You’ve probably heard the expression, “you are what you eat,” but can nutrition affect your mental health? Most definitely. Science is showing that eating healthy food not only benefits the physical body, but is excellent for the brain too.
Since what we eat provides the nutrients available for our body and its various functions, it makes sense that diet would affect our brain chemistry and mood as well. Here’s a look at the link between nutrition and mental health and how the food choices you make influence your mood and emotions.
Nutrition and Mental Health: Is There a Link?
Most of us associate boosting brain power with learning something new or taking on a thought-provoking challenge. As it turns out, one of the best ways to improve mental health is through the stomach.
Your gut has its very own nervous system that sends information to the brain. For example, you might feel nauseous when you’re nervous or stressed. Just as the brain impacts the gut, the contents of the stomach can influence how well, or how poorly, the brain functions. What you choose to put on your plate directly affects your body and mind by delivering the nutrients they need to perform at their best.
While your dietary choices directly affect your physical health, what you eat can influence your emotional health as well. Sometimes called the “food-mood connection,” diet goes a long way toward determining emotional resilience and stability.
Brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are mood regulators that influence how we feel and react. For instance, when gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin are released, we feel calm and relaxed. When we need a zap of energy, dopamine is sent out and motivates and wakes us up. When neurotransmitters are balanced, we are able to respond to situations and people appropriately and our emotions match the circumstances.
Blood sugar can also influence mood. A spike can cause a person to be short-tempered and a drop can leave one feeling tired, depressed, and anxious. A habit of missing meals frequently can drastically drop blood sugar levels and cause mood swings.
Research also suggests that a lack important vitamins, omega-3s, fatty acids, and certain minerals, can alter emotions and mimic the symptoms of mental health disorders. Food allergies, such gluten intolerance, may not only affect you physically, but also cause you to feel miserable emotionally.
Over the past several years, the quality of diet in America and even around the world has drastically declined, and many of us are lacking the nutrients we need. Fast food and processed items have replaced fresh options, and physical and mental health are suffering. It is important to understand that food directly affects our emotions and moods so that we can proactively make changes to better our lives.
Diet and Mental Health
Research investigating the mental health and diet connection continues to expand, and many studies show a link between the quality of nutrition and common mental disorders, including anxiety and depression. Not only can diet impact our emotional health on a temporary basis, but there is evidence that shows food can contribute to how certain mental health issues develop and increase the risk of them appearing. Mental health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, depression, and ADHD have all been linked to nutrition. Even after diagnosis, diet can potentially worsen symptoms if the body is not supplied with the essentials for proper brain function. Giving the body and brain the fuel it needs is vital to preventing disease and managing mental well-being.
Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health
While the heart, bones, digestive system, and everything in between depends on proper nutrition, so, too, does the mind. When you get the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fats you need, your moods are more balanced and you feel a better sense of mental well-being. If your daily diet is filled with high sugar, saturated fats, and processed carbs, your brain suffers and is unable to perform at its peak ability.
You have the power to build emotional resilience and manage your moods effectively. Your neurotransmitters thrive on foods that offer a wide range of benefits and diverse vitamins and minerals. You can support strong mental health with the following nutrients.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and help your brain function properly. A deficiency in amino acids may cause you to feel foggy, unhappy, fatigued, and make it hard to focus. Found in: beans, avocados, peas, eggs, fish, dairy, pumpkin, blueberries, and brown rice.
The chemicals in your brain that alter mood and control other functions rely heavily on vitamin B-12 and other B vitamins. Taking a vitamin B complex supplement can help lower stress, boost a low mood, and improve concentration. You can also obtain these beneficial vitamins through your diet. Found in: bananas, chicken, pork, beef, whole grains, potatoes, and coldwater fish.
Iron helps carry oxygen to other parts of your body through the blood, so a deficiency in this important element can cause mood swings, tiredness, appetite loss, headaches, and low patience. Not having enough iron can also worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety. Found in: raisins, black beans, dark chocolate, grass-fed beef, pistachios, and lentils.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A big supporter of the production of serotonin and dopamine, omega-3s can enhance your memory, lift your mood, and strengthen your problem-solving skills. Omega-3s improve your brain synapses and membranes so you can learn new things and remember how to use skills or perform activities. Found in: flax seeds, sardines, salmon, and walnuts.
Known to boost GABA activity, zinc helps you respond to stress and anxiety in a useful way, keeping you calm and collected. Several cellular and biological processes depend on zinc, and it is strongly tied to your memory and mood. The hippocampus is a part of the brain responsible for storing memories and moving information from your short-term to long-term data bank. Zinc is believed to shield the hippocampus from stressful situations and help it function properly. Found in: mushrooms, spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, turkey, and beef.
Contributing to hundreds of metabolic processes in the body, magnesium helps send out relaxing, calm vibes when you are stressed, scared, restless, or nervous. Magnesium is vital to regulating the nervous system, and a deficiency is linked to a higher chance of suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues. Found in: green peas, soybeans, black beans, sunflower seeds, spinach, almonds, figs, and Brazil nuts.
Foods That Improve Mental Health
It’s time to feed your brain! You will instantly be rewarded by following a diet that improves your body from the inside out. Eat plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, lean protein, and dairy if you aren’t lactose intolerant. You want to minimize added sugar, saturated fat, and excess sodium when possible. If you really tune into your body, you will recognize how certain foods affect your mood and energy level from the day you eat them, to several days down the road. Here are some of the best foods for your brain that can help improve your mental health and keep mood swings in check.
Fatty fish like mackerel, herring, salmon, and sardines offer excellent brain support with important vitamins and minerals like selenium, zinc, omega-3s, and B vitamins.
Carbohydrates supply glucose to the brain and body to help provide fuel for muscles and mental functions. Complex carbohydrates like oats, brown rice, whole wheat items, beans, barley, and soy fill you up and allow glucose to be released slowly. This gradual release keeps your body and brain energized for longer periods of time.
Protein, like carbohydrates, are found in rich amounts throughout the body. The amino acid, tryptophan, is one of protein’s main building blocks and influences the production and release of serotonin. To keep this important neurotransmitter balanced, consume protein from beans, eggs, turkey, chicken, and fish.
Listen to Popeye and eat your spinach. Eating leafy greens like romaine, broccoli, mustard greens, and spinach keeps your brain sharp as you age and improves memory function. Leafy greens are packed with beta carotene, vitamin K, and vitamin E, all important nutrients for safeguarding brain function and health.
Fantastic in oatmeal, blueberries contain superpowers that help ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s or lessen the impact these diseases have on the brain. Packed with antioxidants, blueberries can help improve memory and cognition and balance emotions.
Yogurt and other fermented foods contain probiotics that keep healthy gut bacteria in balance and immune function at optimal levels. When your gut is in good order, your brain is positively affected and you are less susceptible to depressed, stressed, and anxious feelings.
Foods to Avoid
Eating fried foods, processed items, bread, red meat, and margarine can feed inflammation and worsen pre-existing conditions. It’s important to cut down or cut out fried food, fast food, and high-sodium microwave dinners. When you eat these items you consume trans fats, unhealthy refined carbohydrates, and excess sugar.
Nutrition is a key contributor to good mental health, and the food you eat has a significant influence on every aspect of your physical and emotional well-being. Ongoing research is continuing to show how deeply diet and mental health disorders are interconnected and how a deficiency in certain nutrients undoubtedly affects the brain. So, feed your brain a nutrient-dense diet and enjoy the side effect of a much more positive, emotionally stable life.