This article was written in collaboration with Pure Living Nashville and the Wellness Fest of 2023. Check out more information about the 4th Annual Wellness Fest here.
Mental health is a crucial aspect of overall well-being, and it is essential to take care of our minds just as we take care of our bodies. In recent years, researchers have found that there is a powerful connection between nutrition and mental health. What we eat impacts our mind and mood, and therefore it’s important to understand how nutrition affects our mental health.
Today, we’ll explore the relationship between nutrition and mental health, the role of specific nutrients in mental health, the impact of processed foods on mental health, and tips for improving mental health through nutrition.
The gut brain connection
Before we dive into the nutrients that are important for our mental health, let’s explore the relationship between the gut and the brain. There is a strong connection between the gut and the brain, also known as the ‘gut brain axis.’ This connection, or communication, links what is happening in the gut up to the brain, and vice versa. Our gut microbiome, or the microorganisms that are found in our digestive tract, affects the way that we think, act, or feel, research shows. Research also shows that inflammation in the gut can also lead to negative side effects in the brain like mental health disorders. Therefore, any disruption to our gut microbiome or any source of inflammation can increase our risk of mental health diseases such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
Nutrient deficiencies and mental health
As we’ve discussed, the health of our gut can strongly impact the way that we feel and what is happening in the brain. Certain nutrient deficiencies can therefore contribute to mental health disorders as well since our gut and body aren’t getting the appropriate nutrients that it needs. For example, a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause depression and fatigue. Numerous studies also show that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may lead to mood disorders. Since certain nutrients are so strongly related to our mental health, we’ll discuss the role of nutrition next.
The role of specific nutrients in mental health
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health, and they can play a role in critical role in reducing inflammation in the brain. They can help to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and enhance cognitive function. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, nuts, and seeds. Aim to consume at least 1 source of healthy fat in your diet each day.
- B vitamins: B vitamins are also important for your mental health, especially your brain function. Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. Good sources of B vitamins include leafy greens, whole grains, and legumes.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is essential for brain health as well. Research shows that low levels of vitamin D have been linked to depression and other mood disorders. Good sources of vitamin D includes fatty fish, eggs, and fortified foods.
Foods that negatively impact our mental health
- Refined sugar: Consuming excessive amounts of refined sugar, such as cookies, baked goods, or candy, can contribute to mood swings, anxiety, and depression. It can also cause inflammation in the body, which can potentially lead to cognitive decline.
- Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners have been linked to a higher risk of depression and mood disorders. This is because these fake sugars disrupt the gut microbiome.
- Processed foods: Processed foods are high in refined sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Similar to artificial sweeteners, these processed foods increase inflammation in the gut which produces inflammatory markets up to the brain. This study determined that a diet higher in processed foods was associated with increased risk of depression.
Tips for Improving Mental Health through Nutrition
Since there is such a strong relationship between what we eat and our mental health, it’s important to make sure that you’re focusing on the right foods for your body in order to optimize your health and decrease risk of diseases.
Here are some key takeaways that we recommend focusing on when making your food choices each day:
Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods
Eating a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods can help to reduce inflammation in the gut and therefore in the brain. This can improve mood and reduce risk of mental health disorders. Right now, we’re loving utilizing dates in our cooking and snacking! Check out this Berry Energy Ball recipe that uses dates.
Prioritize Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Incorporating fatty fish, nuts, and seeds in your diet can help to improve brain health.
Incorporate B Vitamins
Eat leafy greens, whole grains, and legumes to ensure that you’re consuming enough B vitamins in your daily diet.
Get enough Vitamin D
Eating foods that are high in vitamin D, such as tuna, salmon, and fortified foods, can help to reduce risk of anxiety and depression.
Limit processed foods, excess sugar, and artificial sweeteners
Limiting consumption of processed foods and artificial sugar helps to reduce inflammation in the gut, therefore reducing overall risk of mental health disorders.
Eat more fiber
Fiber is another nutrient important for mental health because fiber feeds the good bacteria in our gut. When we have good bacteria, it says “happy” signals up to our brain, reducing risk of mental health diseases. Try this Mediterranean Chickpea Salad to increase fiber in your diet.
The Bottom Line
There is still much to learn about the connection between what we eat and our mental health, however, research currently shows the relationship is significant enough to warrant focusing on a healthy diet to reduce our risk of mental health diseases. Consume a diet that is varied, balanced, and has the key nutrients that we talked about in today’s article in order to improve your own mental health.
To get started with your health goals, build balanced and consistent eating habits, and feel your best physically and mentally, check out our free snacking guide Snack Your Way to Success. In this free guide, you’ll learn our top recommendations of how to snack to manage blood sugars, regulate hormones, and increase energy. You’ll also receive a full snacking list, a snacking planner, and our top recommendations for snacking products on-the-go. Get instant access to this Snack Your Way to Success guide here.