All humans were built with the “fight or flight” response and our ancestors were no different. Like everyone, our ancestors experienced anxiety and likely bouts of depression; the issue is that generalized anxiety disorder as well as well as depression has and continues to rise at an alarming rate. Generally speaking, our ancestors did experience anxiety and depression, but not to the disordered extent that many people do today. What was once a necessary and built in mechanism to protect us from danger has become a constant for some people.

Anxiety disorder wasn’t even diagnosed until 1980, not so long ago in the scope of medical diagnoses. While the root cause of anxiety and depression (which are often both present) is different for everyone, there are several dietary factors that contribute to these mental disorders.

Food: Fat, Inflammation, Toxins, Soil Depletion

Our ancestors, whether from one thousand or one hundred years ago, did not fear fat. The low-fat craze is still alive and well, just take a look around your grocery store. Skim milk, low-fat cheese and 0% yogurt are easier to get a hold of than their full-fat counterparts. While our ancestors ate lard, eggs and meat, many people have moved away from this ancestral diet and instead adopted a more plant based, high-carb, low-fat diet.

Not only are we not designed to eat this way, this type of eating has very real effects on the body and brain. Over half of our cells are made up of cholesterol, over 60% of the brain is made up of fat. If you’re not eating fat, and the right fats in particular, the brain suffers. A lack of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are especially concentrated in fish oil, has been shown to cause mood disorders. Sarah Conklin, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh presented a study that showed low levels of EPA and DHA were related to mood impairment.

We were able to show that individuals who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids in their diets had more gray matter volume in areas of the brain important for regulating mood. These results suggest that these specific fats, certainly not fat in general, may confer a protective effect against depression and other mood-related problems.

And from Dr. Sears,

There are two omega-3 fatty acids in the brain. The first is called docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. This is primarily a structural component for the brain. The other is called eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. This is the primary anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid for the brain. So if the levels of EPA are low in the blood, they are going to be low in the brain. To further complicate the matter, the lifetime of EPA in the brain is very limited (3,4). This means you have to have a constant supply in the blood stream to keep neuro-inflammation under control.

This new way of eating also contributes to inflammation. A high-grain, low-fat diet that employs the use of vegetable oils causes extreme inflammation. The omega-3 to omega-6 ratio should be about 3:1, instead it’s about 1:30 in modern diets. A lack of beneficial fats, like coconut oil, egg yolks, pastured butter and avocados only adds to the problem. According to Dr. Emily Deans,

…inflammatory cytokines also interfere with the regulation of another neurotransmitter, glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that, if left to go wild, can pound our NMDA receptors in the brain and wreak major havoc. No one wants overexcited NMDA receptors, and clinical depression is one among many nasty brain issues that can be caused by overexcitement. Astrocytes, little clean-up cells in the brain, are supposed to mop up excess glutamate to keep it from going nutso on the NMDA. Turns out inflammatory cytokines interfere with the clean-up process.

Finally, inflammatory cytokines also push the brain from a general environment of happy “neuroplasticity” (mediated in part by a type of natural brain fertilizer called “BDNF“) towards an environment of neurotoxicity (sounds bad, and it is!).

Inflammation is one of the most damaging conditions for the brain (and well, everything else too!). It is absolutely necessary to eat the correct fats and quite a bit of them to quell inflammation. Foods high in EPA and DHA are wild seafood, pastured meat, organ meats and egg yolks. In Toxic Fat, Dr. Sears discusses the surge in anxiety and depression being linked to an imbalance of AA and EPA.

What causes AA to increase is a combination of increased consumption of vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids coupled with an increase in the consumption of refined carbohydrates that generate insulin. When excess omega-6 fatty acids interact with increased insulin, you get a surge of AA production. At the same time, our consumption of fish rich in EPA has decreased. The end result is an increasing AA/EPA ratio in the blood, which means a corresponding increase in the same AA/EPA ratio in the brain creating more cellular inflammation.

Food toxins also play a huge role in the onset of anxiety and depression. Not only do they contribute to inflammation, they alter the gut flora. While we are just beginning to understand the gut-brain connection, we know that whatever is occurring in the gut has a direct impact on the brain. From Harvard Medical School,

The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected — so intimately that they should be viewed as one system. (emphasis mine)

A recent study at UCLA demonstrated that yogurt intake could positively affect brain function, particularly feelings of anxiety. According to the researchers,

Four-week intake of an FMPP [fermented milk product with probiotic] by healthy women affected activity of brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation.

Considering food toxins like GMOs, vegetable oils, high sugar intake and processed ingredients negatively impact gut flora, it’s important to not only eliminate these ingredients but also take a high quality probiotic. While our ancestors regularly ate probiotics via fermented foods and soil, the modern diet is severely lacking.

Prior to soil depletion, soil used to be rich with magnesium. Our ancestors had a regular intake of magnesium from soil as well as bathing in and drinking water rich with magnesium. Unfortunately, soil and drinking water are no longer rich with magnesium.

Magnesium plays a hugely important role in the body; it is required for cell growth and development, normal blood pressure, enables thousands of biochemical processes, contributes to the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, and releases appropriate amount of serotonin in the brain. Without adequate magnesium, the brain will not properly release serotonin.  This leads to both anxiety and depression.

I recommend a transdermal magnesium supplement; I personally use this magnesium oil lotion before bed. It is deeply relaxing and promotes restful sleep.

To mitigate the effects of anxiety and depression, eat as closely to nature as possible, like your ancestors did. No fad diets, no 100 calorie snack packs, no low-fat crap. Eat real food. My 21 Day Lifestyle Transformation includes meal plans, recipes and grocery lists to help you overhaul your diet in three weeks. If you suffer from anxiety and/or depression, or even if you just want to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I suggest avoiding these foods:

  • sugar – especially refined sugars including high fructose corn syrup and agave nectar
  • unhealthy fats – cottonseed oil, canola oil, soy oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil
  • GMOs
  • refined carbohydrates
  • wheat, gluten
  • inorganic meat and dairy

I also use essential oils to manage my own anxiety, stress and mood. You can find those here

Also note that I didn’t even include other factors like sleep, stress, family life, community, etc. All of these are factors for depression and anxiety.

Why do we struggle so much with anxiety and depression when our ancestors didn't?! Find out what foods we should eliminate and which we should include to properly fuel brain function!


53 responses on “Why Your Ancestors Didn’t Have Anxiety Or Depression And You Do

  1. Jessica

    I was excited to read this article, Dani! I have suffered with anxiety/panic disorder for almost 17 years (since I was 12). About 2 years ago I adopted a paleo lifestyle after attempting vegetarianism/veganism. I was so thin, so weak, so sick, so anxious, had acne, and my digestion was horrible. I relied on a bunch of grains which completely ruined me.

    I’m so proud to say that after incorporating tons of fat (grass-fed butter, coconut oil/milk, avocados, eggs, and pastured meats) as well as supplementing with magnesium and working on my sleep and stress, I have ditched my anxiety (and acne, improved digestion, and gained healthy weight)! I occasionally have a very mild panic attack but I can usually narrow it down to what I have done or not done. I’ve done this all without the help of a medical doctor. When I did go to the doctor, all she wanted to do was shove a pill down my throat and not address my lifestyle.

    Even though I have my degree in nutrition, I never learned about traditional foods. Everything was low-fat, high-carb, FDA, my pyramid crap-ola. My health has been saved by my own research AFTER graduation.

    Love your articles!

    1. dani stout Post author

      It is insane how much your story matches mine! Literally everything you said is my story to a T.

      So glad you were able to overcome your anxiety as well!

  2. C

    “Anxiety disorder wasn’t even diagnosed until 1980, not so long ago in the scope of medical diagnoses. ”

    Exactly. That’s why my ancestors didn’t have anxiety or depression. Because they did, but mental health science wasn’t a field yet. Now that it is, of course, people can cherry pick the science to sell diet plans.
    And GMOs are not a food toxin. They’re food. If anything genetically modified by humans is a toxin, then all of agriculture modified through selective breeding throughout history is toxic.

    1. dani stout Post author

      Maybe you somehow missed the first paragraph, let me reiterate:

      “Like everyone, our ancestors experienced anxiety and likely bouts of depression; the issue is that generalized anxiety disorder as well as well as depression has and continues to rise at an alarming rate.”

      GMOs are not toxic? You may want to do some more research on that, buddy:

      And you clearly need to do more research on the difference between genetic modification and hybridization. Here’s an article to help you out:

      1. Melanie

        Right on, girl!! So happy for this! And thankful you know your stuff and aren’t going to be intimidated or back down from people who try to sell us garbage. I have brought myself out of a wheelchair and from a life that bordered on death for many years by ditching artificial CRAP in my food as well as cleaning and personal care products. I’m not “there” yet but I’m so much better than I was and my quality of life is at least a LIFE now!!!! Thank you for all of this…I will be following. Sending you love and hugs for what you’re doing. xoxo

    2. Ivy

      What are GMOs?
      GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. These experimental combinations of genes from different species cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.

      Virtually all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide.

        1. Ben Boneresh

          The paper discussed in the Jeffrey Smith article was retracted because it was so poorly conducted. It had too few animals, a lack of proper controls, and the treatment of animals varied between conditions. I recommend you read the original research articles with a critical and open mind, as Jeffery Smith is well known to misquote and over interpret results.

    3. Herve


      your comment “Because they did, but mental health science wasn’t a field yet.” is just not true. I’d urge you to have a look at a book published in 1937

      The mentally ill in America, by Albert Deutsch, Columbia University press

      with records dating back to the early 1800s.

      there has been significant studies made on GMOs dangers, but you might be closer to the truth than you think when you say “all of agriculture modified through selective breeding throughout history is toxic”. See for instance

      1. Colleen

        They definitely did have a twisted view on mental illness back then, though, even though the field of mental health did exist. Women were diagnosed with hysteria and put in asylums for ridiculous reasons.

        A great example is Elizabeth Packard; she was sent by her husband to an asylum because she disagreed with his opinions. When she was committed, it was completely legal to commit a wife by her husband without a public hearing or consent. Note that it didn’t go both ways. People may have had a significant amount of anxiety/depression back then, but were misdiagnosed. Just something to keep in mind when looking at the rates of anxiety/depression now vs then.

        I completely agree with our food contributing to anxiety and depression and that having a healthier diet will help alleviate symptoms (I’ve definitely experienced this personally), but I think it’s also important to keep in mind what the world of mental health was like back then.

        1. dani Post author

          Everyone seems to be unclear on what an ancestor is and what I’m referring to. It’s not this century or the last. It’s remote relatives, hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

          1. Gail G.

            Your article was very interesting, and I agree with much of it. I am not a professional in any field relating to this topic, nor am I affiliated with any food industry. It seems to me if we eat what our grandparents and great grandparents ate, (mineral soil depletion didn’t become a significant problem until the 1950’s, if I’m not mistaken), we would all live longer, healthier lives. But, why the ‘demonization’ of sugar? True, our grandparents did not eat sugar in the amounts that modern folks do, soda pop was consumed rarely, if ever, and the same was true of candy bars, both of which are filled with artificial additives. But, they did consume sugar, and if you check the cookbooks of the era, they reflect that. Cakes, cookies, ice cream, were consumed, if not on a weekly basis, (depending, of course, upon their economic status), then on a monthly basis, with no apparent ill effects. ‘Fudge parties’, were quite the rage at the turn of the century, and lingered for a decade or two. America seems to have produced the ‘new religion’ of food fads, and, as extremism is the hallmark of any fad, perhaps attitudes of moderation are called for?

          2. dani Post author

            Those are not our ancestors. Grandparents are not ancestors. When I refer to ancestors, I’m referencing the diets of humans thousands of years ago.

    4. Mary

      Mental illness is mentioned in biblical times. They thought people were possessed by evil spirits.
      Unfortunately people can be mislead that GMOs and other insults and poisons to our food and environment are “not that bad”. That’s how so much damage has been caused to the point that it is almost beyond repair.
      This article is so true. People have to care and make small changes in their lives to effect BIG change in the world. Just look at what happened after years and years of work to liberate the Orcas at SeaWorld. In a few more decades they will all be wild again. Maybe we can have chemical free food someday if we keep asking for it.

    5. Amy

      Exactly what I was thinking. Selective breeding of plant species is also considered a gmo. If we didn’t have the breeding programs we do we wouldn’t have the delicious food we eat today. Science is not always a monster. The gmo’s you are speaking of are the dangerous and toxic variety, like being able to withstand certain chemicals, but you need to understand that all gmo’s are not created equal and should not be placed under the same umbrella.

      1. dani Post author

        No, that’s hybridization and there’s a huge difference between that and genetic modification. They are two separate and very different things.

  3. Liz

    Great article! So many problems today are caused by our poor diet as a country.

    Just wanted to point out a very minor thing, you said, “A recent study at UCLA demonstrated that yogurt intake could positively effect brain function, particularly feelings of anxiety.”
    It’s “affect” not “effect” in this instance.

    I really appreciated how well-researched your article was, and didn’t want any grammatical errors to take away from it 🙂

  4. K

    I love this post as I too have found that changing my diet has helped with my own anxiety and post natal depression. Real food is awesome and so is your blog!

    Just as a side note, you should check out the history of the insane asylums in the United States. We are blessed to live in a time that is more understanding of mental health issues. If I had lived back then I would have done everything possible to hide symptoms that would resemble anxiety or depression. Anyone who was not ‘normal’ could be put in the asylums, often by their own families. Thank goodness we live a time where we can talk about health issues like this without the fear of such a place.

    1. dani stout Post author

      Thank you! And very interesting links. I’m definitely glad we live in a time when people aren’t mindlessly thrown into asylums; it’s crazy to think how recently that was commonplace.

  5. Darcie

    Speaking of toxic foods, inflammation and healthy fats for brain development, are you aware that there is an Enfamil formula ad front and center on your page? I’m not sure how these things work and I’m sure you don’t select the individual ads that appear here, but you ought to somehow be able to control them so the don’t market products that completely contradict your useful information.

  6. Holly

    Aww very pretty :), I take it your eating all the healthy stuff.

    Thanks for the great article, I found it on pinterest.

  7. sara

    Sorry but yes are ancestors had mental illnesses they were just locked away in asylums never to be heard of again and there was no internet social media psychologists etc to blast it everywhere. I suffer with anxiety and have since I was 11. My mom her dad his mom her mom…..and farther back had mental illness. I know its worse because of internet hypochondria media etc…but our ancestors definitely had mental illness and lots of it.

    1. dani stout Post author

      You don’t understand the article. I’m not talking about your great grandmother, I’m talking about our ancestors from hundred and even thousands of years ago. Again, anxiety wasn’t even diagnosed until the 80s. I think I also made it pretty clear that anxiety and depression have spiked in the last 10-15 years.

  8. Maggie Anders

    Great article, I believe it very much so and I am reaping the benefits of changing my diet and eating an organic paleo diet. My depression and anxiety levels have greatly improved.

  9. Sara

    I do understand your article. However one of the first people to live on this planet killed his brother (Cain and able) I don’t know what you would call that but I call that mental illness. King henry v111 was a mad man. If you read history mental illness was there. But u r right in stating it was not “officially diagnosed” until the 80s. Before people were just labeled “crazy, weird, disturbed, insane” whatever. I agree wholeheartedly our nutrition isn’t what it used to be and it never will be as the end times get closer. But although I appreciate your pass on for health your articles are a bit far fetched at times.

    1. Sharon

      Didn’t henry go mad because he had a std. As for the first 2 brothers, that was just plain ole greed and jealousy, as far as I am concerned. I am not discounting your beliefs, but there is a difference between real mental health issues and excuses for poor behaviours

  10. Sara

    I also believe anxiety has increased because of media social media internet etc. We constantly know every horrible thing happening at every corner of the world and many people feed off of this, subscribe to it so they have constant updates all day long. Less time in nature more time in everyone’s business. Hundreds and thousdands of years ago no one knew what was happening 10 miles from where they lived let alone Israel and Africa! Society is choosing a path of self destruction and without Jesus anxiety will continue to hang around.

  11. Sara

    Yikes I don’t mean to sound like a troll! I truly appreciate your passion for health and reading your history of anxiety (I battle it too…awful at times) I know your intentions are good. 🙂

  12. Talesin

    I was believing everything you s aid until you said anxiety was labeled until 1980. I suffered with my first bout with in 1977, went to Dr. and was asked “is anything in my life bothering me, etc” same kind of questions they will ask you now to see if your overstressed or something, i suggest you do some more research.

    1. dani stout Post author

      I didn’t say anxiety didn’t exist until 1980, I said it wasn’t diagnosed until 1980. It’s deeply offensive when people tell me I need to do more research simply because they haven’t done their own. I provide facts:

      Also, I’m unclear as to what you mean by “I was believing everything you s aid until you said anxiety was labeled until 1980.” That was literally one of my first points and the opening to this article. I didn’t even provide any research prior to this.

  13. Jessica

    Unless you’re referring specifically to the standard American diet of French fries, cheeseburgers, and soft drinks, I believe our incredibly sedentary lifestyles has more to do with depression than a lack of fat in our diets. Our ancestors died between the ages of 35 and 55, and had a lot of heart and cholesterol issues. Furthermore, based on the way our hands, teeth, and digestive tracts are made, we are best suited to a vegan diet.

  14. Just Plain Marie

    I don’t know about our ancestors not having depression or anxiety. My grandmother was born in 1914 and suffered from severe depression all of her life. (It wasn’t diagnosed until a few years before she died, which was unfortunate.)

    She was a farmer’s wife and they ate eggs, meat, lard, full-fat milk from grass-fed cows, 100% real food grown on the farm. Judging from family stories, she inherited her depression from her father, and I know that it has been passed down to her descendants, so I would say that it’s an inheritable family trait.

    1. dani Post author

      A grandmother is not an ancestor. An ancestor is a family member even further remote than a great-grandparent. When I refer to ancestors I’m typically talking about hundreds and hundreds to thousands and thousand of years ago.

  15. Vicki

    Obviously, people have nothing better to do than read articles just to attack others. I think you have valid points and you provided resources to look at. Why was it so important for so many people to contradict you, after you had explained and explained. I believe this is one (notice one) reason for increase in mental problems, along with the other reasons cited. It ALL ties in. What I mean is the world has gotten smaller and smaller. We see and know more about people than we ever have in other places besides our own small towns. And if we lived on farms it was even more limited access. Our food and additives are actually poisoning us. This person is trying to get you to look at something you might look into. There are more stressors than ever. And we were not aware of how many people were affected by anxiety and depression in our ancestors but I believe there IS a correlation to our diets of today. If you do not agree take it with a grain of salt and move on instead of making such a big deal out of proving someone wrong. Great info but it could be given without such animosity.

  16. L. Gould

    The ancestry photo that you have used is very interesting; as it resembles my family ancestors. I have a photo that goes with it too! I would be very interested to know more about the photo! I saw this as a post on Pinterest and was so surprised to see it! I had to contact you about it. I can also share the twin picture of my family ancestors!

    1. dani Post author

      I actually purchased it via a stock photo site, wish there was a cooler story behind where I got it!

  17. Jake Woods

    I enjoyed this article. I dont feel though that a particular diet will work for everybody. People are different and different things will work for different people.
    The science in regards to food (GMO’s) will always have critics on either side, forever. Its just one of those things.

    What id like to see done differently next time is some in text references where your statments come from or are they just opinion.


    1. dani Post author

      There are links to all of that information directly in the article. It’s not just my opinion, it’s back up by scientific sources.

  18. Adrianne

    Great blog. I keep telling my hubby his stomach and all other health issues is the food he eats. It is drowning in gmo’s. We do not eat the same at any given meal. When he went overseas just a few months ago I had to decide what to do with all his food. Well slap me in the head I started to eat it so not to waste and throwing out what I knew was gmo. Needless to say I gained 38 lbs in just over a month and have the same protruding hard gut he has been fighting and inflammation in the limbs among the many more issues. I did more research on gmo and found 90% of what I kept had gmo in them. So everything has now been discarded. Three days after going through the gmo list of foods and brands that have them and tossing them I have lost weight and my stomach is going down. The foods are addicting for sure. They spend millions and millions of dollars to get the taste just right. Then they come out with ads like “You just can’t have one”. He who controls the food controls the people. We are what we eat for sure.

  19. Chris

    Hi Dani, I just want to say that I’ve been vegan for 5 years and in my teens I suffered from anxiety and depression, since I became vegan my life changed: I felt with more energy than ever, i felt happy and healthy and I didn’t felt anxious,anymore, also I became more aware of my body and depression was gone, plus I did’t have to kill animals.
    So I know maybe a vegan diet is hard to follow for some people but also your diet it’s not what I felt was right to my body. It come to my mind how dairy and meat has a lot of hormones and toxins like that, maybe that’s the reason why our ancestors ate meat and were healthy. Anyways, it’s always ok to read some other points of view but I will stay vegan because that’s what has worked for me.

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