The Impact of Food on Mental Health
Healthier diets increase vital neurotransmitters like serotonin, while high consumption of low-quality foods can increase the risk of depression according to Brittney Moses, UHSM Ambassador, Mental Health Expert
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The research has become increasingly clear that our diet plays a crucial role in our physical and mental well-being. The connection between mood and food has often been overlooked in the health field – however, it’s no longer possible to dismiss the growing mountain of evidence. The reality that our diets and mental health are inextricably connected is significant – especially amid the worsening mental health crisis in countries like the US and other developed nations.
Protecting the Brain with Good Food
The brain is an organ that undergoes hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions and biochemical processes that affect the entire body, including someone’s thinking, reasoning, focus and – most importantly – mood and mental well-being. These ongoing chemical reactions within the brain are influenced positively or negatively by the food a person eats.
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For example, B6, found in foods like bananas and fatty fish like salmon, helps synthesize serotonin, a neurotransmitter or chemical substance commonly associated with mood balance. Eating foods that contain ample vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is crucial to protecting the brain from oxidative stress. In particular, dark blue, red and purple fruits like blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are anthocyanins with antioxidant effects that protect the brain against cell damage.
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While healthy diets protect against damage to the brain, other diets, like those high in refined sugars, accelerate processes that can be harmful to the brain by increasing things like inflammation and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress, in particular, is a chemical reaction that produces free radicals or unstable atoms that can damage cells, resulting in illness and aging. When the brain lacks nutrition, the free radicals circulating within the brain’s enclosed space cause injury to brain tissue, ultimately impairing brain function and leading to mood disorders like depression.
The Gut and Intestinal Microbiome
Another equally important part of the body involved in one’s overall emotional well-being is the gut. In fact, the gut is often called “the second brain,” and rightly so. Research has found that the brain sends signals to the gut and vice versa. This gut-brain axis is connected through the vagus nerve, which helps regulate our digestion, heart rate and immune system. Remarkably, the gastrointestinal tract produces 95% of a person’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps control sleep and appetite, reduce pain and arbitrate moods; the gut can actually create anxiety in the brain.
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Additionally, there is the microbiome, which is the collection of microbes that live in our bodies. We have a variety of bacteria that live in our gut. Many bacteria are good for us in not only aiding our digestion but also supporting our physical and mental health. But some “bad bacteria” also exist in the gut and increase things like inflammation and illness in the body. Research shows that diets aimed at improving the culture of bacteria in the gut can also help treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. When high in processed foods, sugar and alcohol, a diet can decrease the number of good bacteria in the gut, causing imbalances that result in poorer mental health.
Nutrient Deficiency and Mental Well-Being
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One of the best ways to keep our gut microbiome healthy is through what we feed our gut. In their book The Happiness Diet, doctors Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey point out that the Modern American Diet or MAD, lacks many of the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrient compounds that were once a staple of the American dinner table. Today, animals raised for their meat are injected with a cocktail of steroids, hormones and antibiotics while fed a diet of corn, and highly processed food lack nutritional properties. As a result, many individuals with unhealthy diets are malnourished in key nutrients, with the most common deficiencies being vitamins A, D, Iron, Iodine and B12. These nutrients are vital to energy, mood and cognition; deficiencies in said nutrients can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Maintaining one’s mental health necessitates eating a diet built on foods with the highest concentrations of these critical nutrients, like fruits, veggies, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains and quality meats. Such foods decrease inflammation and positively alter neurotransmitters to reduce symptoms of depression. Similarly, people must avoid diets that lack these essential nutrients. Research suggests that diets high in added sugars (soft drinks, coffee, candy, etc.) and refined carbohydrates (white flour, noodles, french fries, etc.) were positively associated with increased risk of depression.
Eating Healthy on a Budget
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Consumers should buy organic and look for farm-raised meats and produce. However, these healthier options are sometimes pricier. The CDC recommends planning healthy recipes that share common ingredients to eat healthy on a budget. The American Heart Association suggests avoiding individually packaged foods – although these save time, it is actually healthier and cheaper to prepare the same foods at home. Also, it is best not to be too drastic when changing routines. Instead, make small, gradual changes and be open to experimenting with what works.
Increasing daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, had a positive impact on psychological health, reducing symptoms of depression in those with clinical depression. To save money, the CDC advises consumers to try frozen and canned vegetables as they cost less and last longer – however, it is important to be aware of certain factors. For canned vegetables, read the label and avoid those options stored in syrup rather than water. When selecting frozen options, skip those with “extra” ingredients like added cream, sugar or salt.
Likewise, when buying fresh produce, try to buy locally from farmers’ markets, as they will be at peak freshness, based on the season, and likely more affordable. Gardening is another viable, cost-effective alternative.
There is No One-Size-Fits-All in Nutrition
Simply put, when you take care of your gut, you’re also taking care of your body and mind in a whole variety of ways. While eating healthy can increase mental well-being, it is one of many steps on the journey to overcoming chronic mental health conditions.
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Nevertheless, healthy dieting is just as essential to recovery as seeking a therapist, joining a support group or taking medication. Additionally, it’s important to note that just as no two humans are the same genetically and biologically, so too is there no one-size-fits-all strategy for nutrition. To that end, consider consulting a doctor or nutritionist to craft the most optimal plan!
Ambassador of UHSM, Brittney Moses is a mental health author, lifestyle content creator and advocate over integrating faith, culture and wellness into one’s life. A mom and Los Angeles native, Brittney walks in-faith, using an informed approach to mental health. She is deeply seated in compassion for those she serves, from churches to youth non-profit ministries, Brittney Moses is a NAMI-certified Support Group Facilitator and Crisis Textline Counselor. Brittney Moses encourages others through a variety of mental health crises, and helps others through practical, holistic and an evidence-based approach. Her latest publication and book, Worthy, helps others to focus on clarity and peace every day.