How Nutrition Affects Your Mental Health
Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health conditions worldwide, affecting millions of people. According to the World Health Organization, depression could be one of the top overall health concerns in the world by 2030. But research continues to show that what we eat plays a huge role in how we feel, and that while a nutritious diet is essential to our overall health, it also plays an important role in our mental health.
What We Eat Affects How We Feel
Yes, our diet can affect our brain. Research shows a Mediterranean-style diet heavy in fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts, fresh herbs, garlic, and olive oil leads to a reduced risk of depression. Conversely, a Western-style diet heavier in red and processed meats, refined grains, high-fat dairy products, and sugar has been linked to a significantly increased risk of depression. A change in diet from a Western-style diet to a Mediterranean-style diet has also been shown to significantly reduce already existing depression symptoms.
Why Diet Affects Mood
The gut is so closely tied to our emotions that it is often referred to as the “second brain.” Your gastrointestinal tract contains billions of bacteria that regulate the production of neurotransmitters that ferry messages back and forth between the gut and the brain. Dopamine, which makes you feel motivated, accomplished and productive, and serotonin, which helps you feel happy, calm and focused, are two examples. Eating a healthy diet high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber promotes the growth of the hundreds of species of “good” bacteria in your intestines, which increases neurotransmitter production and can positively affect your mood.
The Drawbacks of the Western Diet
A diet heavy in sugar, salt and hydrogenated fats – all found in processed foods - causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which hampers the production of neurotransmitters and negatively affects your mood. “Bad” bacteria in your GI tract feeds on sugar, and an overgrowth can lead to gas, bloating and digestive issues, but can also cause a dysregulation in neurotransmitter production. The intake of sugar also leads to a temporary dopamine spike. A constant intake of sugar causes the brain to become accustomed to higher levels of sugar, which reduces your body’s ability to regulate dopamine levels on its own. Subsequently, you will feel a “crash” after eating something sweet, which often leaves you feeling cranky and irritable. Relying on foods like caffeine and chocolate for a dopamine boost can also contribute to dysregulation of dopamine production.
Nutrition is Beneficial for Mental Health at Any Age
While it is incredibly tempting to placate our children with easy-to-cook foods we know they want to eat, like frozen pizza, chicken fingers and boxed macaroni and cheese, the mental health of young people can also be negatively affected by a diet high in processed foods. A 2019 review of existing research found a high association between intake of nutritious food and a reduced risk of depression in children and adolescents. Another study found similar results in people over 50, showing a link between diets high in added sugars and saturated fats and higher levels of anxiety.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria found in certain foods that help to repopulate our gastrointestinal tracts with “good” bacteria that can help regulate the production of the neurotransmitters that boost our mood. Prebiotics are a form of dietary fiber found in foods that feed that “good” bacteria. Ensuring you get enough of both is beneficial for your mental health. A recent study even showed prebiotic consumption reduced the symptoms of anxiety in young females. Probiotics are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha and pickles. Prebiotics are found in foods like garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, barley, oats and apples. While it is often more beneficial to get your prebiotics and probiotics from whole foods sources, supplements like Kore’s probiotic, are also available.
The Best Foods for Your Brain
As mentioned, a Mediterranean-style diet is best for your mental health, but certain foods are particularly good for your brain. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like walnuts, almonds, chia seeds and cold water, fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, have been shown to reduce anxiety. Anxiety has also been linked to an overall lower level of antioxidant consumption, so foods higher in antioxidants are beneficial for mental health. Think dark, leafy greens, beets, berries and other colorful fruits and vegetables whose pigments are indicative of their high antioxidant content. And lastly, nix the added sugar, whether it comes from soda or other sugary beverages, sweet treats, or processed foods. A 2017 study showed that men who ate sugar in excess of 67 grams – that’s just two cans of soda per day – were 23 percent more likely to develop depression or anxiety than those whose sugar intake was less than 40 grams.