How Diet Impacts Your Mental Health
Updated on: February 2023
Written by: Nicole Hinckley, RD, LD
Mental health is a topic that is being discussed a lot more frequently. It is even predicted to be one of the top health concerns in the world by 2030. Hopkins Medicine estimates that about 26% of adults are affected by a mental health condition. Mental health conditions can significantly decrease quality of life and even become debilitating. While there are a handful of contributors in the development and management of mental health issues, nutrition plays an integral role.
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Maintain a Healthy Gut
The impact of nutrition on mental health is in large part due to nutrition’s role in shaping our gut microbiome. Our gut microbiome refers to the community of microorganisms that live in your GI tract. It is essential for our mental and cognitive health, proper digestion, and absorption of nutrients, neurotransmitter metabolism, and our immune system. Ideally, our microbes in our gut work together to support health when they are in balance. Our microbiome is linked directly to the brain by a connection referred to as the gut-brain axis. This is a bi-directional communication pathway that influences mental health. When microbes are imbalanced, it is referred to as dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis can increase inflammation, which is known to be involved in the development of mental health conditions such as depression. Dysbiosis can lead to leakiness of
the gut which elevates the immune response and can initiate systemic inflammation that may impact the brain.
Gut microbes also produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which in deficiency are linked to mental health conditions such as depression. In fact, 95% of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, is produced by gut bacteria.
Furthermore, in a balanced state, our microbiome is able to help us properly digest and absorb nutrients that are beneficial for our mental health.
Increase your intake of probiotics which help to populate the gut microbiome with beneficial bacteria. Dietary sources of probiotics include fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and yogurt. You can also speak with your dietitian or physician to see if a probiotic supplement may benefit your daily routine.
Also, be sure to increase your intake of prebiotics—dietary fibers—which feed the gut bacteria to help them thrive and repopulate. High sources of dietary fiber include whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa, veggies such as bell peppers, broccoli, and zucchini, and fruits such as avocados, berries, and bananas.
● Incorporate probiotic rich foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and yogurt.
● Add in prebiotics such as oatmeal, quinoa, bell peppers, broccoli, zucchini, avocados, berries and bananas.
● Consider adding a probiotic if these foods are hard to incorporate into your daily routine.
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Incorporate an Anti Inflammatory Diet
Anti Inflammatory diets are linked with a decrease in risk for mental health conditions. Specifically, the Mediterranean Diet which is high in plants, nuts, seeds, and unsaturated fats is anti-inflammatory and linked to reduced risk for developing depression and other mental health issues.
Did you know that our blood sugar is linked with inflammation? When our blood sugar is out of control we can begin to feel moody, irritable, and dizzy. Chronic blood sugar dysregulation can lead to an imbalance of insulin levels leading to inflammation. Regulate blood sugars by pairing carbs with proteins and healthy fats. Choose complex carbs that are higher in fiber and nutrients and try to minimize added sugars. Balance the amount of carbohydrates you intake. At meals for women, I recommend 30-45 grams and, for men, I recommend about 45-60 grams.
Stressors such as psychological stressors, chronic alcohol use, exposure to cigarette smoke, lack of sleep, and a nutrient poor diet can increase oxidative stress to the body increasing harmful inflammation. Increase your intake of colorful fruits and veggies to combat oxidative stress and increase your body’s antioxidant defense system. Aim to have three colors each meal. The more colors you have, the more phytonutrients you ingest.
Incorporate omega-3’s into your weekly routine. Omega-3s are able to travel through the brain cell membrane and interact with mood-related molecules in the brain and they also have anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve depression. The best source of omega-3’s are fatty fish, such as salmon, herring and anchovies. If you don’t like fish, that’s okay! You can always opt for a supplement or incorporate plant based sources of omega-3’s such as walnuts, flaxseeds, or chia seeds.
● Include many plant based whole foods into your daily routine such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.
● Always pair carbs with proteins and/or fats.
● Choose complex carbs instead of refined carbs.
● Add color and variety into your diet.
● Incorporate omega-3’s into your diet by eating fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, or chia seeds.
Add in Healing Nutrients
Our brains rely on continuous energy and nutritive support to function optimally and thrive. However, most Americans are living with at least one deficiency. Vitamins and minerals are imperative for brain function. Western diets are typically lower in nutrients, which can lead to unwanted deficiencies.
Vitamin D has a lot of jobs. It helps with immune function, mood, bone health, and more. A deficiency in vitamin D has been linked with depression. If you’re not exposing your skin to sunlight on a regular basis, you should reach out to your physician to see where your levels are at. If you are low or deficient, you can increase your vitamin D by consuming fortified products, salmon, or eggs, but it may be in your best interest to consider supplementation.
Magnesium helps to boost melatonin and serotonin. Low levels of magnesium have been linked with anxiety, insomnia, stress and depression. You can incorporate magnesium in
your diet by increasing your intake of avocados, nuts, seeds, spinach, soy, and whole grains or you can consider taking a magnesium supplement.
Receiving an adequate amount of B vitamins such as B6, B12, and folate has been linked with a positive impact on brain and mental health. Incorporate more fish, meats, potatoes, avocados, and soybeans in your diet to increase your B vitamin levels. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, I recommend supplementing with B12.
Iron deficiencies have been linked with fatigue, anxiety and depression. There are two types of iron, heme, and non-heme. Heme iron is much better absorbed and comes from animal sources such as meat and seafood. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you can still get your iron from non-heme iron containing foods, such as fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
Try to implement a balanced way of eating that emphasizes whole foods 80% of the time and leaves room to “have fun” 20% of the time. This ensures your diet and lifestyle is sustainable! Try to emphasize plant based foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, veggies, and fruits most of the time to increase the number of nutrients in your diet.
● Eat a diverse diet of legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean meats, fish, veggies and fruits to ensure adequate nutrient intake
● Schedule a physical with your physician to make sure you are not deficient in any nutrients
● Supplement your diet as necessary
● Reach out to a dietitian if you have questions about supplementation
Fortunately, a lot of the way we feel can be impacted directly by our nutrition and lifestyle choices. Try to make small changes each day to build a sustainable lifestyle that helps to support your overall health. Take inventory of each area of your life that contributes to your state of well being (diet, stress, sleep, etc). Are you doing what you can to feel your best?