Anxious and depressed? A high-fiber diet ‘feeds’ your gut to lift your mood, says MD

You already know that feeling anxious or blue from time to time is a part of life. It is normal to worry about things like health, money, your family, your future. But as most of us have experienced, from time to time, worry can seem to take over your life and take all the joy out of it. Antidepressants may seem like a simple solution. But they can be expensive and have unwanted side effects like fatigue and insomnia, plus they can affect your libido. The good news: Natural remedies like dietary fiber can work just as well, and sometimes better, than antidepressants to lift your mood. Read on to learn how feeding your gut with high-fiber foods can inexpensively and dramatically improve your mental health.

Understanding anxiety and depression

Anxiety is often characterized by feelings of worry, discomfort, irritability or nervousness. But it can also manifest itself in physical symptoms such as muscle tension, lack of focus, gastrointestinal disturbances, sweating and/or rapid heart rate. Nearly 20% of US adults experience anxiety disorders, and women have twice the risk of anxiety than men. The most common is generalized anxiety disorder, or constant worry that you can’t control.

Furthermore, although we think of anxiety as “up” and depression as “down”, anxiety can be a symptom of clinical depression. And depression can often be triggered or exacerbated by anxiety, creating a vicious cycle. Anxiety and depression are like two sides of a bad mood coin. Risks for the condition increase for women in their 50s, a decade often marked by the onset of menopause and a convergence of life stressors.

The connection between mood and menopause

As you already know, if you’re over 50, menopause is more than just a reproductive milestone: it comes with significant hormone fluctuations that can exacerbate anxiety and depression. And women experience not only physical changes, but also significant adjustments in life. Children leaving home, career development and/or new family care responsibilities can increase feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

Feeling depressed, losing energy, tiredness, and fatigue are very, very common symptoms of menopause,” explains menopause expert Mache Seibel, MD, author of The Estrogen Fick. “Anxiety is the most common, although women will talk more about hot flashes. If a woman has a tendency towards anxiety or depression, it gets much more intense in perimenopause and eventually menopause.

It’s mostly to blame: the drop in estrogen during menopause. The sex hormone affects your body’s production of serotonin, a brain chemical so important to mood regulation that it’s known as the feel-good chemical. Estrogen increases serotonin,” notes Dr. Seibel. “As estrogen decreases, so does serotonin, which is crucial for mood.” (Click to learn more about the connection between menopause and irritability, and how to calm down.)

As estrogen declines over time, so does serotonin production.Balora/Getty

‘Lexapro fatigue’ and side effects of antidepressants

Given the critical role that serotonin plays in regulating our moods, it’s no wonder that many people are turning to antidepressants like Lexapro for help. These types of drugs, classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), work by increasing the availability of serotonin, which can relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Dr. Seibel explains that SSRIs block the reabsorption (reuptake) of serotonin in the brain, making more serotonin available to the body to improve transmission between neurons.

The problem: SSRIs can come with unwanted side effects such as nausea, constipation, dry mouth, decreased sex drive, and perhaps most unpleasantly, fatigue. In fact, people often refer to this phenomenon as “Lekapro fatigue”. Instead of boosting your energy when you’re anxious or depressed, the drug can leave you sleepy and tired. Lexapro fatigue is most common during the first few weeks after you start taking the drug and for most people it usually improves over time.

How dietary fiber can be better for your mood than antidepressants

If you’d rather try natural mood-boosting and anxiety-relieving remedies before turning to anti-depressants, fiber can help (without the side effects of SSRIs). How? It nourishes your gut, which helps increase serotonin levels. Dr. Seibel says there is an important connection between gut flora, the complex ecosystem of bacteria and other microbes that live on your body, and brain function. This gut-brain axis serves as a communication pathway between your gut and your brain. This means that your gut can affect your mood and thoughts, and vice versa.

An illustration of the gut-brain axis, which can be

Beneficial microbes “feed” the intestines that communicate with the brain.Pikovit44/Getty

Dr. Seibel explains that a high-fiber diet from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains feeds these beneficial gut microbes, facilitating their role in managing mood-elevating serotonin. In fact, almost 95% of your body’s serotonin is synthesized in the gut, with the help of approximately three kilograms of gut bacteria that contribute to digestion and hormone production.

When people say they have a “gut feeling,” it’s based on the fact that people do they have feelings about gut bacteria, says Dr. Seibel. The way food becomes a part of this is that the fiber found in food that is good for us is what the bacteria prefer and what helps the bacteria. They are the ones that help us by producing and regulating serotonin.”

For some women, especially those prone to medication side effects, this may make dietary fiber better for your mood than antidepressants. You don’t feel better because you eat fiber,” says Dr. Seibel. “Fiber affects bacteria, which then affects mood. If we keep that ecosystem optimized, we get their benefits.

Connected: Click to find out how much fiber you need to lose weight.

How to use food as medicine

A growing body of research links a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fish, and limited in processed foods, to a lower risk of depression. Now there’s a whole field of psychiatry called nutritional psychiatry that focuses on food as a potential prescription for better mental health in terms of anxiety and depression, says Dr. Seibel, who also co-authored the book. Eat to Beat Menopause. Just changing your diet to include more whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts such as almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts can have such a beneficial effect.

Also smart: Increase your intake of fermented foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics in the process. “Probiotics are live microorganisms that maintain or enhance the ‘good’ bacteria in the body,” says Dr. Seibel. He notes that fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir (a fermented milk drink), kimchi (fermented vegetables) and kombucha (fermented tea) are excellent sources of probiotics. (Click to learn how to make probiotic-rich yogurt at home.)

Prebiotics, found in whole grains and plant foods, have a different role: they act as “food” for beneficial gut microflora. “The goal is to maintain a balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria so that the good bacteria flourish with the end result being a healthier individual,” explains Dr. Seibel.

Foods rich in dietary fiber, such as avocados, whole grains, berries and legumes, which may be better for mood than antidepressants


Food that nourishes your gut and your mood

To keep you satisfied and in good spirits, Dr. Seibel advises a diet that focuses on nutrient-dense, low-calorie options. In addition to the fermented foods and whole grains mentioned above, these include:

  • Fruits: unpeeled apples and pears, berries, avocado, pineapple, pomegranate

  • Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, pumpkin, beetroot, leek

  • Nuts: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, coconut

  • Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, quinoa

  • Lentils and legumes: chickpeas, peanuts, beans, green peas

Including these delicious foods in your daily diet can have a dramatic effect on your mood. Read on to learn how one woman found that increasing her fiber intake was better for her mood than antidepressants.

Dietary fiber success story: Ceilie Kohler Dierker, 56

Ceilie Kohler Dierker

Ceilie Kohler Dierker

Ceilie Kohler Dierker, 56, could feel her anxiety rising until she felt so overwhelmed that she had lost her husband again over something insignificant. Time to see a doctor, he insisted. The next day, her doctor confirmed that she had to go back on her medication.

Ceilie had been taking Lexapro, a drug used to treat depression and anxiety, for several years. While it can be energizing for some people, for others like Ceilie it can have the opposite effect, draining energy. I have to give up on this, Ceilie decided. But when she was weaned, she experienced severe anxiety mixed with anger and feelings of weakness.

Ceilie went back on medication and, although she felt almost immediate relief from her wild mood, she didn’t want to be on energy-sapping medication for the rest of her life. When she stabilized, she reached out to a friend who was a nutritionist and told her what was going on. A friend, who had gone through something similar, suggested that Ceilie pick up a copy of The Fiber-Based Chef by Will Bulsievicz, MD. The book outlined the link between fiber and the production of serotonin, the body’s feel-good neurotransmitter, which is key to reducing depression and anxiety.

Ceilie learned how to “feed” her intestines

Intrigued, Ceilie ordered the book. She learned that a high-fiber diet promotes a healthy gut microbiome (friendly bacteria). This helps the gut make serotonin, 95% of which is made by healthy bacteria. Prebiotics and fermentable fiber feed beneficial bacteria. The fermentation process also produces short-chain fatty acids that regulate the pH level in the gut, making it favorable for the growth of good bacteria.

That a simple change in diet could cure her anxiety seemed too good to be true, but also too easy not to try. Following the recommendations in the book, Ceilie slowly began to increase the amount of beans, grains, broccoli and other high-fiber foods she ate. She added oatmeal to her daily diet, mixing in peaches, raisins and walnuts. Ceilie also started mixing in fibrous plant foods including fruit, leafy greens and almond milk for breakfast. She even drank fiber-rich smoothies in the evening to ward off unhealthy processed foods.

A mason jar with a green smoothie and bananas in the background is full of mood-boosting dietary fiber


How fiber freed Ceilie from her antidepressant

After a few months, Ceilie found that her mood was improving, even during the shorter, dark winter days when she usually felt more depressed. And her anxiety was reduced to the point where her medication could be reduced by 25% without feeling the ill effects she had before. She stuck to her high-fiber diet and, with her doctor’s instructions, slowly weaned herself completely off the medication.

I feel great! Simple changes to my diet have made a big difference,” says Ceilie. “I’m off medication, calmer and have more energy. I also lost 18 pounds. It’s great to finally feel so good!”

For more natural ways to relieve anxiety and depression:

Revolutionary tapping technique reduces anxiety by 67% in 10 minutes, study says

Pickle Ball Brings Many Health Benefits Discover how it lifted one woman’s depression

30 Journals That Promote Bliss, Reduce Stress and Anxiety in Minutes!

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your doctor before starting any treatment plan.

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