How Diet Affects Mental Health

by Dr. Nick Zyrowski September 17, 2022

When you read articles regarding mental health, you may see all kinds of ideas about how it should get treated. Mental illness is so common that in 2020, an estimated 52.9 million Americans reported having it. (1) That equals around one in every five people you meet.

The spectrum of mental health issues can range from mild to severe. There are all kinds of problems that can be classified as mental health conditions.

One of the primary methods of treating mental health has been through prescription medications. What if there is another, easier way to help people who struggle with mental health issues? Let’s look at how diet affects your mental health and some surprising ways you can treat the problem to regain vitality and feel like yourself again.

Your brain and food

You may not realize this, but your brain stays turned on even when you’re asleep. It works around the clock to take care of all your crucial processes, like movements, thoughts, and heart beating.

With your brain working so hard, it needs a steady supply of fuel to keep things running. It’s like putting clean gasoline in your car. You don’t want trash in your gas tank that will flow through your car’s engine, causing your vehicle to spit and sputter, eventually ending up at the local auto shop.

If you feed your brain garbage, that can cause damage just like in our car example. When you eat tons of processed foods, you can’t expect your brain to run the same as it would on clean fuel. (2)

The missing link

For years, many doctors have written prescriptions for the latest antidepressants on the market. If they get patients complaining about how they feel, or if their moods are a bit low, they’ll likely walk out with at least one pharmaceutical drug on the way. Part of the reason for this is that doctors are trying to raise serotonin levels in the brain.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps you sleep, keeps pain at bay, gives you a healthy appetite, and regulates your moods. This chemical carries messages throughout your body, and if it’s too low, it can cause mental and physical health issues. (3)

It could be that problems with serotonin keep your moods unstable. One of the things that may help your mental health is to make sure your serotonin levels are adequate.

Diet and brain function

You probably don’t know that your brain consumes about 20% of your calories. Your brain is also around 60% fat. When you eat, it directly links to your brain structure. It makes sense that what you eat affects your mental health. (4)

Think about how you feel when you eat certain foods. Does your thinking seem foggy or clear? Do you get sluggish and find it hard to concentrate after eating? Some foods are known to cause increased anxiety and irritability. You can even eat foods that cause more hunger, so you eventually gain weight, which has a downward spiral on your mental health, too.

Some foods increase oxidative and inflammatory stress on your body. That means a diet high in inflammatory foods can exacerbate your symptoms of depression and other mood issues.

Making small changes with big results

Since you see how diet can directly affect your mental health, what should you eat to keep your brain healthy and functioning well? Diet is one of the easiest things you can utilize to optimize your brain health. You’re already eating, so why not tweak your dietary habits to make them work for you rather than against you?

When you consider how to change your diet for better mental health, you don’t want to shock your brain into submission. If you make drastic changes, you’re less likely to stick with them for the long haul. You can make some health swaps that you can enjoy while significantly changing how your diet affects your moods.

If you have a sweet tooth, use sugar alternatives like stevia, allulose, monk fruit, or erythritol. When you want that fizzy drink, reach for a naturally flavored seltzer water instead of sugary soda. There are tons of things you can try that will still satisfy your hunger without negatively impacting your mental health. (5)

You also need to realize that you’ll have to remove some foods from your diet to optimize your mental health. A good idea is to take inventory of your pantry and toss the processed foods and sugar. Simply decreasing the number of unhealthy ingredients you put into your body will make a dramatic difference in how you feel and how you react to various situations.

Foods for mental health

If you’ve decided that you want a natural approach to improving your mental health, there are many food choices that can help. When you nourish your brain, you’ll feel better and have less brain fog, anxiety, and depression.

To jumpstart your healthy eating, think about some of the easy foods that give you natural health benefits. You can try different combinations to see what you like best.

Omega-3 sources

There have been countless studies showing the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for the brain. The great thing about this is that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are abundant and don’t cost a fortune. You can eat foods like sardines, mackerel, tuna, and trout. If you don’t like fish, you can also take a quality omega-3 supplement. When opting for a supplement, be sure you get one that undergoes testing for heavy metals and contaminants. Some grocery store fish oils are rancid and won’t benefit you at all. (6)

Magnesium

We know that magnesium is critical for over 300 processes in the body. There are different forms of magnesium, so when it comes to mental health, you want to use the form that crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Many of us are deficient in magnesium. Farming methods have changed drastically over the years, and the methods have depleted the soil of nutrients. Taking a magnesium supplement can be calming for the brain and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Magnesium L-threonate can boost your brain’s magnesium levels, helping with stress management and better sleep. If you’ve recently felt more anxious or depressed, it could be that you are deficient in magnesium.

Foods for your gut

In previous years, doctors didn’t talk much about gut health. We now know that your gut has a direct connection to your brain. It makes sense that your mental health can be affected by your microbiome.

When you want to get good bacteria into your gut, look for fermented food sources like kefir, yogurt, and kimchi. You can also supplement with a probiotic. As with other supplements, you want to be careful where you get them. Many probiotics on the shelves of your local grocery store are useless. You want to be sure your probiotic reaches your digestive tract alive.

B vitamins for your brain

It’s no secret that many of us are under tremendous stress these days. We live in a fast-paced world where we’re expected to function well no matter how we feel. The truth is, you can only do that for so long before your brain takes a massive hit. Stress can also deplete your vitamin b levels.

Vitamin B12, along with folate, is needed to produce norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. Low B12 and folate have also been linked to depression. (7)

When you want food sources high in vitamin B12, you can eat veggies like brussels sprouts, eggs, and meats. Research has even shown that participants who ate meat had lower levels of anxiety and depression than those who did not. That could be due to the high amounts of vitamin B12 in meat.

Evidenced-based medicine

These days there is a pill for everything. Think about how often you see commercials advertising some new pharmaceutical drug designed to cure any health issue. Now consider the small print at the end of these ads. Most of the time, that’s where they let you know about all the dangerous side effects of taking this new “wonder drug.”

The fact is, that studies have shown that diet clearly affects mental health. The food choices you make can directly impact how your brain functions, thereby affecting your moods. Too many people believe their health can only get better by taking prescription medicines, but that is far from the truth.

When you want to change your mental health, consider changing what you put into your body. Mental health issues are some of the fastest-rising problems we face today. If you’re struggling, please know that there are natural ways to improve your mental health. Food truly is medicine, so give yourself some time and make your diet a priority. Mental health is a real issue for many people, but proper nutrition can impact how you feel in tremendous ways. You can always contact us to help show you how to optimize your brain health and answer any questions you may have about nutrition.

 

References :

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22572-serotonin#:~:text=Serotonin%20is%20a%20chemical%20that,blood%20clotting%20and%20sexual%20desire.

https://www.news-medical.net/health/The-Effect-of-Diet-on-Mental-Health.aspx

https://drewramseymd.com/brain-food-nutrition/simple-swaps/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness#:~:text=Mental%20illnesses%20are%20common%20in,(52.9%20million%20in%202020).

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2702216

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7084175/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322652#foods-that-help-reduce-anxiety

https://behavioralnutrition.org/b-vitamins-and-mental-health/

https://www.psypost.org/2021/11/meat-consumption-is-associated-with-better-mental-health-meta-analysis-finds-62107#:~:text=The%20researchers%20found%20that%20individuals,depression%20compared%20to%20meat%20consumers.

https://www.aetna.com/health-guide/food-affects-mental-health.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6170050/ https://neurosciencenews.com/diet-mental-health-15384/

Dr. Nick Zyrowski
Dr. Nick Zyrowski



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