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How Nutrition Can Improve Mental Health

November 8, 2022

Many people struggle with their mental health. In fact, anxiety and depression are some of the most common and debilitating illnesses. While you’re probably aware that medication and therapy can be effective, there’s another promising approach that you may have overlooked for mental health: your diet.

What’s the Connection Between Diet and Mental Health?

How you think and feel depends a lot on what you eat. Just like a car needs a certain type of fuel to operate, the brain needs nutrition in order to work properly. With rising depression rates over the past few decades, diets have been worsening. Is that a coincidence? Science says no.

There are a few main ways in which subpar nutrition can contribute to poor mental health. First, countless studies have shown that certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids (building blocks for proteins) are depleted in people with a mental illness. This makes sense because the brain needs these nutrients to produce mood-regulating chemicals, like serotonin. So, if you don’t provide enough material to build these substances through your diet, your brain won’t be able to stabilize your mood as effectively.

Besides nutrient deficiencies, mood disorders are also associated with oxidative stress and inflammation. As the brain uses oxygen, it generates waste products. Oxidative stress occurs when these waste products have built up and caused damage to nerve cells. An adequately nutritious diet allows the body to mop up these waste products and get rid of them, as needed. However, people with clinical depression have higher oxidative stress levels, as they’re less able to eliminate harmful waste material from the body. Inflammation is also a natural bodily process that is usually kept in check – this time by the immune system. But, when a person’s diet doesn’t contain enough immune-regulating foods, inflammation can persist for long periods of time in the brain, leading to depression.

There is also growing evidence that tiny organisms living in the gut can contribute towards anxiety and depression. Depressed individuals have been found to have distinct types and amounts of gut bacteria compared to healthy individuals. Interestingly, these differences have been linked to oxidative stress and inflammation levels in the brain. 

All this to say that nutrition not only has a major influence on your gut composition, but also directly impacts oxidative stress and inflammation. Combined with the fact that a good diet can make anti-depressants and other therapies more effective, diet is an important, and yet often overlooked, consideration for both the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders.

Is There Such a Thing as a”Brain Healthy Diet”?

We’ve just learned that good nutrition can boost your mental well-being by:

  • Providing sufficient nutrients to regulate mood
  • Reducing oxidative stress and inflammation
  • Balancing your gut bacteria levels
  • Boosting your medication’s effects

But what exactly is a “brain healthy diet”? Does it even exist? 

Research suggests that traditional Mediterranean, Japanese, and Norwegian diets can boost happiness and lower anxiety.  All these diets contain plenty of nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, fish, dairy or soy, and whole-grain.

In contrast, consuming too much fat, sugar, and starch means you are more likely to suffer from depression. Scientists believe that this type of eating behaviour – often linked to food addiction – is an unhealthy stress coping strategy that promotes obesity and mood dysfunction in the long run.

Which Nutrients are Good for Mental Health?

Some nutrients are more beneficial than others when it comes to mental health:

  • Omega-3s
  • B vitamins (B12, B9)
  • Minerals (zinc, iron, magnesium, selenium)
  • Vitamin D
  • Antioxidants
  • Amino acids (tryptophan, NAC)
  • Probiotics and prebiotics

Top Foods to Eat for Better Mental Health

Which foods are abundant in the brain-nourishing nutrients? A diet that best supports mental health and well-being needs to include a balanced combination of:

  • Fish (e.g. sardines)
  • Shellfish (e.g. mussels)
  • Seaweed
  • Lean red meat (e.g. beef, lamb)
  • Fortified nutritional yeast
  • Dairy products
  • Soy products (e.g. tofu)
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, peas, beans)
  • Whole grains (e.g. brown rice, oats)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts)
  • Leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale)
  • Green vegetables (e.g. asparagus, avocado)
  • Citrus fruits
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Melons
  • Strawberries
  • Fermented products (e.g. yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir)
  • High-fibre foods (e.g. onion, chicory root, wheat)
  • Cocoa products (e.g. dark chocolate)

It’s important to keep in mind that dietary protection against depression and anxiety most likely stems from the cumulative effects of multiple nutrients In other words, no one nutrient is going to be a magic, quick fix when it comes to mental health. With this in mind, it’s the whole foods listed above that will always offer more health benefits than supplements ever could.

Nutrition is an Ally to Mental Health Treatment

The goal here is to maintain a well-balanced diet consisting of diverse, whole foods. Nutrition is a great way to support mental health, when considered appropriately alongside therapy and other treatments. If you’re ever uncertain about how your diet may be helping or hindering your ability to regulate your mood and energy levels, be sure to speak to a medical professional, such as a Registered Dietitian or trained healthcare practitioner, who understands the holistic approach needed and is able to support you in your decision-making.

Adapted from: Edgewood Health Network