Can food improve your mental health? From foods that support gut health to reduce anxiety, depression, and overall foods for mental health.
With the holiday season, which can be one of the busiest and the most stressful times of year for most people. Learn the foods for mental health and the nutrients that play a key role in mental health.
What Does Mental Health Mean?
If you ask people what mental health means to them or how they would define it, it’s likely you will get a variety of answers.
According to mentalhealth.gov, mental health is defined as “an emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
According to WHO, mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (1)
Fueling The Brain
If you think of your body like a machine or a car, it’ll run best with premium fuel (i.e. nutrient-dense food). The brain like our other organs, requires enough vitamins, minerals, antioxidants (that protect from oxidative stress).
A diet rich in refined sugars or a general lack of nutrients can create a less favorable environment for stable moods and general mental health, not to mention a diet that lacks proper nutrition can cause inflammation and impair overall brain function.
The ~ Good Mood Food ~ Checklist
Foods for mental health are items you probably already have in your kitchen!
Coffee, the main source of caffeine we consume, has many health benefits. But with people who have anxiety or depression, caffeine in excess may make those symptoms or feelings worse, depending on your unique metabolism of caffeine.
Caffeine from coffee is a stimulant and great for post-workout for some individuals, but on the other hand, if you suffer from anxiety or are living with high stress, coffee isn’t for you.
On the flip side, caffeine has also been shown to help decrease depression and symptoms of anxiety, although those studied were probably “fast metabolizers” and not your average person. If you struggle with depression or tend towards anxiety, try cutting down on coffee and see if you notice a difference in the way you feel. (2)
Whether these are gluten-free grains or whole grains, both are great sources of carbohydrates, which our body breaks down into glucose. Glucose is the primary energy source of the brain — i.e. the brain loves to thrive on glucose and uses it up quickly for all the processes it’s responsible for!
Not all carbohydrates are creating equal, try to consume more whole grains or whole food carbohydrates which are better sources of fiber and nutrients. The fiber in whole grain carbohydrates will reduce the blood sugar spikes in comparison to simple sugars like the ones found in processed sweets, sugary beverages, and candies.
Whole grains are also good sources of a variety of nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron, and more.
A study on the Mediterranean diet, which is a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, grains, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil, with a fish oil supplement, led to a decrease in depression of the study participants which was maintained six months after the study. (3)
This was also the case in the participants in the SMILES trial, which showed after 12 weeks of eating a Mediterranean diet, clinically depressed people had a reduction in depression. (4)
Dark leafy greens
Vegetables including dark leafy greens are great foods for mental health because they’re rich in antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Including vitamin K, C, A, beta-carotene, calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and much more.
Gut Health and Mental Health
From the gut-brain connection, vagus nerve, and key hormone production like serotonin that happens in the digestive tract, it’s no wonder paying close attention to gut health is key.
The gut-brain connection
The gut-brain axis (GBA) is a two-way street of communication between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS), linking the emotional and mental centers of the brain that affect our digestive system and intestinal functions.
These microbes help direct the traffic flow along the connection between our gut and our brain. This direct connection, known as “the gut-brain connection”, makes up two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract. The cells run all the way from your esophagus to your rectum via the vagus nerve. Emerging research continues to show us how the gut directly influences human physiology, metabolism, and immune function.
Changing the gut flora could directly affect anxiety and cognition. (6) This is just another reason we should be consuming a diet rich in whole foods, which include fiber and the “food” or prebiotics for the good bacteria in our digestive system.
Serotonin plays many roles in our body, especially in stabilizing moods, sleep, appetite, and digestion. Remember the relationship between tryptophan and serotonin? 90% of the important brain neurotransmitter serotonin, that can affect mood, digestion, and health is produced in the gut. Certain bacteria found the gut play a large part in producing the serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have also been linked to IBS, heart disease and osteoporosis. (7)
The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion, such as feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, and joy can trigger symptoms in the gut. (8) The gut-brain connection goes both ways; stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress and/or depression. (9)
The Art Of Food In Mental Health
Outside the scope of science, there’s also a part of this puzzle that can’t be ignored, that’s the subjective — i.e. the unique experiences you feel when eating foods. Call it comfort food, the enjoyment factor, or just meals you enjoy that bring you joy.
The beautiful thing about nutrition and health is that it’s completely unique to you. Yes, there’s research and studies that will show what we know about XYZ topic and how it impacts that group being studied, but it still comes down to your individual makeup. Always use science and evidence-based research as the backbone, but don’t forget to make sure it works for you individually.
Think about a homecooked meal you grew up on, that always cultivates a sense of hygge (i.e. coziness), maybe that’s moms chicken soup or your best friends pasta dish. Those are foods that can cause a little mental and emotional boost during times where you’re searching for a connection.
Finding a sense of connection and hygge in meals can be part of a healthy relationship with food — it becomes an unhealthy relationship with food when you’re solely relying on food to comfort, calm, or connect you to others. Just like anything else in health, it’s multifaceted and every pillar plays a role in the complete package we call health.
All of our diets, lifestyles, internal and external factors can impact our mental health in different ways — the key is finding what works for you through trial and error and professional guidance if needed.
We know that a diet rich in whole foods, especially rich in nutrients like omega-3 fats, vitamin D, fiber, lean protein, probiotic-rich foods, and folic acid can make a positive impact in our mental health. (10) Also, make sure you’re eating enough is just as important and often overlooked.
What are your experiences with using food to help improve your mental and emotional health? What other lifestyle changes have you made to help support your mental health? If you’re looking for more articles on mental health, check out about burnout, foods that help with burnout, social media detox, manage stress like a pro, and other ways to stay mindful each day.
If You Need Help, Talk About It.
We all need help — I’ll be the first to happily, loudly, and proudly share that what gets me through spells of anxiety or depression is speaking with my family, friends, licensed therapist, checking in with my physician regularly, and engaging in other modes of functional medicine that kept me grounded like acupuncture, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises. It takes multiple pillars of health and is a daily practice.
Always remember, that you’re not alone even if it feels like you are and that nothing ever stays constant — we’re always evolving and changing, that’s true for the hard times too.