Nutrition and Mental Health

A healthy breakfast displayed on a table.

Nutrition is one of the most powerful tools for our health and well-being. A balanced diet can help us prevent and treat chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease and help us maintain a healthy weight, which reduces our risk for health complications as we age. Overall, good nutrition habits can also help us live longer and have a better quality of life. We know that eating well can improve our mental health. Many studies have found that healthy diets (eating lots of whole, unprocessed foods) can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression.1 Dr. Deborah Fernandez-Turner, Deputy Chief Psychiatric Officer at Aetna, said, “It makes sense that what we put in our body would also impact our mental health. Good health describes a condition of optimal well-being. That means the body and the mind operate in harmony. Both are equally important when defining your health journey.”1

Our diet and emotions are linked to the close relationship between our brain and the GI tract. This is often called the “second brain” or the gut-brain axis. While the gut doesn’t have emotions or thoughts, it’s certainly tied to our mental health—the most well-known example of this connection is serotonin. Many researchers now believe that most of our serotonin (up to 95%) is in our intestines3.  This neurotransmitter regulates many of the functions involved in our day-to-day lives: coordination, movement, sleep, emotions, digestion, and metabolism, as well as feelings of pleasure and reward2. Low serotonin levels can contribute to a host of signs and symptoms that resemble what we know as anxiety and depression. This could mean that if we are not caring for our gut, we may be more likely to struggle with processing our thoughts and emotions.

Our gut is home to about 100 trillion bacteria2, both beneficial and harmful. A great way to take care of the gut is by eating nutritionally dense foods to help promote the growth of “good” bacteria, which can stimulate the production of neurotransmitters. This includes a diet with lots of probiotic foods. Probiotics are live bacteria that benefit the digestive system. Since the gut is home to various bacteria, a healthy diet, including probiotics, can help replenish these cells. Many fermented foods are high in probiotics – some of the best examples are sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and Greek yogurt.

Since probiotics are live organisms, they need food to keep them alive; these foods are known as prebiotics4, which are found in many fibrous foods (think berries, bananas, onions, garlic, and mushrooms.) A great way to incorporate these foods is to have a fruit and yogurt smoothie at breakfast. This type of meal contains both pre-and probiotic foods, called “symbiotic” when combined, and is considered by many researchers to be the most efficient and healthiest way to consume these foods5.

While the gut is an exciting area of evolving research, we can’t forget one of the most critical topics in nutrition: meal balancing. Sticking to a diet of nutrient-rich foods is a great way to reduce mood swings and increase the ability to focus. This is because a healthy diet typically includes foods from all major food groups: starches, protein, and fruits/vegetables. Nutrition professionals refer to this as the healthy plate method, and examples are shown below:

The keys to the healthy plate method are:

  • Fill half the plate with non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, carrots, peppers, broccoli)
  • Fill ¼ with lean proteins (beans, chicken, fish, lean red meat, Greek yogurt, eggs, tofu)
  • Fill the remaining ¼ with complex carbohydrates (whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread, potatoes, rice, crackers, tortillas)

This method is quick and easy to ensure that each meal is balanced in macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein) and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals). This not only supports overall health but helps manage blood sugar levels. Often, an unhealthy diet makes a person’s sugar and refined carbohydrate intake high, while protein and fiber intake are low. This can contribute to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can feel very similar to anxiety – shakiness, fatigue, irritation, headache, racing heart, and foggy-headedness. For example, consider how your brain thinks after not eating for 8 hours! In this way, meal balancing can be a helpful tool in reducing mood fluctuations resulting from depression and anxiety. A diet high in refined sugar feeds the “bad” bacteria in the gut, which lowers the amount of “good” bacteria. Finally, a high-sugar diet can also cause a spike and crash in feel-good hormones like dopamine; this feels good in the short term but can cause problems later. An excellent way to ensure your diet is not high in refined sugar is to reduce your intake of foods such as dry breakfast cereals, candy, cakes, sweetened drinks, and fast food. These foods all contain high amounts of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends limiting our added sugar to about 24-35 grams daily (note: 1 can of Coca-Cola has about 39 grams!)6.

Another essential nutrient for mental health is omega-3s. These fatty acids are found in salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, chia, and flax seeds. Omega-3s travel through the brain cell membrane and may support the effectiveness of mood-related molecules within the brain. An easy way to add these fatty acids into your diet is to put flax seeds into your breakfast smoothie or choose salmon as your protein source at dinner. And while fish oil supplements are an easier way to consume omega-3s, most research suggests that we benefit most from eating our nutrients from whole food sources7. This is the most efficient way to get essential nutrients to our bodies, especially the brain, responsible for our emotions. Below are a few examples of other mood-boosting foods and their nutritional benefits8:

  • Dark chocolate: High in antioxidants which help protect the brain
  • Bananas: Lots of vitamin B6, which helps synthesize dopamine and serotonin
  • Almonds: Contain tryptophan, which is a precursor for serotonin
  • Beans: Excellent source of B vitamins, which help increase levels of GABA to help regulate mood
  • Pumpkin seeds: High in magnesium, which may help with depression

Food can be a way to soothe strong feelings or emotions for some. This may apply to you if you notice that you tend to go towards the kitchen whenever you are overwhelmed and eat lots of food without really enjoying or noticing it. Emotional eating is usually marked by overeating calorie-dense foods in response to anger, stress, frustration, or sadness. While food can sometimes provide comfort and stability, emotional eating can lead to guilt and a negative relationship with food. Mindfulness is a great tool to help reduce eating in response to emotions. When eating mindfully, we’re consciously enjoying our meal in a way that is not rushed, stressful, or distracted. Try the tips below to help you become a more mindful eater.

Before eating, ask yourself a few basic questions:

  • Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? What type of food or drink do I want?
  • Find a quiet, calm place to eat
  • Take three deep breaths before eating
  • Eat slowly and mindfully
  • Pay attention to the smell, taste, sound, texture, and look of the food
  • Put utensils down in between bites
  • Check-in with hunger signals every few minutes
  • Stop eating when you are comfortably full
  • Enjoy your food!

Mindful eating can increase gratitude for food, which will help improve your eating experience9. This usually helps to increase satiety and satisfaction with food, which can help us maintain a healthy weight. This practice can also help you practice mindfulness daily, which is excellent for mental health!

Nutrition is one of the best ways to prevent and manage chronic disease and can also help our mental wellness. A diet full of nutrient-rich foods can help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. While healthy eating can be time-consuming, prioritizing your eating habits is vital to staying physically and mentally fit. Meal prepping and batch cooking are time savers and can help you eat more nutritious foods. Start by roasting veggies, cooking a large pot of rice, and saving extras for quick weeknight dinners. Or swapping out your usual foods for healthier choices, such as whole wheat bread instead of white or a side salad instead of fries. While making changes in our habits can be challenging, starting with one goal at a time can help you stick to a healthier change – picking out one new goal per week is a great start. It may take days or weeks to notice any mood-boosting effects of a more nutritious diet, but good things don’t happen overnight. Small steps go a long way in our nutrition habits!

Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center in Broward County, Florida

Nestled in the heart of South Florida, in the tranquil city of Tamarac, the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center stands as the leading mental health and dual-diagnosis treatment facility in Broward County and Fort Lauderdale. Our center is unrivaled in its dedication to providing a diverse range of services, encompassing a Mental Health Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), a Mental Health Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), counseling, therapy, and psychiatric care. Each program is tailored to meet the unique needs of our patients, underpinned by our unwavering commitment to evidence-based treatment and individualized care.

Our team, composed of widely recognized thought-leaders in mental health, specializes in treating a myriad of conditions including depression, anxiety disorders (encompassing generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder), bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD, schizophrenia, ADHD, and borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, we offer crucial support for individuals experiencing a mental breakdown, and provide a nurturing mental health retreat environment designed to foster recovery. At the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, we empower our patients to regain control of their mental health journey, equipping them with the necessary tools to navigate their path towards wellness with confidence and resilience. Our passion lies in helping each individual build a healthier, happier life.

Sources

  1. Food & Your Mood: How Food Affects Mental Health – Aetna: Foods That Help Your Brain Health.” Aetna, https://www.aetna.com/health-guide/food-affects-mental-health.html.
  2. Eske , Jamie. “Dopamine vs. Serotonin: Similarities, Differences, and Relationship.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326090#serotonin.
  3. Appleton, Jeremy. “The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health.” Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6469458/#:~:text=The%20gut%20provides%20approximately%2095,to%20the%20central%20nerve%20system.
  4. Guinane, Caitriona M, and Paul D Cotter. “Role of the Gut Microbiota in Health and Chronic Gastrointestinal Disease: Understanding a Hidden Metabolic Organ.” Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3667473/.
  5. Malik, Jitendra K. “Synbiotics.” Synbiotics – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, ScienceDirect, 2016, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/synbiotics#:~:text=A%20synbiotic%20is%20defined%20as,Interventions%20in%20Gastrointestinal%20Diseases%2C%202019.
  6. “Added Sugars.” Www.heart.org, American Heart Association, 22 July 2022,https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars.
  7. Lange, Klaus W. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mental Health.” Global Health Journal, ScienceDirect, 19 Mar. 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S241464472030004X.
  8. Davidson, Katey. “9 Healthy Foods That Lift Your Mood.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 5 Feb. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mood-food.
  9. “Break the Bonds of Emotional Eating.” Mount Sinai Health System, https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/special-topic/break-the-bonds-of-emotional-eating.
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