Nutrition as an Intervention for Depression and Anxiety?

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Isa Kujawski

MPH, ‘18, Nutritional Sciences

In the wake of the integrative health movement, researchers have been working to bridge a hot topic with a stigmatized one. A growing body of research comprises the emerging field of "nutritional psychiatry," which explores nutrition interventions to alleviate symptoms of mental disorders, namely anxiety and depression.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders involve psychiatric conditions feeling fear or worry, while depression is a condition where individuals feel sad, discouraged, hopeless, and indifferent in life to the extent where these feelings affect daily activities. The ADAA states that anxiety and depression are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting adults and children, with an estimated 40 million Americans affected by anxiety, and about 54 million affected by depression.

As the field of nutritional psychiatry grows, it's important to recognize the need for population level preventive approaches toward common mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

As an MPH student who is passionate about recognizing nutrition's role in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, I traveled to Washington D.C. this past August to attend an annual conference hosted by the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR). ISNPR is an organization created to bring together scientists and practitioners interested in furthering Nutritional Psychiatry research. Dozens of researchers gave presentations on common nutritional themes that were crosslinked with depression and anxiety:

  • Probiotics. Probiotics, or beneficial bacteria have been studied to have a connection to mental wellbeing.1 In fact, a 2003 study showed that oral microbes can decrease anxiety and improve mental outlook.2 Popular sources of probiotics are fermented vegetables, beverages, or probiotic supplements.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids. Although studies are ongoing, omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to have antidepressant effects for individuals with Major Depression Disorder (MDD).3,4 Foods high in omega 3's include fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, as well as nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds or walnuts.
  • Fruits and vegetables. Studies have sought to explore the association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders. A 2013 population level study that surveyed five waves of canadians found that increased levels of fruits and vegetable consumption to be associated with lower odds of depression, and mood and anxiety disorders.5

As the field of nutritional psychiatry grows, it's important to recognize the need for population-level preventive approaches toward common mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. This may involve categorizing common mood disorders as non-communicable diseases that may be prevented by modifiable lifestyle decisions such as proper nutrition, which begins with encouraging our youth to eat balanced, nutrient-rich, whole foods diet.6

Visit ISNPR's website for a comprehensive list of Nutritional Psychiatry research.


  1. Selhub EM, Logan AC, Bested AC. Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 2014;33(1):2. doi:10.1186/1880-6805-33-2.
  2. Bested AC, Logan AC, Selhub EM. Intestinal microbiota, probiotics and mental health: from Metchnikoff to modern advances: Part II – contemporary contextual research. Gut Pathogens. 2013;5:3. doi:10.1186/1757-4749-5-3.
  3. Lin P-Y, Mischoulon D, Freeman MP, et al. Are omega-3 fatty acids anti-depressants or just mood-improving agents? Molecular psychiatry. 2012;17(12):1161-1163. doi:10.1038/mp.2012.111.
  4. Su KP, Wang SM, Pae CU: Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for major depressive disorder. Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2013, 22: 1519-1534.
  5. McMartin SE, Jacka FN, Colman I. The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: evidence from five waves of a national survey of Canadians. Prev Med. 2013;56(3–4):225–30.
  6. Jacka FN, Mykletun A, Berk M. Moving towards a population health approach to the primary prevention of common mental disorders. BMC Med 2012;10:149.

About the Author

Isa KujawskiIsa Kujawski has a Master's in Public Health in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Her academic interests include the gut-brain axis, nutrition as an intervention approach for common mood disorders, and behavior change modalities.