Updated August 7, 2023
The foods you eat can directly affect your mental health. This is sometimes referred to as the gut-brain axis. Just like a car that works best on premium fuel, your brain functions best when you provide it with the necessary ingredients to fight mental health issues. Consider some of the following nutrition tips to improve your well-being.
Diets and Mental Health
Findings from existing research suggest a strong supportive link between some diets and mental health. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is recommended to reduce symptoms of depression. One study showed that the Mediterranean diet plus fish oil supplementation improved mental health in those with depression.
Good nutrition for mental health following the Mediterranean diet means increasing the intake of dairy, fish, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and vegetables. This diet also limits baked goods, fried foods, processed meats, and sweetened beverages.
A diet and mental health recommendation for anxiety limits alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. Instead, consume more food for mental health, including those rich in fiber, like fruits and vegetables, good-bacteria fermented foods, and unsaturated fats. These foods help lower stress and reduce inflammation.
Experts say a diet that includes nutrient-dense food for mental health boosts mood and well-being. An Australian study found that consuming higher total vegetables and fruits helps lower “perceived stress.” This means less worry, tension and an improved quality of life.
Diet and mental health are so inextricably intertwined that exploring proper nutrition and eating foods rich in brain chemicals that affect mood makes sense. These foods can also help improve cognition, clarity, and quality of life.
In the brain, chemicals that affect a person’s mood include dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). How does eating certain foods that boost levels of these brain chemicals help? It improves mental well-being, encourages healthy sleep patterns, and optimizes brain functioning.
Serotonin-rich foods are those containing the essential amino acid tryptophan. These include iron and protein-rich foods, like cottage cheese, eggs, chickpeas, nuts, seafood, seeds, and turkey. Paired with healthy carbohydrates (like quinoa and sweet potatoes), these foods cause tryptophan to drive to the brain and increase serotonin levels.
On the other hand, dopamine is increased by consuming green tea (theanine-rich), an omelet with vegetables high in protein (like spinach or broccoli). Toss in some seeds and nuts (sesame, pumpkin), and you’ll boost dopamine.
As for GABA, this neurotransmitter calms the body. But no foods directly contain it. However, glutamine, an amino acid, is in food and converts to GABA. These foods include bananas, almonds, brown rice, beef, gluten-free whole oats, lentils, oranges, spinach, and walnuts.
Bottom line: Use what you learn about diet and mental health to improve overall mental health and well-being and live a happier, healthier, and more balanced life.
Choosing the Right Diet
Understanding what the best diets are for mental health can help put you on a path for healing. A poor diet can exacerbate your condition and make your mental health symptoms worse. Consider the top three diet tips to improve your mental health.
First, you can incorporate fats into your diet. Good fats are the key to strong cells. Choose unsaturated fats, including olive, canola, soy and sunflower oil. Other sources include avocados, nuts, seeds and fish. Healthy fats are high in nutrition and can aid in digestion, heart health and weight management. Studies have shown a low-fat diet increases depression and irritation.
You’ll also want to avoid processed sugar. Excessive sugar in your diet can spike blood sugar and leave you feeling fatigued and depressed. It can also increase anxiety. Individuals who eat more than 67 grams of sugar a day are more likely to suffer from clinical depression.
Finally, it’s important to eat regular meals. A consistent meal schedule provides your body with the building blocks it needs for energy and recovery. Skipping meals can trigger depression and anxiety and even lead to eating disorders.
Incorporate These Primary Nutrients
Some of the best micronutrients and antioxidants that affect your brain health are the ones that also protect your heart and physical health. The seven top nutrients that support your mental health include:
- Omega-3s: Omega-3 fatty acids are known to prevent depression and bipolar disorder. They can also help stabilize your moods and reduce anxiety. Omega-3 appears most naturally in non-predatory fish, like tuna, carp and salmon, but you can also supplement your diet with fish oil.
- Vitamin B: These vitamins play an important role in neurotransmitter function and neurological health. B vitamins also play a key role in fighting dementia and other memory issues. The best sources are whole grains, beans, leafy vegetables and fruits.
- Amino acids: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. These proteins are natural antidepressants and can ease the symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and addiction. Good sources include beef, poultry, fish, soy, quinoa and eggs.
- Vitamin D: A lack of vitamin D has been shown to increase depressive episodes. Vitamin D helps fight negative emotions and can improve your overall quality of life. It can be found in fish, orange juice, dairy and beef liver.
- Minerals: Essential minerals for brain health include iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium. Choose a diet high in spinach, whole grains, nuts and shellfish.
- Polyphenols: Polyphenols improve cognition and help fight memory-related issues. Food choices include cocoa, fruits and soy.
- Probiotics: Some probiotics help you better control your emotions and improve brain function. Yogurt, kefir, soft cheese and pickles are excellent natural probiotics.
Additional Ways to Improve Mental Health
Aside from diet, there are some additional ways you can improve your mental health. These include:
- Reducing stress through relaxation and meditation
- Getting plenty of exercise and spending time outdoors
- Improving your relationships
- Getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night
- Exploring new hobbies and interests
At Restore Mental Health, we provide treatment for a wide range of mental health conditions. Part of the treatment is through proper nutrition. Contact us day or night to learn what types of services we offer and how we can help you achieve peace of mind.