Our core philosophy here is centered on connection. Helping people reconnect to their authentic selves by healing trauma and finding balance in their lives. This inherently holistic point of view also means that we consider all of the ways in which the mind, body and spirit interact and support one another. In this blog, Reconnect answers the question: How does nutrition affect mental health, with the goal of providing the reader insights into supporting their own mental health and wellness in every way available to them.
The Role of Nutrition in Our Mental Health
It may come as no surprise to you that nutrition plays a role in maintaining our physical and mental health. But most people vastly underestimate just how much of an influence the foods we eat can affect our moods, clarity of thought and even short and long-term memory.
The secondary relationship between nutrition and mental health is easy for most of us to grasp. Eating a healthy diet, filled with nutrient-dense foods that are low in simple carbohydrates and high in fiber makes the body healthier.
When the body is healthier, we feel better. When you feel better, your mood and attitude are better. You’re also more likely to engage in other activities like physical exercise, which further support physical and mental health. It’s a cycle of health, you might say. But what’s happening at the chemical and cellular level? How does good nutrition directly affect mental health?
The Connections Between Food and Mental Health
The food we consume can impact our mood, cognitive function, and overall mental health both indirectly, as described above, and at a biological level. Understanding the connection between nutrition and mental health is crucial to anyone who wishes to adopt a diet and lifestyle that will best support their mental well-being.
The brain requires specific nutrients to function optimally. These nutrients help produce neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that regulate mood, memory, and cognitive function. A deficiency in certain nutrients can lead to imbalances in neurotransmitter production, potentially contributing to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and even cognitive decline. In fact, research has shown that poor nutrition may play a meaningful role in some of the cognitive decline we associate with aging alone.
Nutrients for Healthy Brain Function
Some essential nutrients that have been scientifically proven to affect mood and overall well-being include:
Omega-3 fatty acids:
These essential fats are crucial for proper brain function, and they have been linked to improved mood and reduced symptoms of depression. Good sources of omega-3s include fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines), walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
B vitamins, particularly B6, B9 (folate), and B12, play a significant role in producing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Deficiencies in these vitamins can contribute to depression and other mental health issues. Sources of B vitamins include whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, animal proteins, and fortified cereals.
This essential nutrient is necessary for various brain functions, including mood regulation. Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression and seasonal affective disorder. Vitamin D can be obtained through sun exposure, supplementation, and certain foods such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified dairy products.
Magnesium is involved in numerous biochemical reactions in the body, including those related to mood regulation. Low magnesium levels have been linked to anxiety and depression. Good sources of magnesium include leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
This essential amino acid is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being. Tryptophan can be found in foods like turkey, chicken, eggs, dairy products, and soy products.
Overcoming Barriers to Nutrition and Mental Health
People living in areas with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, such as “food deserts” or low-income neighborhoods, may face challenges in obtaining the necessary nutrients for optimal brain function. This is one more way that social and economic equality and racism can impact human health.
Here are some suggestions for overcoming these potential barriers to meeting the nutritional requirements conducive to supporting your mental health:
Utilize Local Resources:
Seek out community gardens, farmers’ markets, or co-ops that may provide access to fresh produce at a lower cost than traditional grocery stores. If you don’t have public garden space in your community, consider collaborating with your neighbors to build one.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables:
While frozen fruits and vegetables may not be ideal, they are almost always more affordable than fresh and easier to source. They still retain most of the essential nutrients you’re after. Try to incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet every day and in at least 2 of your 3 meals.
Homegrown Healthy Food:
If you own or have access to land, consider starting a small garden or growing herbs in pots to supplement your diet with fresh produce. Even a small patio, balcony or fire escape can provide enough space and sunlight to grow a few things like tomatoes, herbs and greens.
Vitamins and Supplements:
Even with a fairly diverse diet, it’s easy to miss out on getting enough of certain vital nutrients and other things like fiber. Consider adding a good quality food-based multivitamin to your diet along with other supplements that may help you fill in the gaps. Ideally, consult a nutritionist or your physician for advice. Always check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any supplements. If you are on any prescription drugs they should spot any potential interactions.
How to Support Your Mental Health with Nutrition
Before we begin, it’s essential to note that there are no “magic fixes” for mental health disorders in terms of nutrition. There aren’t any foods or supplements you can take that will erase anxiety or end depression, for example.
That said, improving your diet can absolutely have a noticeable effect on the symptoms of many disorders and anything you can do to improve your physical health is bound to pay some dividends in your mental well-being too.
Here are some actionable tips for people living with mental illness who would like to try some nutritional changes in addition to receiving mental health treatment or counseling:
Eat a Balanced Diet:
Focus on consuming a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. They say variety is the spice of life, sure eating a more balanced diet can take a little work, but your body and mind will thank you for it.
Prioritize Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Incorporate omega-3-rich foods into your diet, or consider supplementation with a high-quality fish oil or algae-based supplement. EFA’s are proven to support brain health measurably and that’s important to everyone, especially those with a mental health disorder.
Avoid Processed Foods:
Limit your consumption of processed, sugary, and high-fat foods, as they can contribute to inflammation and negatively impact mental health. Even though some so-called “comfort foods” fall under this category, it’s very important to moderate your intake of these foods.
Dehydration can exacerbate feelings of fatigue and negatively affect mood. Aim to drink at least 8 cups of water per day. Many people find this easier to do if they carry a reusable water bottle or Nalgene container with them daily and commit to drinking all the water in it.
Practice Mindful Eating:
Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues, and eat slowly to savor each bite and reduce stress. Awareness is the key to reaching so many of our mental health goals and it definitely applies when it comes to our relationship with food.
Healing Happens Here
Incorporating these nutritional strategies can help individuals improve their mental well-being alongside other treatments, such as therapy or medication. Remember that improving your nutrition alone will not resolve a mental health condition. You should consult with a healthcare professional before making significant dietary changes, especially when dealing with mental health challenges.
If you or someone you love is living with a mental health disorder, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. The team of compassionate professionals here at Reconnect are ready to help you or your loved one rise above their trauma and heal. All it takes is one phone call to begin. Reach out to us at (310) 713-6739 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org