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09 Nov, 2020

Combatting Anxiety with Nutritional Psychiatry

Dr. Uma Naidoo is the Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital & Director of Nutritional Psychiatry at MGH Academy, while serving on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Considered Harvard's mood-food expert, Dr. Uma is the author of the book This Is Your Brain On Food, and here she talks to us about how food can impact our mood.


You’ve recently published the first book on Nutritional Psychiatry called "This is Your Brain on Food", in which you explain the many ways in which food contributes to our mental health, and how our diet can help treat and prevent a wide range of psychological and cognitive health issues. (We couldn’t agree more!). Can you tell us what brought you to writing this book?

My life’s work in Nutritional Psychiatry has been driven by my passion for tasty yet healthy food. While I wish I could say I had a grand plan to study psychiatry at Harvard, study nutrition and become a professional chef, to become a Nutritional Psychiatrist, it truly came together by following things I love to do. However, my interest in this Food as Medicine space also stemmed from learning psychopharmacology and understanding that medications can have severe side effects too. My patients needed more tools in their tool-kit to cope with mental well being, and nutrition is one!

For those that are unsure of the relationship between diet and mood, what’s your elevator pitch to educate them on this succinctly?

The gut and brain originate from the same cells when our bodies are forming, and they remain connected throughout our life by the vagus nerve - which is a bidirectional super highway transporting chemical signals back and forth. And then more than 90% of serotonin receptors are found in the gut. So, what you eat matters, and it impacts your brain and therefore your mental health too.

Do you have any general advice for people who want to use their diet to benefit their mental health but aren’t sure where to start?

Start small, start basic, change one thing today! Just one healthy habit that you feel committed to. Perhaps it’s eating more vegetables every day, drinking more glasses of water daily, or adding a powerful spice like turmeric with a pinch of black pepper to your soup, smoothie or stir fry. One good healthy eating habit is where you can start to positively impact your gut health and therefore your brain health. A happy gut is a happy mood!

In the promo for your book you say that blueberries can help you cope with the aftereffects of trauma, and that salami can cause depression - please expand on this!

Many processed meat products contain nitrates, which have been shown to worsen depression. And research has shown that blueberries can attenuate oxidative stress and inflammation and restore neurotransmitter imbalances in animal models of PTSD.

What are some of the foods that can specifically help to reduce anxiety and stress?

Dietary fibre

Fibre can only be obtained from fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and healthy whole grains. You cannot get fibre from seafood or animal protein. Dietary fibre is a broad category of food ingredients that are non-digestible by our natural gut enzymes. However, though our guts themselves can’t break down fibre, different types of gut bacteria can. When dietary fibre can be broken down by bacteria, we call this being “fermentable.” Fermentable dietary fibre promotes the growth of “good” gut bacteria. Happy gut, Happy mood.

Example food sources:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Artichokes
  • Beans
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Carrots

Try this recipe for Baked Sweet Potato with Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad and this Three Bean Chilli.


Omega 3’s can be obtained by eating well-sourced fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. Plant based sources of short chain omega-3s are found in algae, flax seeds, chia and hemp seeds. In general, the reduction in anxiety caused by omega-3s is thought to occur via anti-inflammatory and neurochemical mechanisms that affect the brain. In 2018, a study found that, specifically, the more omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) people consumed, the less anxiety they experienced. The study also found that a higher ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s led to increased levels of anxiety, which is why one needs to avoid processed vegetable oils which are high omega-6’s.

Food sources:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Algae
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds

Try these Blackberry Chia Seed Puddings and these Salmon Burgers.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods, like plain yogurt with active cultures and miso, kefir and kimchi, are a great source of live bacteria that can enhance healthy gut function and decrease anxiety. Three possible effects are: chemical by-products of intestinal bacteria and bioactive peptides may protect the nervous system; the changing gut bacteria might suppress the stress response through the HPA-axis; and neurotransmitters and “brain tissue builders” such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, gamma-aminobutyric acid, and serotonin may be increased.

Food sources:

  • Live yoghurt
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Apple-cider vinegar
  • Pickled vegetables

Try this Roasted Hispi Cabbage with Bean Salad and Quick Kimchi.

Vitamin D

Vit D crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters brain cells. While it’s in the brain, it decreases inflammation and toxic destruction of cells and controls the release of nerve growth factor, which is essential for the survival of hippocampal and cortical neurons. Studies have demonstrated that adults with depression and anxiety have lower blood levels of vitamin D.

Food sources:

  • Fortified nut, soy and rice milks
  • Egg yolk
  • Salmon
  • Sun-dried mushrooms
  • Cod liver oil

Try this Salmon and Cauli Pizza and Avocado & Almond Smoothie.


In humans, magnesium deficiency is associated with high anxiety levels. When people are anxious while taking a test, they excrete more magnesium than usual in their urine. And when magnesium levels are low, this can worsen anxiety. Researchers found that magnesium supplementation can help especially if you are vulnerable to anxiety, likely because of the way that magnesium can ease stress responses, changing levels of harmful stress chemicals in the brain. Dietary intake of magnesium is poor in Western populations.

Food sources:

  • Chickpeas
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Avocado
  • Black beans
  • Dark chocolate
  • Almonds
  • Leafy greens

Try these Black Bean & Cauli Tacos with Avocado Salsa and this Chickpea and Beetroot Buddha Bowl.


The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, decreases anxiety and changes the corresponding brain chemistry, protecting the hippocampus. Curcumin’s positive effect on anxiety has been confirmed by animal and human trials.

Chamomile is an herb that comes from the daisy-like flowers of the Asteraceae plant family. It has been consumed for centuries as a natural remedy for several health conditions, and it has been shown in several studies to help lower anxiety. Though it can be taken in capsule form, I recommend getting chamomile the traditional way, in tea. One to 3 cups a day is generally safe unless you are taking blood thinner medications or are about to have surgery. Pregnant women should consult their doctors before consuming chamomile tea.

Try Kitty's Turmeric Baked Rice and our Sweet Potato Dal.

We’re told that drinking coffee can put us in a heightened state of stress. Is this true? What are your thoughts on the positive and negative health implications of drinking coffee?

This is one where body intelligence plays an important role. If you feel jittery, panicky and nervous after drinking coffee, try to cut back slowly and see how you feel. Coffee may be worsening your anxiety - so you may need to drink less, or give it up entirely depending on how you feel.

On the other hand if you can tolerate less than 400mg in a day, usually before 2pm so it does not disrupt your sleep, go ahead and enjoy it - there are so many health benefits.


Dr Uma Naidoo, MD. Nutritional Psychiatrist, Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author, This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and more.