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The Role of Diet in Depression and Anxiety Q&A

Aisling FitzGibbon


Q: Hey Aisling I wonder if you can advise me. I'm working with a new patient in my kinesiology clinic who has been suffering with severe anxiety for six years. He is new completely to the idea of diet and anxiety connection but is interested. I would like to send him a blog or an article that has a very gentle introduction to the idea with some simple initial steps.

A: This is a very good question and one that I wondered about myself when I was unwell. I think because we are told that depression is a shortage of brain chemicals it's difficult to make that leap into understanding that what we eat and the supplements we take can effect our mood. I would like to begin with my story and show how my understanding evolved over the years from being a person who followed the medical route of taking antidepressants to being someone who used diet and supplements to heal from depression and anxiety. 

I know what it’s like to suffer from depression, from days of exhaustion when I wanted to stay in bed with the duvet over my head, not wanting to engage with life, feeling tired and low. I hadn’t a clue why I felt the way I did because my outer circumstances were good at the time. I was in university doing a course I liked. I had lovely friends, a boyfriend and a supportive home life. And yet I was miserable.

Although my mum spoke to me about the role of diet and depression and she mentioned supplements such as magnesium, at that time I felt drawn to explore other more conventional avenues. I was influenced by what I read and having been told that depression was caused by a lack of serotonin, I decided to go down the drug route. Oh, how easy and seductive it was to just take medication. 

After four years, I had enough of taking medication that was doing nothing to address a myriad of health -related issues. I was ready to try the road less travelled to see if diet and supplements could help me heal from years of depression and anxiety. I had no idea if it would work but I was willing to try and deep down I felt I had found the right answer. 

I know now what it’s like to recover fully from depression. When I first got better I wanted to shout out from the roof tops. “I’m well. Depression is not just an absence of brain chemicals. Drugs are not the answer.” Of course, I didn’t because people would have thought I had passed from depression to madness. Instead I vowed to help others who had suffered a similar fate to mine and I’d train in Nutritional Therapy.  

I recovered from depression using a combination of diet, supplements and essential fatty acids, that gave me back my precious sweet life. The relief of recovery is an emotion that will be forever etched in my mind because anyone who knows how debilitating depression is will appreciate when it ends.

In hindsight, I can see that at the time I was given a diagnosis of depression I had low energy, poor adrenal function, hypoglycaemia, an imbalanced hormonal system, was prone to anxiety attacks, felt shut off, fearful and isolated from others. None of these factors were addressed. The medical solution was to prescribe antidepressants that although provided some relief, did nothing to address blood sugar issues, anxiety, adrenal insufficiency or the fact that I had irregular periods and a low- grade energy.

Once I understood that we are what we eat and that the cells that make up our body need good quality nutrition for optimal functioning I changed my diet overnight. I also stopped taking antidepressants (better to taper off them slowly but I went cold turkey ). I filled the fridge and every surface in the kitchen with organic rich vegetables, I purchased organic meats and large bags of quinoa and buckwheat. I became a lover of all sorts of vegetables and cooked in them a variety of ways such as roasting, steaming, grating them, boiling them in soups.

After the initial enthusiasm and the hope that kept me buoyant and pushing though, I hit a wall and felt very low. I was in fact suffering from withdrawal effects from the drugs I had taken for a few years and thought that the depression was back with a vengeance. It was like being in a dark tunnel. 

Fortunately my therapist was a great support and tweaked my supplement prescription, after which my mood lifted and I never ever went to that dark place again. How many other people fall into that trap, feeling that their depression is back when all that is happening is that they are withdrawing from the effects of mind altering medication. 

Here is what I learned from my own experience and from my studies as a Nutritional Therapist.

1)   Depression does not occur in isolation to what’s going on in the rest of our body.  Depression begins at a cellular level.  It does not begin in the brain.

2)   What is happening at a cellular level is that the cell membrane is dry, rigid and is no longer fluidic. This means that there is a build up of toxicity in the cell and a lack of nourishment getting into the cell.

3)   This build -up of toxicity lowers energy, reduces adrenal function, interferes with the hormonal system and imbalances blood sugars. The cell becomes shut off.

4)    What is happening at a cellular level is what happens at the mind level and the person with depression begin to feel shut off and isolated.

Why does the cell membrane become blocked? 

The cell becomes blocked and less fluidic due because of poor diet, low oxidation, stress, lack of sufficient fluid intake, mineral deficiencies such as magnesium and imbalanced ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 oils.  Without adequate magnesium, calcium goes inside the cell and creates a hardening effect.  

When I began my healing journey I was told that diet was very important. This is because the initial aim of the dietary healing programme is to soften the cell and to restore its fluidity. Although supplements are important, the cells need to be open to absorb them properly. The cell membrane needs to be opened with a non- challenging diet that is gluten free and dairy free.  

I did not find this a problem as I substituted grains with seeds such as buckwheat and quinoa that are wonderfully hydrating to the colon, which is the organ that firstly registers dehydration in the body.

I ate an abundance of mineral rich organic vegetables along with proteins such as lamb, chicken or fish. I made my own homemade soups to flood my body with alkaline minerals. I made sure that I drank up to two litres of water a day which would also include herbal teas. I juiced the most wonderful concoctions of vegetables such as beetroot with carrots and apples. All this raw energy really oxidised my cells and gave me lots of energy. As my energy and vitality increased I felt less anxious and happier to be in the moment, unattached to outcomes. 

What the diet was doing was preparing my body to better absorb the supplements and to encourage the cells to begin the process of detoxification. When a person is too acidic for instance and there is a lot of inflammation in the body less zinc is absorbed.  After a week on the change of diet I then began to add in supplements such as magnesium and omega 3 oils. In week 6 of the programme I began to add in some flax oil and this had a profound shift in my mood. It felt as though my cells that had been locked in, were loosening up and beginning to eliminate their toxic load.

By three months I knew in my heart I was well on the road to recovery. My brain felt like it had woken up from a horrible nightmare. It was like my body and mind were being flooded with energy and light. In six months I was fully detoxed and feeling super well. The depression that had been a constant for over 4 years was finally gone. I was free.

I felt driven to study dietary healing because I knew that this was the answer to biochemical depression. We are what we eat and the supplements and oils we ingest. Our mind and physical body are inextricably linked. Our cellular health is what ultimately determines our mental health. We cannot expect to eat a blocking diet that is high in sugar, damaged fats and chemicals that our bodies cannot tolerate and expect to feel well. Processed foods are made up of chemicals that are foreign to the body and interfere with cellular health.

Dr Bill Walsh discovered that some people are unable to make the dietary changes when they are unwell. This is because they lack the energy and motivation to do so. For these people he advocates for them to begin supplementation first before they tackle the diet. I personally did not find this a problem as I had already begun to eat a healthy diet and being the personality I am I don’t do things by half.  However I accept that there are those who need to take some supplements to bring the energy up first before they can initiate the dietary changes. That’s okay. 

In a nutshell we need to open and expand the cell with the least challenging diet to the bodily fluids. We need to encourage movement in the cells because with depression at a cell level we are blocked and the energy is stagnant. Hydration with adequate filtered water gives the cells the fluid they need to begin the process of detoxification.  The oils begin to soften the cell so it begins to open up. The minerals help the cell to regain its correct polarity and encourage the cell to release its toxic load. The alkaline minerals from the vegetables restores the cellular PH, reduces inflammation and brings a sense of peace and calm to the mind.

I can’t say that my healing journey was a walk in the park. It was a rocky road as I had many healing crises to contend with. However, after each healing crisis I felt lighter and clearer.  This is where I needed the most support as some days it felt as though my body was releasing too much and I had to slow it down by reducing the supplements and introducing naturopathic techniques that help me eliminate toxicity quickly.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t have missed my experiences for all the world because it was what has helped me to gain massive clarity on mental health problems such as depression. My own personal experience of the dietary healing programme enables me to support others on a similar journey and to help them to understand what is happening at each stage. Depression is not a condition anyone has to live with. It is treatable.