities or chronic illness. Furthermore, individuals with major depressive disorder are more likely to report co-existing anxiety disorders.

So, what’s food got to do with it? A lot. Research demonstrates that poor diet is linked to poor mental health. For example, eating fried foods or foods that contain too much refined sugar and processed grains is linked to depression. Unfortunately, the diets of people living with chronic disability often consist of these types of unhealthy foods for a multitude of reasons, including limited access to fresh produce, fatigue, decreased physical function/ability to prepare healthy meals, financial restraints and emotional binge eating habits.

Here are four simple nutrition steps you can take to not only help protect yourself from developing mood disorders but to also enhance your overall feelings of well-being.

1. Support Your Gut Health. Numerous factors connect the gastrointestinal tract to the brain, including the microbiome which is composed of trillions of bacteria. These “good” gut bacteria can have a marked effect on GABA levels in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is involved in regulating anxiety, sleep and relaxation.

• Consume fiber rich foods such as whole grains and legumes (beans and peas) to support the growth of these healthy intestinal bacteria.

• Take a daily probiotic supplement.

• Eat probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt.

2. Reduce Inflammation. Trauma, stress, the intake of certain medications and poor diet can contribute to the inflammation in the body. For these reasons people living with chronic conditions such as TBI and spinal cord injuries tend to have systemic inflammation. Accumulating evidence indicates that inflammatory pathways may contribute to the development of depression.

Eating specific nutrients can help reduce inflammation in the body and in turn influence mood. For example, a study on people with SCI found that those who ate an anti-inflammatory diet and took anti-inflammatory nutritional supplements for three months experienced a 28% reduction in inflammatory markers called cytokines, and these subjects demonstrated a 55% decrease in their depression scores.

• Eat fish two to four times a week. Fish contains omega 3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties.

• Take Omega 3 supplements. Studies demonstrate the anti-inflammatory effects, particularly oral administration of EPA and DHA, can be useful as therapeutic agents in disorders with an inflammatory component. (Note: Always check with your physician before taking Omega 3 supplements.)

• Cook with turmeric. A compound called curcumin found in this spice exerts an anti-inflammatory effect by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokines.

3. Increase Fruits and Vegetables. A recent study revealed that eating four extra portions of fruits and vegetables can boost people’s mental health.

• Blueberries are especially high in anti-inflammatory polyphenols called anthocyanins.

4. Take Vitamin D. Canadian researchers found a strong correlation between depression and a lack of Vitamin D. Take Vitamin D supplements as directed by your health care provider.

Ready to get started? Try this mood-lifting breakfast loaded with fruit, fiber and healthy fats!

Oatmeal with Berries and Nuts

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1 cup steel cut oats
3 cups water
Pinch sea salt
One-half cup blueberries
One-quarter cup walnuts
Drizzle pure maple syrup

Add the oats and water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and let cook for about 25 minutes, or until the oats are tender enough for your liking.

Serve with berries and walnuts and drizzle with pure maple syrup.