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Eating for your Mental Health

Link between nutrition and mental health

Have you ever been told that the pain or discomfort you are having in your gut is “all in your head”? Well, this statement may not be totally true. There are definitely connections between the mind and body. The foods you eat influences both the digestive system and the brain. In this article, I will help you understand how your diet can negatively or positively affect your mood or mental health.

Brain and digestive system connection

There is scientific evidence for the link between mental health and the gastrointestinal tract (GI) or gut. The GI contains hundred million of nerve cells that produces over 90% of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the body. Serotonin is useful chemical in regulating mood, appetite and sleep, and it inhibits pain. The GI also has millions of bacteria to protect the lining of your gut against toxins, to help you absorb nutrients from your food and to activate the neural pathway between the brain and the gut. According to scientist, the GI is like a “second brain”, which can digest food and guide emotions. For this reason, the health of your gut can affect your brain and the bacteria living in your gut can activate the nerve signaling between the digestive system and the brain.

How foods affect mental health

One of the latest approaches for understanding the role of food in mental health is known as nutritional psychiatry. This field of study suggest that the diets of individuals can affect mental health conditions, and thus dietary changes can be used to treat mental health conditions.

Food can affect your mental health in various ways. The foods you eat creates the proteins or enzymes, and neurotransmitters that your brain need for growth and development and function. For example, highly processed foods (i.e., soda, packaged foods, and sugary snacks) you may eat, consist of chemical additives which reduces the diversity of microbes in the GI environment, which increases inflammation and elevates the risk of depression.

Other foods that affect the gut include those containing gluten. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye which acts as a glue to hold dough together and gives it that chewy texture. The gluten in the some products may cause abdominal bloating, diarrhea and constipation in some individuals. This may lead to imbalances and changes in the gut microbiome which is linked to mood imbalances. It is important to remember that gluten does not affect all individuals in the same way. However, it can have a significant impact on the mental and digestive health, especially for those who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten [1].

And your mental health can also influence your food choices. When you are feeling emotional, you may find yourself reaching for junk food, alcoholic beverages, caffeine, skipping meals and then overeating. This can all affect your mood. Poor dietary intake leads to nutrient deficiencies. Deficiencies of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, or vitamin D increases the risk for developing mood disorders. [2]

Foods for the Brain

Here are a list of foods and nutrients that may be beneficial to your mental health:

  • Berries – Rich in antioxidants useful for fighting “oxidative stress” in your body. Oxidative stress often leads to anxiety, depression and mood swings [3].

  • Leafy greens – High in folates and B vitamins and may relieve depression symptoms. Foods that include folate are: kale, spinach, mustard greens, Swiss chard, turnip greens, and collard greens [4]

  • Fermented foods – Contains beneficial bacteria which helps to reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety [5][6]. Fermented foods include foods such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut.

  • Omega-3 - types of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs): eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA and EPA are found mainly in fish or fish oil. ALA is contained in many plants, nuts, seeds, flax seed oil, and some green vegetables. High amounts of omega-3 increase blood flow to the brain area associated with reduced depression, ADHD, and other mental disorders [7].

Bottom line

Every bit of food that enters your body affects your nerve cells and their interactions. It affects your decisions and mindfulness. Nourishing your body with the right foods will also nourish your mental health. It is wise to pay attention to how you feel after eating a variety of different foods.

Healthy eating is an important part of your emotional well-being and is useful in cultivating good mental health. However, the nutritional approaches presented in this article should not be used to treat a medical condition, should never replace medications or other treatment methods such as therapy. If you have concerns about your mental health, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider or contact the following hotline:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-6264, NAMI is available Monday–Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. Operators can provide information about mental illness and refer callers to treatment, and family and group support, if needed.

Think of your diet as just another piece of the puzzle to making you feel healthier, happier and more vibrant.


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