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Food and Mental Health

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Francesca Powers RD, CDN

Food affects the function of your brain, your mood, your ability to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. In one of my earlier blog posts, I discussed how to fight stress through diet. I think it is equally important to discuss depression and anxiety, because such a large part of the population deal with these mental health challenges every day.

People with depression may experience a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, feelings of guilt, lack of energy, or inability to concentrate. Many of these symptoms affect our food intake. Studies have shown us that eating more pro-inflammatory foods and less anti-inflammatory foods increases the risk of being diagnosed with depression by about 35%. They also show us that consuming highly refined carbohydrates increases the risk of depression. There is a clear link between a higher consumption of fast food and a higher risk of depression. On the contrary, a healthy diet pattern containing fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, significantly reduces the odds of depression. With anxiety being one of the most common mental illness, it’s helpful to know what role our diet plays in coping with it. Studies have shown us that probiotic foods may be used as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety.

So, what foods affect mental health? Processed foods typically have negative effects on mental health, while Omega-3 fats have positive effects on mental health. Most of us know what processed foods are, but the main issue is with the high contents of sugar, sodium and saturated/trans fats added to them. Omega-3 fatty acids need to be in a healthy diet, since our bodies don’t make them. They are proven to be beneficial for anxiety. Common sources include salmon, halibut, cod, nuts, avocados, flax seeds and walnuts. Probiotics promote the good bacteria in the gut, which can positively effect symptoms of anxiety, depression and perceptions of stress. Studies show healthy bacteria in the small and large intestine help to improve overall mood and sadness and help with major depressive disorder. Common sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha tea and pickles.

Certain nutrients in foods are precursors to neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that tell our body what to do and how to feel, such as serotonin and dopamine, which many of us have heard before. An imbalance in serotonin levels may influence mood in a way that leads to depression. Believe it or not, 95% is produced in our digestive tract! This explains why probiotics are key. Serotonin produces a sense of calmness and decreased pain, so low levels can lead to aggression or irritability. Some food sources include avocados, bananas, plums, dates, eggplant, eggs, cheese, pineapple, tofu, salmon, nuts, seeds and turkey. It’s helpful to understand that vitamin D helps release Serotonin. Some common food sources of vitamin D include salmon, oysters, egg yolks and mushrooms. High levels of dopamine improve mood, alertness and ability to cope with stress. Precursors to dopamine are found in many protein food sources.

I hope by now you can understand how nutrition and mood are linked. A healthy diet leads to better mood and less symptoms of anxiety and depression. Missing key nutrients often lead to mental health disorders and cognitive impairment. Too much processed foods can have harmful effects on mental, physical and cognitive health. Focus on probiotics, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains and watch your mood transform!

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