What A Holistic Psychiatrist Eats In A Day To Bolster Brain Health & Ease Anxiety
The foods you eat can influence your mood in a major way. Say it with us: Your brain is an organ, and fueling it with the nutrients it needs can help it function at its best—and better brain function often results in a more balanced emotional state. Holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., author of The Anatomy of Anxiety, concurs: "Our brain is a piece of flesh in the body," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "If you want to feel less anxious and feel good, your brain health needs to be on point."
As a general rule of thumb, she recommends a balanced plate full of sustainably sourced protein, starchy tubers, veggies, and ample healthy fats, with less refined carbs and added sugars. "Design your plate to look like what your great, great, great-grandmother ate," she explains. If you're curious about the specifics, see how Vora builds her own menu below:
First off: Vora always includes some sort of well-sourced protein. Her staples include grass-fed ground beef ("That's easy to cook," she says) and cold-water fatty fish, like wild salmon, sardines, and anchovies. These fish are rich in omega-3s, which are revered for their mental health benefits: One study shows that omega-3 fats can decrease stress, and another demonstrates that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help promote a healthy emotional balance and positive mood.
Vora doesn't always eat chicken, but when she does, it's bone-in, skin-on. "I don't shy away from eating the skin, which is really the most delicious and one of the most nutrient-dense parts," she says. Most of the collagen and hyaluronic acid in chicken resides in the skin, which can nurture your gut health—and thanks to the gut-brain axis, your gut and mental health are intimately connected.
Finally, Vora recommends "getting weirder" with your protein staples. "If I see game meats, if I see unusual meats on the menu somewhere, I'll usually opt for that to get a different variety of nutrition," she mentions. That said, she's also a fan of organ meats (liver, tongue, thymus, pancreas, kidney, etc.), which are rich in B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, hard-to-obtain choline, and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). "I eat a lot of chicken liver pâté. I try to stock it in my fridge at all times—I take about a spoonful a day," she notes.
"We're eating sweet potatoes, white potatoes, squashes, but I'll also eat sprouted rice," Vora explains. "I do well with that."
Sweet potatoes, in particular, are high in resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that's particularly beneficial for gut health. They travel through the small intestine without fully digesting, and by the time resistant starches reach the colon, they ferment and serve as a prebiotic (aka, what feeds the good bacteria in your gut). And as we mentioned, anything that's good for your gut serves your mental health as well.
Complex carbs (like potatoes) also boost serotonin in the brain, and serotonin is a precursor for melatonin production—that's why many experts consider baked potatoes a great bedtime snack. And according to Vora: "Sleep is probably our most potent anti-anxiety [remedy]."
Vora welcomes any and all vegetables to her plate: "It's every veggie," she says—simple as that. If you are curious about brain-specific favorites, experts are quick to call out prebiotic-rich foods, like avocado (which are also rich in omega-3s), asparagus, and jicama, but feel free to read all about the best brain foods here. Generally, though, the more variety you have, the better: "Let vegetables be at least half your plate and the centerpiece of each and every meal," she writes.
Again, omega-3s are paramount for brain health and a balanced mood. That said, Vora keeps an array of healthy fats within reach: "We keep a nice ghee on our counter at all times, we keep coconut oil, we keep avocado oil, we keep a nice olive oil." High-quality olive oil, for what it's worth, is rich in polyphenols, which are powerful brain-protective antioxidants. Similarly, coconut oil is a good source of saturated fats, which help the integrity and function of brain cell membranes.
"Sometimes we'll cook with things like beef tallow or lard, or we'll cook bacon first in the pan and then cook everything else in the bacon grease," says Vora. Now, all that grease may make you raise a brow (although, cardiologists actually say some naturally occurring animal fat can be heart-healthy), but Vora emphasizes that sourcing is everything: "If that's a healthy animal, this is a healthy cooking fat with a high smoke point, and it's a real food that our body can recognize," she notes.
If Vora's list of favorite foods seems simple, well, that's because it is—in fact, its simplicity is what makes it so effective. However, a simple menu doesn't mean it has to be boring: "It's so important to do all of this in a way that feels exciting, delicious, and easy," Vora says. "And to do it with a mindset not of deprivation but in a way that feels like you're feeding yourself nourishing food because you love yourself."