Your mind and body are closely connected. Here’s how good nutrition can impact your mental health.
Mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, might seem invisible, but they’re connected to real symptoms, disorders, and diseases.
Here’s what you need to know when it comes to how your diet interacts with your mental health.
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How Mental Health Is Rooted in the Body
Trauma, abuse, and emotional stress can produce reactions within the body that become physical disease. (4) Even when mental health problems originate from an emotional or stress-based source, you can’t use positive thinking alone to ward them off.
We can address the underlying physical conditions of mental health disorders through dietary changes, lifestyle support, and sometimes with professional therapy or medication. In the same way that sports injuries might need physical therapy and other treatments, mental health conditions often require multifaceted approaches, too.
Learn how physical conditions and nutrition impact mental and neurological health, so you can separate the facts from fiction and treat it accordingly.
Physical Problems That Impact Mental Health
The subject of mental health as a physical disorder is relatively new and undergoing much new research. However, there are two physical concerns closely tied to mental wellness: inflammation and gut health.
Inflammation can quickly get out of control when triggered by a chronic issue. Unchecked inflammation often targets the gut, endocrine organs, and the brain itself, triggering mental health issues.
To properly address inflammation, it’s important to remove dietary, lifestyle, and environmental triggers.
Poor Gut Health
The gut influences how the brain works, and is closely tied to disorders like depression and anxiety. (7) The gut has an intricate barrier system, designed to let digested nutrients into the bloodstream and keep out toxins. When this barrier system malfunctions, toxic particles can enter the bloodstream and lead to inflammation, chronic conditions, food reactions, and more.
The brain-gut axis is a direct line in your body’s nervous system. This channel connects leaky gut and other intestinal or digestive issues with neurotransmitter imbalances. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for providing stability and acting as an antidepressant, is mostly made in the gut. (8)
Since the gut is responsible for digestion and absorption of nutrients, vitamin deficiencies can also occur. This can manifest in an inability to properly digest, absorb, or utilize nutrients.
6 Ways to Eat for Mental Wellness
Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach, customizing your diet and lifestyle to suit your own needs is an essential first step. Avoid known allergens and sensitivities as well as environmental exposures that can lead to toxicity, inflammation, and gut problems.
Beyond that, try these research-backed ways to help your brain and nervous system to function at their best.
1. Skip the Sugar
Sugar provides a dopamine hit that temporarily eases feelings of angst, sadness, anxiety and depression.
This is not a permanent fix, however. Over time chronic overstimulation from dopamine hits will lead the brain to synthesize less and less. This leaves you more dependent on sugar to feel well. Sugar is also one of the driving factors of inflammation, which worsens mental well-being. (13)
To quit sugar for mental health, avoid all forms of sweeteners, including honey, coconut sugar, and even stevia. This is important because even just the taste of sweetness can be enough to initiate that dopamine buzz. You want to allow the brain to receive dopamine boosts from factors other than sugar.
2. Eat Plenty of Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory superfoods, which is partially why they support a healthy and balanced brain. EPA and DHA, two forms of omega-3s, also regulate dopamine and serotonin, leading to a stabilized brain that can better cope with stress and anxiety. (14, 15)
3. Get Enough Protein
The amino acid tryptophan, found in protein-rich foods like turkey, chicken, liver, and beef, can be converted to serotonin in the gut. When eaten regularly, protein can ultimately have a stabilizing, relaxing, and anti-anxiety impact on the brain. (17) Dietary sources like eggs and protein can also boost dopamine.
4. Load Up On Antioxidants
Fight inflammation from the inside with antioxidants, like those found in blueberries. Antioxidants can help combat internal sources of oxidation and damage. You can find them in abundance in citrus fruits, bell peppers, and, of course, blueberries. (18)
5. Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol can worsen depression and disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome. It can also play a role in leaky gut, leading to malabsorption of crucial nutrients. (21, 22)
When you’re battling mental health challenges, avoid stimulants like sugar and alcohol that mess with neurotransmitter function. This will give your body the chance to re-balance the nervous system communication and synthesis of neurotransmitters.
6. Take Prebiotics and Probiotics
Protecting gut health is vital when it comes to mental health. Probiotic foods and supplements can help to maintain a healthy gut, reverse the damage of leaky gut, and can even help protect the brain. (25, 26, 27, 28)
When supplementing, opt for a broad-spectrum probiotic free from fillers.
It’s also essential to eat prebiotic foods, which nourish the existing good gut bacteria. These include foods like artichokes, bananas, asparagus, and apples.
Fermented foods also help to supply good bacteria to the gut, reducing inflammation and disease-causing bacteria in the intestines. (29)
For more tips on how to eat for better mental health, check out this article on The Inflammation-Depression Connection.