What do you think of the phrase “You are what you eat”? It’s been laughed off for many years, but in some contexts, like nutrition and mental health, the message rings true. What you put into your body impacts your physical and mental well-being, so it stands to reason that what you eat can affect your mood and behavior.
While a well-balanced diet is important for everyone, it’s especially crucial for people with mental disorders. Mental disorders are often accompanied by poor nutrition due to unhealthy eating habits, which can make symptoms worse. Conversely, good nutrition can help improve symptoms and overall health.
Let’s discuss how diet affects mental disorders and what foods to eat (and avoid) for better mental health.
The Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health
The connection between what we eat and how we feel is complex. We’ve been studying the link for many years, and some experts believe diet is just as important for mental health as it is for physical health.
One study conducted on “5,731 population-based men and women” found that people who eat a diet of low nutritional value are more likely to feel depressed and anxious.
A similar study found that:
” … a ‘traditional’ dietary pattern characterized by vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and whole grains was associated with lower odds for major depression or dysthymia and for anxiety disorders. A ‘western’ diet of processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products and beer was associated with a higher GHQ-12 score.”
What’s more, studies have found — with conclusive evidence — that improving your diet can help improve mental disorders.
Why Does Diet Matter?
Diet has been irrevocably linked with mental health; studies are there to back it up. But why does diet matter?
It all comes down to inflammation, which is the body’s natural response to infection or injury. Inflammation is characterized by swelling, redness, pain and heat. In small doses, it’s beneficial. But when it becomes chronic or long-lasting, problems start to arise.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to various mental disorders like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Poor diet is one of the main causes of chronic inflammation, which is why it’s so important to eat nutrient-rich anti-inflammatory foods.
The Vagus Nerve
It’s worth mentioning the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body and runs from the brain stem to the abdomen. Recent studies have strongly linked the vagus nerve to mental health, suggesting that when your gut is inflamed, so is your mind.
The vagus nerve is responsible for various bodily functions like digestion, heart rate and the fight-or-flight response. It’s also in charge of sending messages from the gut to the brain. When you have chronic inflammation in your gut, it sends signals to the brain that something’s wrong. This response has been linked to mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
What Foods to Eat (and Avoid) for Mental Health
There aren’t any specific diets recommended for mental health conditions. We simply know that nutritious, anti-inflammatory foods are good for overall mental and physical health, while processed, sugary foods can contribute to chronic inflammation.
Some of the best foods for mental health include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: In salmon, walnuts and chia seeds, omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and linked to better brain health.
- Probiotics: These good bacteria are crucial for gut health, which we know is key for mental health. You can find probiotics in yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
- Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 helps the body make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation. Good sources of vitamin B6 include chicken, tuna, sweet potatoes and bananas.
- Folate: Folate (or folic acid) is a type of B vitamin that’s important for brain health. It can be found in leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts and fortified foods like cereals and bread.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is sometimes called the sunshine vitamin because our bodies make it when our skin is exposed to sunlight. It’s also found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, as well as in fortified milk and orange juice. Vitamin D is important for many bodily functions, including brain development and function.
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants help protect the body against damage from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause inflammation and are linked to various chronic diseases. You can find antioxidants in fruits and vegetables like berries, kale and tomatoes.
As you can see, proper nutrition for mental health involves a diverse range of key vitamins and nutrients. The best way to get them is through a varied diet of whole, unprocessed foods.
What If I’m Malnourished?
Unfortunately, many of the diets Western culture tells us are healthy (e.g., low-fat or high-carb) can actually lead to nutrient deficiencies. This is because they often involve avoiding or limiting entire food groups, which makes it hard to get all the nutrients you need.
For example, a low-fat diet may cause deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, while a high-carb diet can lead to deficiencies in B vitamins and magnesium. If you suspect you’re not getting enough of certain nutrients, talk to your doctor about supplements.
Malnutrition affects your mental health, of course, since a lack of important nutrients means your brain isn’t able to function properly. This can lead to various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
Talk to a Nutritionist
It’s tricky to navigate the intricacies of diet and mental health on your own. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you figure out which foods to eat or avoid based on your specific needs. They can also develop a personalized meal plan that ensures you get all the nutrients you need for good mental health.
If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, consider talking to a nutritionist. They may be able to help you improve your symptoms and overall well-being.
Here at Restore, we have a fully trained nutritionist on staff, ready to answer any questions you may have about diet and mental disorders. Why not come in for a chat? Or, if you’re not local to us, feel free to give us a call. We’re here to help!