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How Does Nutrition Affect Mental Health?

how does nutrition impact mental health

You may have heard the saying, “You are what you eat,” but what does that really mean? According to medical experts, the food that we eat should not only nourish our bodies; it should also nourish our minds, bringing both health and happiness to our lives. 

Many do not realize that food, and nutrition more generally, have the ability to affect our mental well-being, energy levels, and attitudes. So, it’s important we prioritize healthy eating and make nutritious choices that support our physical and mental health. This is true for everyone – those struggling with mental health problems, and those who are not. 

Below we explore the connection between nutrition and mental health, understanding the science behind food and its influence on the brain. We also delve into some nutritious food choices that can promote good mental health and boost your energy.

The Science Behind Food and Mental Health

Serotonin is an essential neurotransmitter that regulates a person’s sleep, appetite, and moods. It also helps to tolerate feelings of pain and is highly influential on a person’s mental state. In fact, some people refer to serotonin as the “feel good” hormone.

The vast majority of serotonin (about 95 percent) is produced inside the gastrointestinal tract, unveiling a direct connection between food and emotions. Because in order for serotonin to be produced, the gastrointestinal system needs certain nutrients, such as vitamin B1, copper, riboflavin, and calcium—and these nutrients are often obtained via the food we eat.

The production of serotonin (and other important hormones) is also highly influenced by the gut’s microbiome. The intestinal microbiome produces neurotransmitters, facilitates communication between the gut and brain, regulates the immune system, and improves how we absorb nutrients from food.

What is the gut’s microbiome, exactly? To put it simply, it’s an ecosystem of microbes, or bacteria, inside your intestines. The gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of neurons that rely on a healthy microbiome, or “good” bacteria, to function properly. Bacteria in the microbiome are typically fueled by fiber-rich foods, such as that found in broccoli, asparagus, leafy greens, seeds, beans, and fruit. Foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome (such as the above, as well as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut) can positively affect mood, energy, and overall mental health. 

Exploring the Connection Between Nutrition and Mental Health

While it’s clear that the brain and gut are directly related, this is not the only way in which nutrition and mental health correlate. Nutrition also impacts mental health in the following capacities:

  • Reduce inflammation: Certain foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, can reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation has been linked to depression and other mental health disorders.
  • Prevent oxidative stress: Antioxidants, including Vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene help protect the brain from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can damage brain cells and impair cognitive function, so these nutrients play an important role.
  • Promote healthy brain development: Brain development also relies on nutrient-dense foods, such as those with omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, and amino acids.
  • Regulate emotions and mood: Nutrients like tryptophan and tyrosine are crucial for the production of the neurotransmitters that regulate mood, such as serotonin and dopamine.
  • Stabilize blood sugar: Balanced meals, full of nutrients, can help to maintain blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels are stable, it helps to prevent mood swings, irritability, and cognitive impairment.
  • Maintain energy: Complex carbohydrates provide a slow release of glucose into the body and bloodstream. This contributes to steady energy levels and brain function throughout the day.
  • Prevent deficiencies: Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals can lead to mental health issues. For example, low levels of vitamin D are linked to depression, while a deficiency in B vitamins can lead to fatigue and cognitive decline. Similarly, an iron deficiency can cause anemia, which leads to mental health symptoms like cognitive impairment.
  • Stay hydrated and aware: Proper hydration can promote overall cognitive function. On the other hand, dehydration can negatively affect a person’s concentration, mood, and emotional stability.

Which Foods are Best for Your Mental Health?

Your body and mind can benefit from a diversity of different foods, so when it comes to nutrition, you have a lot of options! In general, though, whole and unprocessed foods are recommended.

Scientists have found that traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are associated with better mental health. Specifically, those who eat traditional diets (which are high in vegetables, fruits, fish, and unprocessed grains) reduce their risk of depression by 25 to 35%. Meanwhile, processed foods, added sugars, and unhealthy fats have been linked to higher risks of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

As explored above, some whole foods you can start incorporating into your diet (to enhance your mental health and energy levels) include:

  • Fiber-rich foods, like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, asparagus, and broccoli stems (to name a few)
  • Whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, whole wheat, and brown rice
  • Antioxidant-rich fruit, such as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries
  • Leafy greens, such as spinach and kale
  • Nuts and seeds, ranging from pumpkin seeds to flaxseeds, almonds to walnuts
  • Omega-rich foods, like avocados and fatty fish
  • Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, beans, and peas
  • Eggs, which are high in protein and choline
  • Turmeric, in food or tea
  • Green tea
  • Dark chocolate

Other Tips for Prioritizing Nutrition and Mental Health

The foods you choose to eat can play a major role in how you feel throughout the day. However, it’s not the foods alone that will make-or-break your health. In order to reap the benefits of nutrition and see a positive impact on your mental health, you should also:

  • Maintain a balanced diet, with well-rounded meals and a variety of nutrient-dense foods
  • Eat regular meals to maintain steady blood sugar levels
  • Stay hydrated to maintain focus throughout the day
  • Limit your consumption of processed foods, sugary snacks, and unhealthy fats
  • Take vitamins and minerals to supplement your diet (consult with your doctor first)

By paying attention to your nutrition, and incorporating the above nutrient-rich foods into your diet, you can enhance your mental health, cognitive function, and overall well-being.

Studies support this sentiment. One recent study, for example, found that a Mediterranean-style diet (consisting of balanced, whole-food meals) can improve the outcomes of treatment for mood disorders.

Nutrition in Mental Health Treatment

Due to the obvious connection between nutrition and mental health, Turnbridge makes nutrition a priority for all of our clients and residents. In our inpatient mental health treatment program, clients receive three healthy meals plus one nutritious snack per day. These meals and snacks are prepared by our chef and kitchen staff. However, this is just the beginning. 

During our treatment programs, clients also gain important life skills like cooking and grocery shopping. And, as you might expect, nutrition is a major component of these specific tasks. Clients learn how to make healthy decisions at the grocery store as well as prepare balanced, nutritious meals for themselves. The goal is to ensure that nutrition becomes a lifelong pursuit—helping these individuals feel good mentally and physically, during and after treatment.If you are interested in learning more about the impact of nutrition on mental health, or how nutrition is incorporated into Turnbridge’s programs, please do not hesitate to reach out. You can also learn more about Turnbridge’s mental health treatment programs for young adults and teenagers by calling 877-581-1793 today.