Mental Health and Nutrition

Mental Health and Nutrition effects on the Brain

Mental health is intimately related to nutrition. Not only can the foods that you eat affect your mental health, but your mental health can greatly impact what you eat.  If you are depressed, anxious, or dealing with other mental health issues, you may fail to eat nutritious foods. This perpetuates the cycle of poor mental health. Think of your brain as a premium automobile that operates to peak performance when it is fueled by premium fuel. In the case of your brain, the best fuel, or nutrition, is healthy foods that are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Fueling your body and your brain with anything other than premium fuel, however, can wreak havoc, causing mental, physical and emotional problems. Here, we will discuss how mental health and nutrition are related; what foods may contribute to depression, anxiety and poor mental health; and which foods promote good mental health.

How Can Nutrition Affect Mental Health?

Neurotransmitters are vital to proper brain functioning. One of the most important neurotransmitters when it comes to mental health is serotonin. This neurotransmitter helps to regulate your appetite, sleep patterns, moods, and even to lessen pain. Much of the serotonin in the body, about 95 percent to be exact, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with neurons. These neurons, and the production of serotonin in the digestive tract, are influenced by good bacteria found within the intestines. Good bacteria help to protect your intestinal lining, limit inflammation throughout the body, help your body to better absorb nutrients from food, and activates neural pathways between the digestive tract and the brain.

Healthy habits to boost brain activity

Studies have found that those who avoid processed and refined foods and sugars, and eat more unprocessed, fermented foods, have lower rates of depression.

In fact, those eating what are known as traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet and the Japanese diet, have rates of depression that are 25 to 35 percent lower than those who eat a typical Western diet comprised of processed, refined foods and sugars. Traditional, healthier diets are higher in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish, and seafood, as well as fermented foods, and have smaller amounts of lean meats and dairy. Western diets, on the other hand, contain more processed and refined foods and sugars. It has been shown that the foods found in traditional diets act in the gut as natural probiotics, encouraging more good bacteria. Good bacteria in the digestive tract influences how your gut digests and absorbs food, affecting inflammation throughout the entire body, and impacting mood and mental health.

Which Foods Can Contribute to Mental Health Problems?

Foods that have been shown to contribute to poor mental health include those with trans-fatty acids, also known as partially hydrogenated oil, which have been shown to adversely affect the heart, brain and nervous system. While years ago, margarines containing trans-fatty acids were marketed as lowering cholesterol, researchers now know that trans-fat distorts cell membranes, adversely affecting many bodily systems, including mental health and performance. Trans fats may even contribute to cognitive decline in older adults and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Foods that commonly contain trans fats and should be avoided for good mental health include:

  • Microwave popcorn
  • Commercial baked goods (pies, cookies, cakes)
  • Frozen pizza
  • Shortening
  • Refrigerated dough (biscuits, rolls)
  • Nondairy coffee creamer
  • Stick margarine
  • Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, doughnuts)

Learn to read labels and avoid foods with trans fats/partially hydrogenated oils. Look for foods with poly and monounsaturated fats instead.

Other foods to avoid include processed foods and foods with white, refined flour, and refined sugar, also known as simple carbohydrates. These can contribute to unregulated blood sugar, causing moods to fluctuate. They include, but are not limited to:

  • White bread
  • Potato chips
  • White pasta
  • White rice
  • Sugar sodas

Caffeine in foods and beverages should also be avoided if you are trying to improve your mental health. It can increase anxiety and irritability and cause reduced sleep. Remember, caffeine is not only found in coffee and tea, but also in colas, chocolate, and energy drinks.

Alcohol is also detrimental to mental health. Drinking too much can disrupt neurotransmitters that contribute to good mental health. It can also interfere with any mental health medications you may be taking for existing problems.

Which Foods Tend to Promote Better Mental Health?

List of food that is good for you brain

A study from 2019 published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that those who were diagnosed with clinical depression and ate more fruits and vegetables had reduced depression symptoms. Another study in 2022 by the American Society of Nutrition found that those with clinical depression who received nutritional counseling and help with meal planning to eat a Mediterranean diet over 12 weeks reduced their depression scores by 20.6 points. Nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy fats can all help to reduce inflammation throughout the body and alter serotonin and other neurotransmitters, helping to reduce depression symptoms.

Foods that tend to enhance mental health include staples of traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet and the Japanese diet, such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables, especially leafy greens
  • Whole, unprocessed, unrefined grains
  • Complex carbohydrates (brown rice, brown pasta, whole grain fiber-filled foods)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Legumes, such as peas, lentils, and beans
  • Lean proteins (skinless chicken, fatty fish, eggs, Greek yogurt)

Protein is vital to include in each meal, as it contains amino acids that are used by the brain to help regulate mood.

Other foods that are good for gut health, and in turn, can help improve mental health, include:

  • Fermented foods
  • Live yogurt
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi
  • Dried beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils

How Can I Improve My Mental Health Through the Foods I Eat?

If you want to try to improve your own mental health through eating better foods, dietitians and nutritionists suggest eating a clean diet for two to three weeks. This entails getting rid of all processed foods and sugars. After two to three weeks, you may start introducing foods back into your diet one at a time, to see how they make you feel, both mentally and physically. Hydration is also crucial to good mental health, affecting mood and concentration as well as energy levels.

Another important thing to remember when you are trying to improve your mental health through what you eat is just that: remember to eat on a regular schedule.

Many people with depression, anxiety and mental issues may neglect self-care and forget to eat, which lowers blood sugar, making them feel even worse.

Blood sugar can be regulated through eating foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, brown pasta, nuts and seeds, which promote balanced blood sugar levels.