We all know that a healthy diet is crucial to keeping a healthy body. But what about a healthy mind?
As more and more data has shown the intrinsic link between dietary patterns and mental wellbeing, a new field of science has emerged: nutritional psychiatry.
Nutritional psychiatry recognizes that healthy eating affects much more than our physical health. Dietary interventions may be the first line of defense in treating and preventing mood disorders and other mental health problems.
How What You Eat Affects Your Mood
A number of physiological factors impact our brain function and mental wellbeing, including:
- Function of neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin)
- Hormonal balance
- Immune response & inflammation
So what’s one the of the major common denominators among all of these factors? You may be surprised to learn that it’s your gut.
Your gut is part of your enteric nervous system. It is home to a microbiome full of trillions of bacteria. When functioning properly, the gut microbiome helps to regulate a number of physiological functions, including those listed above. Here’s how:
Perhaps these and the other functions of the gut are why diet has been implicated in so many neurological disorders and mental illness, including:
Given all the ways the gut can impact brain health and vice versa, you can see how important it is to keep your gut healthy. How do you do that? You guessed it — with proper food choices and healthy eating habits.
Simple Changes With Major Impact
Improving our health and wellbeing isn’t always a matter of making dramatic changes. The simple accumulation of small, beneficial habits can be just as effective and even more sustainable. Incorporating healthy foods into your diet is no exception.
Making a few simple dietary changes may have a profound impact on your health over time. Here are a few things to start doing:
Get Enough of These Nutrients
Certain nutrients are particularly important for brain function. They provide a number of benefits, including impacting neurotransmitter levels, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and maintaining tissue health.
Many are available as supplements, but you can also find them in some of the food sources we’ll cover below. Nutrients to look out for include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: aid in production of neurotransmitters and help mediate inflammation
- Antioxidants (such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E): help reduce oxidative stress in the brain
- Amino acids from proteins: regulate neurotransmitters
- Folate and related B vitamins: aid in production of neurotransmitters and energy generation
- Magnesium: essential for healthy nerve transmission
- Vitamin D: helps maintain proper function of neurons and glial tissue
- Selenium: influences hormonal activity and can combat neurotoxicity of certain chemicals found in foods
Embrace Prebiotics & Probiotics
As we mentioned, one of the critical components to brain health is gut health. Keeping your gut microbiome happy can have huge benefits on long-term mental and physical health. Prebiotics and probiotics can help maintain levels of beneficial gut bacteria and prevent dysbiosis.
Prebiotics are fiber compounds that stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Prebiotic foods include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Whole oats
Probiotics are healthy types of bacteria that can often be found in certain fermented foods. Eating these foods can boost levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Some common probiotic foods include:
- Low-sugar yogurt
- Japanese fermented soy beans (called natto)
- Some pickles
Note: Beneficial probiotic strains typically need cooler temperatures to survive. Opting for cold-storage probiotic options over room-temperature options may help maximize your probiotic benefits.
Don’t Skip the Fruits & Veggies
Certain fruits and vegetables can be great sources of many micronutrients that benefit mood and mental health.
Here are some of the best fruits and vegetables for overall health due to their fiber and antioxidant content:
- Leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, and collard greens) — high in B vitamins
- Berries (such as raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries) — full of antioxidants
- Nuts and seeds (such as hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds) — also high in Omega-3 fatty acids and selenium
Opt for Whole Grains
The western diet is full of highly processed carbs. While these may be pleasing to the palate, they aren’t doing your mental or physical health any favors. We’ll cover more on this later. For now, let’s look at what you want to choose instead: whole grain options.
Like many of our other winning foods, whole grains are full of dietary fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. Next time you’re in the grocery store, consider skipping the white bread and pasta for some of the following:
- Brown rice
- Bread made from: rye, whole wheat, or oats
- Whole wheat or vegetable pasta
Now we know what foods are generally beneficial to our brain health over the long term. Next, let’s look at foods that can help us combat specific challenges.
Balancing Your Diet for Mental Health
Certain foods may have a more direct impact on various mental health factors. For instance, some foods may help alleviate symptoms of depression, while others help improve focus. If you’re struggling with a specific mental health condition, consider implementing some of these dietary options.
Foods That Fight Depression
- Avocado: oleic acid is necessary for proper brain function and can prevent cognitive decline as we age. Some studies suggest that this healthy fat may be particularly helpful in preventing depression in women.
- Dark chocolate: full of antioxidants with a little caffeine kick. Studies link dark chocolate consumption with lower risk of depression.
- Fatty fish: Research suggests consumption of ometa-3 fatty acids may help treat and prevent depression.
- Ginseng: helps regulate the body’s response to stress and provides anti-inflammatory benefits. Studies show that ginseng can reduce symptoms of stress-related depression
- St. John’s wort: impacts neurotransmitter concentrations in the brain. Many people use St. John’s wort to treat depressive symptoms.
Foods That Fight Stress/Anxiety
Anxiety is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, nervousness, and uneasiness. When severe, these feelings can interfere with our daily lives. Fortunately, certain foods have been shown to improve anxiety in some people. Examples include:
- Chamomile tea: helps to reduce stress and improve sleep quality, and may be an excellent herbal remedy for anxiety.
- Valerian root: has been shown in some studies to help with symptoms of stress and anxiety. It may also be used as a sleep aid due to potential sedative components.
- Lemon Balm tea: may help with nervous system relaxation and antiviral support when taken before bed.
- Fatty fish: shown in some studies to reduce inflammation and anxiety.
- Dark chocolate: may reduce stress hormone levels and help normalize gut microbiome.
Foods That Improve Focus
Much like depression and anxiety, brain fog and fatigue can be the result of an unhealthy brain or gut. In fact, these symptoms often show up in tandem with anxiety and depression.
Whatever the cause, brain fog and fatigue can be a problem when you need to focus. Fortunately, there are foods that can help:
- Coffee: high in caffeine, which helps with concentration and alertness as well as mood.
- Blueberries: linked to improvements in cognitive process and memory.
- Turmeric: may have a positive impact on memory and the growth of new brain cells.
- Eggs: high in certain B vitamins as well as choline. Choline may aid in production of neurotransmitters connected to mood and memory.
- Non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts): are full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals necessary for brain health.
Dietary Plans to Remove the Guesswork
With so much information to consider, planning meals doesn’t always come easy. To ease the process of healthy eating, preexisting diet plans may help.
Here are some diets to consider:
- The Mediterranean diet: rich in healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. The Mediterranean diet incorporates beans and legumes and fatty fish while minimizing red meat. Research connects the Mediterranean diet to better brain function and mental well-being.
- Intermittent fasting: characterized by strictly limiting or eliminating calories over the course of an 8- to 48-hour period. Intermittent fasting may improve memory and learning and positively impact on symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.*
*Note: Intermittent fasting should be implemented alongside healthy eating habits.
- DASH: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH diet is an eating plan that helps lower blood pressure. The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy foods. One study showed a positive impact on mood in women who followed the DASH diet.
- The Bredesen Protocol: This is a personalized dietary plan designed for patients to fight cognitive decline. Patients send labwork to a clinical professional who will then tailor a plan to fir their needs.
*Note: Intermittent fasting should be implemented alongside healthy eating habits.
When considering diet plans, remember to look for some of the staples we’ve already mentioned. Many healthy diet plans will make use of fatty fish while limiting red meat, and incorporate fibrous carbohydrates like beans, legumes, and lentils.
Just as important as what to include in your diet is what to avoid. Research has linked consumption of certain foods with increased risk to brian health and mood. Unfortunately, some of these foods are common dietary components. Here are some habits to monitor:
Irregular Meal Schedules
Eating on a regular schedule can help us avoid drastic blood sugar spikes and crashes. Pacing yourself with the right foods throughout your day or eating window can help regulate your energy levels and metabolism.
Avoid Highly-Processed Foods
While complex carbohydrates and healthy fats make great additions to a healthy diet, their processed counterparts are doing your brain no favors. Studies link the sugars and trans fats found in highly processed foods to a number of health risks, including mood disorders and neurological disease.
Moderate Your Alcohol Consumption
Some people tout the benefits of red wine for health, but you might want to think twice before pouring yourself that extra glass. Some research suggests that the risks of alcohol consumption may outway the benefits.
Pay Attention to Your Caffeine Intake
Making Dietary Changes
Changing our eating habits may seem daunting at first. We’re never too keen on giving up our beloved comfort foods. Trying to come up with an entirely new eating plan may sound like a lot of work, but eating healthy doesn’t have to be extreme. Here are a few tips for a seamless dietary transition:
Changing your eating habits can start with baby steps. For instance, perhaps you start by switching out an unhealthy snack for a handful of nuts each day. Once this has become a habit, maybe you add a cup or so of leafy greens to your dinner plate. As each change becomes more routine, build onto that progress little by little..
Mindful eating is the process of giving full attention to what you eat. Eating mindfully may help optimize digestion. Slowing down the eating process and savoring our meals gives our bodies time to register feelings of fullness. Many of us eat on the go or in front of the television. Because we’re not paying full attention to our bodies, we often end up overeating.
Sometimes we reach for unhealthy foods as an emotional response. Some of us are often tempted to use food as a distraction or self-medication for feelings like boredom, anxiety, or loneliness. Understanding our triggers can help us to avoid them or replace our knee-jerk snacking response with something healthier like going for a walk.
Find Other Rewards
On the other side of the emotional response coin is a tendency to use food as a reward. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, we often use the worst foods to reward ourselves: nobody celebrates a job well done with a really big salad. Keep an eye on what you eat and drink when you’re in a good mood too.
One way to make diet changes more accessible is by simply changing out certain foods for healthier options. For instance, if you often have cravings for sweets, try changing out your regular chocolate bar for a few pieces of healthier dark chocolate. If you tend to eat simple carbs like white bread, try exchanging these for whole grain options instead.
Keeping a food journal or using a meal tracking app can help you become more aware of your eating habits. For instance, many people snack more often during the day than they realize. We also tend to underestimate our caloric intake. Taking notes about your eating habits without judgment may help you build awareness of what you want to change in your diet.
Need help getting started?
Your mental health can be impacted by a variety of factors. If you don;t know where to start, we’re here to help. Schedule a consultation with us for medical advice on diet, medications, or other possible treatments.
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