Your mind and body are more closely connected than we ever imagined. Here’s how mental health issues can be rooted in physical ailments, and good nutrition can help.
Mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, might seem invisible, but they’re tangibly 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
Mental health conditions are often stigmatized and treated as if they’re “all in your head”, but research shows that’s far from the truth. In fact, many mental disorders have ties elsewhere in the body, whether it’s the thyroid, gut, adrenal glands or hormones, to name a few. (1, 2, 3)
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, they do not remain an “intangible” problem that you can erase by simply thinking positively.
To properly treat mental health disorders, the underlying physical conditions must be addressed with dietary and lifestyle support, sometimes along with professional therapy or medication. In the same way that sports injuries and surgery recovery need both physical therapy and other treatments, mental health conditions often require multifaceted approaches, too.
As we understand how physical conditions and nutrition impact mental and neurological health, we can begin to separate the facts from the fiction and treat it accordingly.
Physical Problems That Impact Mental Health
While the subject of mental health as a physical disorder is relatively new and the subject of ongoing research, there are two main areas that have been closely tied to mental wellness: inflammation and gut health.
Inflammation is produced by the body to promote healing, but the process can quickly get out of control when triggered by a chronic issue. When it relates to mental health, unchecked inflammation often targets the gut, endocrine organs, and the brain itself.
Inflammation can stem from poor dietary choices to food allergies to Celiac disease to childhood trauma and beyond. (5, 6) There’s really no limit as to what can cause inflammation, and oftentimes genetics can have a say in how or where the inflammatory process begins.
To properly address inflammation, it’s important to remove dietary, lifestyle, and environmental triggers.
Poor Gut Health
The gut plays a strong role in influencing 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 to keep out toxins. When this barrier function malfunctions, toxic particles can enter the bloodstream and lead to inflammation, chronic conditions, food reactions, and more.
Because the nervous system partially resides in the gut, there is a direct line to the brain known as the brain-gut axis. This channel means that leaky gut and other intestinal or digestive issues can result in neurotransmitter imbalances. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for providing stability and acting as an antidepressant, is mostly made in the gut. (8) Research even shows that people with psychological disorders have a microbiome that looks different compared to healthy people – further proof that mental health disorders are truly physical. (9, 10)
The gut can also control the brain, to some degree, by orchestrating many of the signals and messages that are sent to the brain through the nerves. When the gut is inflamed or imbalanced, these messages can lead to mood problems. (11, 12)
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
Nearly everyone loves sweet treats, but people who are prone to depression or anxiety seem to be especially drawn to sugar. This is because sugar provides a dopamine hit that temporarily eases feelings of angst, sadness, anxiety and depression. This is not a permanent fix, however. Over time, with chronic overstimulation of these dopamine hits, the brain will synthesize less and less, leaving you more and more dependent on sugar for any semblance of good feelings. Sugar is also one of the main driving factors of inflammation, which worsens mental well-being. (13)
When quitting sugar for mental health, avoid all forms of sweeteners, including raw honey, coconut sugar, and even stevia. This is important because even just the taste of sweetness can be enough to initiate that dopamine buzz sensation. What you want to achieve by quitting sugar is 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, are also able to 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) Dopamine can also be boosted via dietary sources that include eggs and protein.
4. Load Up On Antioxidants
Fighting the fiery burden of inflammation from the inside is essential. Antioxidants combat internal sources of oxidation and damage, and are found in abundance in citrus fruits, bell peppers, and blueberries. (18)
5. Avoid Alcohol
While many say that anything is fine in moderation, when you’re battling mental health challenges, stimulants that mess with neurotransmitter function – like sugar and alcohol – are best avoided entirely to allow the body to rebalance 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 have protective effects on 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 help to nourish the existing good gut bacteria. These include foods like artichokes, bananas, asparagus, and apples.
Fermented foods also help to supply the good bacteria to the gut, reducing inflammation and disease-causing bacteria in the intestines. (29)