Perhaps you’re going to therapy regularly, you’ve found a workout schedule you love, and you spend plenty of time with your family and friends—but you’re still feeling sluggish and experiencing mood surges and crashes.
Could your diet be the culprit for your mental wellness lows?
It’s a strong possibility.
The more we learn about the interplay of diet and mental health, the more we learn how intertwined these two forces are. Read on to discover why nutrition is important for mental health, and which foods can help improve mental wellness.
Why is Nutrition Important for Mental Health?
Diet and mental health are so closely connected, the GI tract is sometimes called the “second brain” of the body.
Harvard Health cites that “about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract.” Serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter that helps you regulate sleep, appetite, mood, and pain. So, when you’re not treating your gastrointestinal tract right, you may not be producing the amounts of serotonin you need for a healthy, happy mind.
Does Nutrition Affect Mental Health?
Due to the creation of serotonin in the GI tract, nutrition and mental health go hand-in-hand. This makes sense when you consider how your brain needs energy to function—this energy comes from the food you eat.
As an example, you’ve probably been warned about eating excess sugar. High amounts of refined sugar in your diet can be harmful to your brain and body in many ways:
- It promotes inflammation in the body
- It impairs normal brain function
- It results in energy highs and crashes
- It damages the way your body regulates insulin
- It can even worsen symptoms of depression
And sugar is just one item on the menu.
Food That Helps Improve Mental Wellness
Scientists have studied many diets to understand the role food plays in mental wellness.
Traditional Mediterranean and Japanese diets, for example, have been studied to isolate why the people of these cultures exhibit a 25% to 35% lower risk of depression than those who eat a traditional “Western” diet.
While this is likely due to the absence of highly processed foods and refined sugars, there are 7 other types of nutrients and food for mental health improvement.
#1 Whole Foods
Processed foods with added dyes, preservatives, and other additives can possibly worsen depression and hyperactivity. As a general rule of thumb, the fewer ingredients on a nutritional label, the better. Strive for “whole” plant-based foods, like fruits and vegetables, to be a big part of your diet.
#2 Fermented foods
Probiotics—live bacteria that are great for your digestive system—are plentiful in fermented foods. You may be familiar with the popular fermented drink, kombucha; but any fermented foods can provide you with probiotics including kimchi, miso, kefir, and more.
Want to avoid sugar rushes and crashes, as well as keep your GI tract ticking like a clock? Fibrous foods help your body absorb glucose, and aid in digestion. These include whole fruits, veggies, beans and legumes, and whole grains.
#4 Vitamin D
This sunny essential helps produce serotonin. If you’re deficient in Vitamin D (more common in colder parts of the country), consider taking a supplement. Some mushrooms like reishi, maitake, and cordyceps are also a great source of Vitamin D.
Any mineral deficiency can be harmful to your body, but magnesium deficiencies are especially vital to your mood. A lack of magnesium can negatively affect your gut flora, causing symptoms akin to anxiety and depression. The best way to get your magnesium is from almonds, cashews, bananas, beans, or dark chocolate.
Sometimes lumped in with “superfoods,” antioxidant rich meals help fight inflammation. They include Omega-3 fatty acids, found in chia seeds and fish. Dark leafy greens, turmeric, and dark chocolate also fight inflammation.
#7 Folate (B-9) and B-12
Folate and B-12 have been used to combat symptoms of depression and help the natural production of dopamine. Leafy greens, lentils, and cantaloupes contain folate. B-12 is a little trickier to find through food, and is better absorbed with a vitamin.
Your Mental Wellness and Diet Journey
Regardless of which foods are recommended, diet is incredibly personal. The best way to find out which diet is right for you is to go on that journey yourself.
It’s never healthy to crash diet, so be wary of “miracle cures” and weight loss advertising. Instead, be mindful of what you eat and notice how you feel after eating certain foods. Try to recognize how your energy levels are affected.
Are you experiencing any sort of crash, headache, or other negative effects after eating? If so, consider cutting out these foods from your diet.
Mental wellness is not easy as swapping a burger for a salad and watching your depression fade away. It’s about playing the long game. Try different foods, listen to your body, and slowly but surely take steps toward a healthier, happier you.
Harvard Health Publishing. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
Mental Health.org. Diet and Mental Health. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/d/diet-and-mental-health
NCBI. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/
Medical News Today. Does diet influence mental health? Assessing the evidence. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327422#It-makes-sense
Aetna. Food for your mood: How what you eat affects your mental health. https://www.aetna.com/health-guide/food-affects-mental-health.html#:~:text=When%20you%20stick%20to%20a,symptoms%20of%20depression%20and%20anxiety.
Nature.com. The Mediterranean vs the Japanese diet. https://www.nature.com/articles/1601970#:~:text=People%20of%20the%20Mediterranean%20countries,beverages%20between%20the%20two%20cases.