Can eating the right foods improve your mental health? That’s the conclusion of the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry and psychology. It only makes sense that what we put in our bodies affects the brain. And what affects our brain affects our mind, mood and emotions. Overall, the research suggests that foods rich in micro-nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, can help with conditions such as anxiety and depression.
For example, an Australian study of more than 12,000 randomly selected adults found that those who increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables reported increased “happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being,” more often than those whose diets stayed the same.
The traditional Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seafood and health fats, has been examined for its mental health benefits. One study found that participants taught to use this diet for 12 weeks showed improvements in mood and lower anxiety levels. Other studies have found that those who ate the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet had a 25 to 30 percent lower risk of depression as compared to those who ate the typical “western” diet, high in fat, sugar and processed foods.
The thinking behind these results is that a “cleaner” diet not only provides the nutrients necessary for proper functioning of the brain, but it also helps maintain a healthy microbiome, the helpful bacteria in the gut that are important in the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood. About 95 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. And serotonin is believed to help regulate sleep and promote feelings of happiness and well-being.
What practical advice can we take from such research?
- Eat less processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat. Go for foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Start tracking how certain foods make you feel, not just the same day but the day after.
- Try eating a “cleaner,” traditional diet for two or three weeks. Notice changes in your overall mental health.
- Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables like peppers, blueberries, sweet potatoes, kale and tomatoes. These foods are high in phytonutrients that may retard harmful inflammation in the brain and promote the growth of new brain cells.
- Foods rich in vitamin D, DHA, EPA and Omega-3, such as salmon, nuts and seeds, may help reduce anxiety.
- Fermented foods like kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles and kombucha act as a natural probiotic which contributes to a healthy gut biome.
- The use of supplements may be necessary to treat deficiencies in the diet, but it’s better to get most nutrients from whole foods.