It was long believed—or rather, implied by clever marketing—that depression and anxiety were caused by an imbalance of feel-good chemicals in the brain. However, recent research has started to determine that these conditions are largely caused by inflammation and unstable blood sugar.

Unfortunately, there are many things in our modern lives and diets that make us prone to this type of inflammation.

Think about it: We didn’t have selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors way back in the day. Now, of course, we do—and we also have some of the highest rates of depression and mental disorders. We also have more processed foods and more chemicals surrounding us in everyday life than ever before.

Our immune systems have always kept us safe by attacking anything that can threaten our survival. The immune system is constantly looking for organisms that could be foreign and harmful. This process involves sending an inflammatory response to your gut.

via Steph Jensen

Your gut is responsible for nearly 80% of your first line of immune defense. There is an intricate relationship between the gut, hormonal glands, brain, and immune system, so if something is off with your gut, it can cause psychiatric symptoms. Sometimes small immune responses can have big affects on the mood and memory, but aren’t felt immediately.

Inflammation in the body occurs when reparative chemicals are switched on by infection, injury, or stress. It’s the bodies way of reacting to a threat. Most threats enter through the gut, where most of our immune system is located, so inflammation can start with gut dysfunction.

Unfortunately, since our modern diets are full of things our bodies don’t recognize as food, this response is often turned on at all times. Foods that commonly set off this immune response include gluten, sugar, dairy, soy, corn, and many food additives.

via Steph Jensen

Additionally, the standard American diet is generally high in processed sugars and carbs, which create frequent blood sugar spikes and dips, resulting in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and weight gain. Chronic blood sugar imbalances, such as insulin resistance, reactive hypoglycemia, diabetes, and obesity, are often a result of diets heavy in processed carbs and low in healthy fats. You may not even be feeling the effects—but are still being affected by the roller coaster. Even foods thought to be healthy can cause this: whole wheat bread, low-fat, sugar laden yogurt, granola bars, cereal, diet soda, and salad dressings are all sometimes at fault.

Eliminating sugar and processed food and working to balance blood sugar can be one of the best ways to heal a dysfunctional immune system. This may very well save you from generalized anxiety, ADHD, panic disorder, and bipolar disorder.

I’m a 115-pound 30-year-old woman, but I struggled for years with hypoglycemia and mild depression and anxiety until I got my diet and blood sugar under control. Here are my recommendations:

Get out the bad stuff

via Steph Jensen

As a health coach, I often recommend that people to start off with a 30 day challenge of removing inflammation-causing foods. This way, you’re not going cold turkey, which is where most people end up failing. The Whole30 diet is a great one, followed by a reintroduction phase, which can help you determine which foods may be causing the most inflammation.

  • Eliminate processed sugar, soda, gluten, dairy, grains, soy, and corn.

Put the good stuff back in

Crowd out the bad foods by focusing on foods that have been minimally processed and contain high levels of nutrients. This includes:

  • organic fruits and vegetables
  • grass-fed and pastured meats
  • wild caught fish and seafood
  • plenty of healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, nuts, seeds, avocados
  • gut healing foods like bone broth and fermented sauerkraut

Balance Blood Sugar

via Steph Jensen

  • Removing refined sugar and carbs will not only help with inflammation, it also helps your body use protein and fat for fuel instead of a steady stream of simple carbohydrates.
  • For carb intake, stick to complex carbs like squash, sweet potato, beans, and gluten-free grains.
  • For breakfast, have fiber, fat, and protein instead of carbs. This will provide a solid foundation instead of setting off a series of blood sugar ups and downs.
  • Exercise. This is a proven strategy for balancing blood sugar and improving mood. Try and get your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes, 5 times per week.
  • Meditate. This stimulates our anti-inflammatory genes and stabilizes blood sugar.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • When your energy starts to dip, reach for a high protein snack, like nuts or grass-fed meat.
  • Avoid low-fat which often equals even more sugar. In fact, foods like low-fat milk are actually worse for you because there is little or no fat to help stabilize the blood sugar.