Tempted to munch on a doughnut instead of an apple? Thinking of heading to the nearby fast food joint instead of the vegetarian restaurant around the corner?
When we make these daily food decisions, a lot of us think that our choices only affect our physical health and appearance. But studies show that they also impact our mental health. What you eat and drink directly affects your brain’s structure and activity, and ultimately, your mood.
Although mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, are complex and connected to a number of factors such as genetics, personality, and environment, eating well can help your brain function at its best and help regulate how you feel.
What should you consume?
You need to eat different types of food to get the variety of nutrients needed for optimal brain function.
#1. Omega-3 fatty acids
Growing evidence suggests a strong link between deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids and mental health problems. In fact, a study found that people who consumed the most fish (oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids) were less likely to have depression symptoms.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, anchovy, shad, mackerel, and tuna)
- Olive, sunflower, canola, and soybean oils
- Nuts, especially walnuts and almonds
- Dark green leafvegetablesy
Emerging research found that consumption of probiotics reduced depression symptoms. This makes sense since the gastrointestinal tract is responsible for the production of about 95% of your serotonin and probiotics play a key role in keeping the digestive system healthy.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Its production is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that protect the lining of your intestines against toxins and “bad” bacteria, limit inflammation, improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food, and activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.
Get your dose of probiotics from the following foods:
These are nutrients that play a role in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions:
- Vitamin B1 – Involved in turning glucose into energy
- Vitamin B5 – Needed to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory
- Vitamin B6 – helps convert the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin
- Vitamin B9 (Folate) – Important for cell growth, metabolism, and conversion of carbohydrates to energy
- Vitamin B12 – Involved in the production of neurotransmitters
Although the connection isn’t fully understood, low vitamin B levels have been consistently associated with depression. For instance, a study found that people with depression had lower blood levels of folate and lower dietary intake of folate compared to those without depression. Deficiency in folate may impair the metabolism of serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, which are important neurotransmitters for mood regulation. Other studies also show a correlation between vitamin B12 deficiency and depression in elderly women.
Foods that are rich in B vitamins include:
- Whole grains (e.g., quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal)
- Dark, leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach, artichoke, broccoli)
- Legumes (e.g., beans, lentils)
- Meat (e.g., red meat, poultry, fish)
- Seeds and nuts (e.g., sunflower seeds, almonds)
- Eggs and dairy protects (e.g., milk, cheese)
- Fruits (e.g., citrus fruits, avocado, banana)
#4. Vitamin D
Though your primary source of vitamin D should be sunlight exposure, you can supplement it by eating the following foods:
- Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel)
- Fish liver oils
- Animal fats
- Vitamin D-fortified food products (e.g., orange juice, cereal, milk)
A study showed that selenium levels that are too high or too low can place young people at a greater risk of depression and poorer moods.
To safely consume the right amount of selenium, avoid supplements and instead get your selenium from the following foods:
- Whole grains (e.g., whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal)
- Nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts — but no more than two a day because of its high selenium content)
- Lean meat (e.g., lean pork and beef, skinless chicken and turkey)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Seafood (e.g., oyster, clam, sardines, crab, fish)
- Beans and legumes
What foods and drinks should you limit or avoid?
Drinking one or two cups of java is okay, but if you drink too much, the caffeine can trigger jitters, irritability, rapid heartbeat, headache, and troubled sleep, which may lead to anxiety and depression. In fact, studies found that caffeine aggravates symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder.
Cutting back or ceasing caffeine intake after noon may help you get a better night’s sleep. You could try swapping out one of your regular coffee cups for caffeine-free beverages or lower-caffeine beverages like black tea and green tea.
Aside from coffee, caffeine can also be found in tea, chocolate, cola, and other manufactured energy drinks.
Because alcohol is a depressant, it slows down your body and changes the brain’s chemical makeup, which alters your mood, energy levels, concentration, memory, and sleeping patterns. It also reduces inhibitions and impacts decision-making, which increases risky behavior, aggression, and can push people who are already going through a tough time to hurt themselves or commit suicide.
Drinking too often or too much alcohol in one sitting can increase these effects and negatively impact your mood and your ability to cope with hard times.
#3. Processed sugar
Although sugar can give you a quick boost (aptly called a “sugar rush”), this is quickly followed by a crash. So if you consume large amounts of processed sugar, your body goes through a rollercoaster of ups and downs, which can trigger an imbalance in certain brain chemicals that can lead to feelings of worry, irritability, and sadness.
There’s also an increased long-term risk of developing mental health disorders in some people. In fact, a 2017 study found that men who consumed a high amount of sugar every day were 23% more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression within five years.
A healthy diet is just a step to taking care of your mental health
Although dietary changes can make a big difference in how you feel, they don’t replace therapy, medication, or other treatments. Abruptly stopping medications such as antidepressants can have potentially serious psychological and physical effects. So if you have any mental health conditions, seek and continue to receive the help of psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists of Meridian Psychiatric Partners, LLC. We are ready to help children, adolescents, their families and adults in the Chicago, Evanston, Lake Forest, and surrounding areas.