We could all use a little less stress right now. The food we put on our plate plays a large role in our mental health.
The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.
Shifts in the gut microbiome have been shown to be associated with certain mental health disorders. Trillions of good bacteria live in the gut which protect us from harmful germs and keep the immune system functioning optimally. By doing this, they keep inflammation in check throughout the entire body, including the brain.
What to include in your diet to improve mental health
Dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher) contains magnesium which has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. One study suggested that flavonoids might reduce neuroinflammation and cell death in the brain as well as improve blood flow.
Chamomile tea has been used around the world as an herbal remedy because of its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, and relaxant properties. Try including a cup 30 minutes before going to bed to help with sleep.
Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which may help reduce anxiety by reducing inflammation. Be sure to add a pinch black pepper to activate it. If you are looking for the more therapeutic benefits, I recommend that my clients take this supplement for things like arthritis and generally inflammation.
Salmon and other high fat fish. These contain the omega-3’s EPA and DHA, which regulate neurotransmitters, reduce inflammation, and promote healthy brain function. It is estimated that gray matter in our brain contains 50% fatty acids that are polyunsaturated in nature (about 33% belong to the omega-3 family), which is why we must get them from our diet. Aim for 2-3 servings a week.
Brazil nuts. Just one Brazil nut contains 100% of your daily value of selenium, an antioxidant which has been shown reduce inflammation. Selenium may improve mood by reducing inflammation, which is often at heightened levels when someone has a mood disorder, such as anxiety.
Whole grains. Low carbohydrate diets tends to precipitate depression, since the production of brain chemicals serotonin and tryptophan that promote the feeling of well being, are triggered by carbohydrate rich foods. Highly refined carbohydrates and sweets provide immediate, but temporary relief of poor mood. Reaching for higher fiber, slower digesting carbohydrates like oatmeal, quinoa, potatoes, fibrous fruits, whole grain breads, etc. provide moderate but long lasting effects on brain chemistry.
Fermented foods with live active cultures provide healthy gut bacteria and may help reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Aim to incorporate low sugar yogurt, kefir, kombucha, fresh sauerkraut, and fermented vegetables.
Adequate protein. Many of the neurotransmitters in the brain are made from amino acids. The neurotransmitter dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine and the neurotransmitter serotonin is made from the tryptophan. If there is a lack of any of these two amino acids, there will not be enough synthesis of the respective neurotransmitters,which is associated with low mood and aggression.
A variety of vegetables might seem like an obvious one, but many people are not getting enough. Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale are rich in folate, which can play a role in severity of depression. Aim to make half of your plate vegetables of all different colors for the most benefit.
Make sure your vitamin D levels are above the “normal” range. Rates of depression are higher in people with Vitamin D deficiency compared to people who have adequate levels of vitamin D. There are very few sources of vitamin D in the diet (salmon, tuna, fortified milk and juice, egg yolk), meaning a deficiency would require sun exposure during the appropriate time of year or a supplement in order to get blood levels back into the normal range.
Foods to limit if you struggle with mental health
Nitrate-cured meats such as beef jerky or bacon, have been linked to changes in the gut microflora, meaning the nitrates in the meat are able to exert their effects on the nervous system. A study done by John Hopkins Medicine concluded that processed meats may contribute to abnormal mood state and insomnia.
Simple carbohydrates and refined sugars. It’s not that refined carbohydrates are “bad”. It’s that a diet rich in fiber has been shown to improve mental health, likely due to the impact it has on your blood sugar levels.
Omega-6 fats are essential to our health, but in the right amounts. The standard American diet is much higher in omega-6 fats such as canola, soybean, and peanut oils, which crowds out space for the brain healthy omega-3 fats. Limit your consumption of fried and processed foods to make more room for things like seeds, healthy oils, nuts, and high fat fish.
Coffee in small amounts might not be an issue for some people, but caffeine has been shown to trigger panic attacks in those with anxiety disorder.
To listen to my most recent podcast episode with Dr. Uma Naidoo, nutritional psychiatrist, we discuss some of the most important foods to include in your diet and those to avoid in more detail. I highly recommend her book This Is Your Brain On Food, if you are looking for an evidenced-based resource discussing the link between nutrition and mental health.