You know that a healthy diet is an essential part of maintaining your physical health, but did you know that it also plays an important role in your mental health? Just as a diet filled with refined sugar, processed and fried food will negatively impact your body, new research shows that it can negatively impact your brain. Nutritional psychiatry—an emerging field of study—is showing how the food that we eat can improve our mental health—and even help treat and prevent mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Your brain is at work 24/7/365. In order to function optimally, it needs high quality fuel to keep it running well—aka, whole, unprocessed foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to protect it from oxidative stress caused by damaging free radicals. Diets high in refined sugars are particularly harmful to brain. Not only does all that sugar affect how your body regulates insulin, but it promotes inflammation and oxidative stress which can cause a variety of health problems, including the worsening of mood disorders.
The Gut-Brain Connection: Research continues to show that the complex gut-brain connection and a healthy gut microbiome is vital to our overall wellness. It makes sense, then, that the right foods can have a positive impact on mental health. Ninety-five percent of your serotonin—the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating sleep and appetite, inhibiting pain, and regulating mood—isn’t made in your brain, but your gastrointestinal tract. The GI tract is also home to one hundred million neurons, which, along with serotonin production, are highly influenced by the good bacteria in your gut microbiome. These good bacteria help you digest food and absorb its nutrients, guard against inflammation, protect the intestinal lining which keeps bad bacteria and toxins out of your body, and activate the neural pathways between your gut and brain. Certain diets and foods can ensure a well-functioning gut-brain connection.
The Best Mood-Boosting Foods: People who follow dietary plans that are rich in veggies, fruit, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and only small amounts of lean meat and dairy have a 25 to 35 percent lower risk of depression. Their diets also include more fermented foods, which act as natural microbiome-boosting probiotics. A 2020 study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that women who ate fish twice or more a week had a 25 percent less risk of depression than women who ate it less frequently.
A recent study in the World Journal of Psychiatry outlined 12 key nutrients that help support mood in an Antidepressant Food Scale (AFS):
Iron, Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), Magnesium, Potassium, Selenium,
B vitamins: Thiamine, folate, B6, and B12, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Zinc
Oysters are the most AFS-dense animal foods with a 56 percent AFS (with clams and mussels close behind). But plant foods were the real AFS rock stars:
Watercress — 127%, Spinach — 97%, Mustard, turnip, or beet greens — 76%-93%,
Lettuces (red, green, romaine) –74%-99%, Swiss chard — 90%, Fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, or parsley) — 73%-75%, Kale or collards — 48%-62%, Cauliflower — 41%-42%, Broccoli — 41%, Brussels sprouts — 35%
Making Nutritional Psychiatry Work for You: Unlike prescription medication, you don’t need a formal diagnosis of depression or anxiety to see how changing your diet will benefit you. Not only will your physical health improve by replacing processed foods with healthful, whole foods, but nutritional psychiatry can help you better manage stress.
Try improving your diet by focusing on some broad strategies. Give your plate the “rainbow test” at mealtime—ensuring that multiple colors are represented. Look for ways to add fermented foods to a meal, like sauerkraut or kimchi, to add good bacteria to your gut. And, help feed that good bacteria with prebiotic-rich food like leeks, onions, and asparagus.
Doing a structured elimination or detoxification program can also help you see how certain foods make you feel. This mindful “clean” approach teaches you how much better you can feel—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
If you want to see how retooling your diet can improve your mental health, please contact me. Together, we can help you see positive and lasting change.