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4 Ingredients and 4 Recipes for the Depressed Brain

Living Well

April 11, 2023

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Photography by Inti d3sign/Getty Images

Photography by Inti d3sign/Getty Images

by Tara Callaghan


Medically Reviewed by:

Jillian Kubala, MS, RD


by Tara Callaghan


Medically Reviewed by:

Jillian Kubala, MS, RD


Food can have a significant impact on your mental health. Here are some ingredients that can provide a natural mood boost and some delicious ways to use them.

Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging area of research, which seeks to understand how nutrition impacts psychiatric conditions, and how certain ingredients or nutrients can benefit our mental health.

As someone who has battled depression and anxiety throughout much of my life, I’m lucky to have had the means to combat it with both therapy and prescribed medication. I was also raised by dedicated and present parents who strongly believe in the mantra “food is medicine.”

Food is a wonderful source of joy, but it’s also the origin of profound stress and discomfort for many. Regardless of our relationship with food and eating, we can’t deny that what we consume is significant to our mental and physical health.

In the spirit of eating to benefit my mental health, I’ve cultivated some meal ideas that will do just that while satisfying cravings and, in my not-so-humble opinion, sustaining the crowd-pleasing deliciousness we all aim for when we cook.

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Nutrients that can improve symptoms of depression

1. Omega-3 fatty acids

According to a 2019 study, omega-3 fatty acids can improve depressive symptoms.

Salmon is a prime example of an oily fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Many studies on the connection between EPA and DHA and mental health are still underway and impending, but in the meantime, we can take comfort in the fact that salmon is delicious and has many other proven health benefits.

Where to find them:

  • oily fish
  • nuts and seeds
  • plant oils

2. B vitamins

Vitamin B12 plays a role in the production of serotonin, so it can also impact your mood. In fact, low levels of vitamin B12 have been linked to depression, and taking vitamin B12 supplements may help delay the onset of depression as well as complement the effects of antidepressants. Improving mood is just one of the many ways vitamin B12 can benefit your health.

B6 is another beneficial B vitamin. Research has shown that high doses of B6 can help reduce stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Where to find them:

  • meat and poultry
  • whole grains
  • fish
  • eggs and dairy products
  • legumes
  • seeds and nuts
  • dark green leafy vegetables

3. Amino acids

There are many amino acids linked to mental health. However, the recipes included in this article deal mostly with tryptophan, specifically L-tryptophan. L-tryptophan is also needed for the production of serotonin in the body.

Additionally, research has shown a link between the intake of amino acids and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Where to find them:

  • red meat
  • poultry
  • eggs
  • dairy

4. Magnesium

A 2017 study states: “Supplementation with magnesium has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression in patients with mild to moderate depression.”

Like omega-3 fatty acids, the link between magnesium intake and depression is still being studied today. However, foods rich in magnesium also have plenty of other health benefits such as improved muscle function and energy production.

Where to find it:

  • almonds
  • bananas
  • black beans
  • broccoli
  • brown rice
  • cashews
  • green leafy vegetables (spinach)
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • soybeans
  • whole grains
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Cooking as therapy

On a note separate from nutrition, the act of cooking itself has proven tremendously therapeutic for me. My depression and anxiety frequently manifest in unwanted and intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can feel so disturbing and difficult to grapple with that I’ve often felt at odds with who I am.

At the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was back living with my parents after a 2-year stint in New York City. Though I maintained my full-time job and was doing well professionally, it still felt like a bit of a regression.

I still maintained my dear friendships, but it was difficult not to interact physically with the people that mean so much to me. With not much other than the confines of my own household to capture my interest or stimulate my brain, I entered quite a dark period. It may sound trivial, but developing a fondness for cooking helped save me.

My parents weren’t making me pay rent, but we agreed that I would chip in for groceries and assist with cooking. Soon I was cooking for them every night. Each night I’d select a recipe, skim it several times, prep the mise en place, and follow the steps. The soothing scent of garlic and oil would envelop me and the words would occupy my brain and I’d exist in a warm, creative, purposeful moment in time.

The takeaway (and some recipes)

Now I know that cooking has not and will not be the same experience for everyone. There are many people out there that find cooking overwhelming and stressful. But I am a huge proponent of the fact that stepping outside of our comfort zone can be life changing, and cooking is a safe place to start.

Regardless of your culinary expertise, it’s always good to be mindful of the foods you put in your body and how they might be impacting your mental health.

Below you’ll find several of my go-to recipes that incorporate many of the above beneficial ingredients — inspired by others and mixed and mastered in my own kitchen.

Egg, broccoli, and turkey scramble breakfast skillet (serves 2–4)


  • 6 eggs
  • 1 lb. ground turkey
  • Head of small broccoli florets (if buying the bag of florets, break into smaller bits)
  • 1–2 handfuls of baby spinach
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Smoked paprika
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Green leafy vegetables (spinach)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Optional add-ins: shredded cheese (mozzarella, cheddar, Colby jack, or Mexican blend)


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C).
  2. Toss broccoli florets on a sheet pan with olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and lemon juice, and roast to your liking (about 10–15 minutes depending on the size of the florets).
  3. When the broccoli is almost done roasting, begin heating oil in a cast iron skillet
  4. Once heated, add ground turkey to the skillet and break it up with a wooden spoon.
  5. Season meat with garlic powder, onion powder, and smoked paprika to taste.
  6. Remove the broccoli florets from the oven and add to the skillet along with baby spinach, stir to combine (if using cheese, now is the time to add).
  7. Crack the eggs into the skillet and cook covered for approximately 7–9 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper.
  9. Top with your favorite garnish and condiment (I do scallions and Frank’s Red Hot).
  10. Serve warm.

B-Licious smoothie (serves 1)


  • Generous splash of your favorite almond milk (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1–2 bananas, broken into pieces
  • 1/4–1/2 cup blueberries depending on size (best if frozen!)
  • 1 handful of baby spinach
  • Ice
  • Whey protein powder (optional — vanilla is my favorite)


Add all ingredients to a blender (adjust measurements depending on blender size) and blend to the consistency of your liking.

If too thick, feel free to add water or more almond milk.

Country chicken leafy green salad (serves 2–4)


  • Boneless skinless chicken thighs (2–4)
  • Tuscan Kale
  • Avocado, pitted and sliced
  • Carrots, shredded or sliced into thin medallions
  • Red onion, sliced thin
  • 1 lemon
  • Pumpkin or sunflower seeds
  • Whole grain Dijon mustard
  • Panko bread crumbs (you can find these gluten-free at most grocery stores)
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Smoked paprika
  • Dash of cayenne pepper
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Vegetable oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil


  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt
  • Pepper


  1. Wash and dry the kale, add to a bowl, massage with extra virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss.
  2. Add the avocado, red onion, carrot, and seeds to the bowl of kale.
  3. Cut the raw chicken into cubes and toss in a separate bowl with salt and pepper.
  4. Add a few heaping tablespoons of whole grain dijon and turn with a spatula until chicken is coated.
  5. In a shallow dish, combine 1–2 cups of panko, garlic powder to taste, onion powder to taste, smoked paprika to taste, and a dash of cayenne.
  6. Begin heating the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat.
  7. Add the chicken to the shallow dish and press into breadcrumbs until well-coated.
  8. Once the oil is heated, add chicken and cook on all sides until golden brown/dark brown and the chicken is cooked through. Remove from the heat and let sit.
  9. Once the chicken is no longer piping hot, add to the salad bowl, and squeeze lemon juice over the bowl.
  10. Mix all dressing ingredients together, add however much you want to the salad, and toss. (Feel free to use your favorite dressing! I’ve found this pairs great with Caesar or bleu cheese dressings as well.)

Asian-inspired salmon, braised baby bok choy, cilantro-lime brown rice (serves 4)


  • 1 1/2 tsp. orange juice
  • 1/4 cup coconut aminos
  • 1/4 cup of soyaki
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. grated ginger
  • 1/2 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp. fish sauce
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
  • Juice of half a lime, full lime if desired


  • 4 salmon fillets
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Cilantro-lime rice

  • 1 cup brown rice
  • Cilantro
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Scallions

Braised baby bok choy

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lb. baby bok choy
  • 3/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 2 tsp. minced ginger
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • Sliced scallions to garnish, optional


  1. Cook brown rice according to the package.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Squeeze the juice of one lime and toss to combine, add second lime if desired.
  4. Cover and move to the side to keep warm.
  5. Combine all sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer.
  6. Pat salmon dry, rub with a drizzle of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
  7. Add a drizzle of olive oil to a cast iron skillet and heat to medium-high.
  8. Add the salmon skin side down and cook undisturbed for about 5–6 minutes.
  9. While the salmon cooks, spoon some of the sauce over it.
  10. Flip the salmon and cook to your liking, about 6–8 minutes, more or less depending on how rare you like it.
  11. Remove from heat and cover with tin foil to keep warm.
  12. Cut the bok choy in half and rinse under cold water to rid of any dirt.
  13. In a large saucepan heat oil over medium-high heat.
  14. Add the bok choy flat side down and sear undisturbed until golden brown.
  15. In a separate bowl combine broth, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic.
  16. Pour the broth mixture over the bok choy, cover, and cook for 5–7 minutes.
  17. Once the bok choy is tender enough to pierce with a knife, remove it from the pan.
  18. Plate the bok choy, rice, and salmon and garnish with sliced scallions, pouring any excess sauce over the dish.

Medically reviewed on April 11, 2023

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About the author

Tara Callaghan

Tara Callaghan is a Digital Project Manager in the pharma marketing industry. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English writing and a certificate in public and professional writing from the University of Pittsburgh. Writing remains one of her dearest passions to date. Before starting her full-time role at Haymarket Media Inc, Tara had several articles published during her summer internship with MM&M — one of Haymarket’s popular publications. Tara is a dedicated mental health advocate with goals of shattering stigmas and encouraging others to connect on shared experiences.

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