Food and Mood Part 1: The Role of Inflammation in Anxiety and Depression

Dr. Aaron Hartman

October 11, 2022


Food affects our mood; what we eat directly impacts how we feel.
Mood disorders are on the rise. These include issues like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. But many of us also have more mild mood instability, feel easily irritated, experience quick mood swings, or have a general sense of brain fog.

Getting to the Root Cause of Mood Dysfunction

Mood dysfunction – whether a severe disorder or a milder symptom – is the result of an underlying issue. For example, anxiety and depression are not diseases per se; they are syndromes. This basically means that there can be many different causes of depression, anxiety, and mood swings.
For example, a concussion can be a root cause of both anxiety and depression. Chronic Lyme disease can also cause mood disturbances and so can severe vitamin deficiencies. Life stressors and personal trauma can cause these types of mood disturbances. So you can see that understanding these root causes of emotional dysfunction and how they manifest as a disordered mood is critical to helping people who suffer from these syndromes.
There are three major factors in your body that affect your mood: inflammation, the bacteria in your gut (also known as your gut microbiome), and nutrients or nutrient imbalances. Today I’d like to focus on inflammation and its role in mental health.



Inflammation as a Root Cause of Mood Issues

We now know that inflammation is the root cause of most chronic diseases. In the world of mood disorders, inflammation causes a “brain on fire”, meaning that the brain is not functioning well due to chronic inflammation. Inflammation also affects cortisol, insulin, and glucose control. In other words, inflammation can affect your survival hormones, affecting your emotional state – determining whether you feel safe or must fight or flee.
System-wide inflammation, also referred to as metabolic endotoxemia, is caused by an imbalance of bad bacteria in the gut, which release toxins that cause liver inflammation and then inflammation throughout the body. We are now learning that this systemic inflammation is an underlying cause of chronic diseases like heart disease, dementia, and many others. But even emotional dysfunction like anxiety, depression, and inattentiveness have an inflammation or a “brain on fire” component.
We also see that inflammation can cause people to be more impulsive. Brain inflammation negatively affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is right above the eyes and is the center of self-control. When the brain is inflamed, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t work as well and impacts executive function.
Inflammation also causes cytokine levels to increase. These cytokines transfer inflammation from cell to cell. We often see that when people are sick, they are very moody and want to be left alone. This is actually a cytokine response. But many of us have low-level inflammation that can cause similar symptoms.



Addressing Inflammation with Food

So how can we address inflammation and restore optimal brain health? The first thing to consider is to address the inflammation caused by our diet. Most of the inflammation I’m talking about originates in our GI tract and is caused by the foods we eat. Eating processed, “white” foods (think flour and sugar) inflames our brain and impairs its function. So does eating foods to which our bodies are sensitive.
In contrast, naturally colorful foods, especially in the blue/purple spectrum, are known to be brain-protective and have naturally-occurring chemicals called polyphenols that support healthy brain function. Healthy fats, colorful plant foods, and other nutrient-dense whole foods support our brain health in many ways, one of the most important beings as they are anti-inflammatory.

Want to Learn How You Can Reduce Inflammation with Food?

Learning about the impact of what you eat on your mood will help you take control of your own personal mental health, which is a critical piece of personal wellness. If you’d like to learn more about how you can take charge of your own health by eating colorful, nutrient-dense foods, check out the Phytonutrient Spectrum Food Plan on our website. It’s absolutely free, and you can get started improving your mood with food today.
In my next article, I’d like to talk about your gut bacteria (aka the microbiome), how this also affects your mood, and what you can do to improve your mood by improving your gut health.
Take care and be well.
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.


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