If someone were to ask us whether a healthy diet is good for our physical health, we would blurt “yes” without a moment’s hesitation. But if we twist the question just a tiny bit, and ask whether a healthy diet is good for our mood, we would require some time to ponder. The reason is that we think of mood in purely psychological terms. Our mood seems to be a snapshot of our emotional state, a product of the events of our lives. Sure, when we are feeling low and need some quick comfort, we indulge in comfort food — ice creams, pastries, pizzas, and the like. But beyond that, the link is not so obvious.
This is because we often fail to account for a very simple fact: our brain – the repository of all our thoughts and memories, the engine of our cognition, the storehouse of all our beliefs and emotions – is an organ. And like all the other organs of our body, it relies on food to fuel its operations. In fact, the brain gobbles up a sizable 20% of the calories consumed by the body. Therefore, the kind and quality of food we eat can impact the functioning of our brain and, as consequence, our mental health.
Diet and Mental Health
The connection between our diet and mental health manifests through the close relationship that exists between our gastrointestinal tract — commonly referred to as our ‘gut’ — and our brain. The gut is home to billions of good bacteria, and these bacteria affect and are responsible for, the production of important neurotransmitters — serotonin and dopamine, among others.
These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in guiding our emotional well-being. Low serotonin levels, for example, have been implicated in causing mental disorders such as depression. Most of the antidepressants currently in use belong to the ‘SSRI’ class – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – that aim to increase the serotonin present in the brain to levels that promote healthy functioning of our brain.
Dopamine also plays an important part in mood regulation and our social functioning. When the transmission of dopamine in the brain is dysregulated, it can impair our ability to process emotions. It follows, then, that a healthy diet promotes a healthy gut which, in turn, helps in the regulation of emotions.
Mental Illness and Food
Initially, research on nutrition-focused mainly on how the food we eat affects our physical health, and what foods could play a role in preventing or controlling physical illnesses. Over the past few years, however, researchers have started digging into the relationship between food and emotional well-being.
In a study published in 2017, a team of researchers wanted to understand whether changes in diet could help patients suffering from depression. The patients were split into two groups: one group received no dietary advice, and the other group had to regularly meet with a dietician and follow a traditional Mediterranean-style diet. Importantly, both groups were asked to continue any psychiatric medication they had been prescribed.
The study focused on whether changes in diet could help in addition to the psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy that the patients had been receiving. The results after 12 weeks were startling — while both groups saw improvement in the average depression scores, the group following a healthy diet saw a vastly superior improvement. While 8% of the patients receiving no dietary advice were no longer classified as depressed, the number rose to almost a third in the patients that incorporated changes in their diet. This shows how a good diet can be beneficial for patients with debilitating mental illnesses.
Other studies have investigated specific nutrients and their role in the improvement of mental illnesses. Omega-3 fatty acids have shown tremendous potential in the treatment of major depression and bipolar disorder.
Omega-3 FAs reduce the inflammation in the brain and help in the generation of new neurons. They are thought to improve the effects of antidepressants such as SSRIs by improving the absorption and transmission of serotonin and dopamine. Studies have also shown that Omega-3 FAs improve mental functioning and reduce the severity of symptoms in patients with schizophrenia.
Vitamin B also plays a key role in the healthy functioning of the brain, and vitamin B deficiency has been observed in many patients with depression.
These studies show how deficiencies of important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 contribute to the development and worsening of a myriad of mental disorders. Correction of these deficiencies through a healthy diet can therefore help you in improving your mood and mental well-being, and also speed up recovery in patients receiving psychiatric treatment.
Foods That Improve Mood
A healthy diet not only helps you maintain great physical health, but it also helps reduce fluctuations in mood, increases the ability to concentrate, and provides you with an overall optimistic outlook on life. With the mounting evidence of the potential of a nutritious diet in preventing and helping mental health disorders, it becomes imperative for us to incorporate as much nutritious food in our meals as possible. Here are some foods you could add to your meals:
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation in the body and the brain, stabilize mood, and can improve the efficacy of psychiatric medication such as antidepressants. You can find omega-3 FAs in sardines, salmon, herring, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Folate: Folate is a type of Vitamin B that helps in the production of dopamine, but unlike sugary foods, it doesn’t cause a spike and crash. Folate can be found in rice, spinach, asparagus, black-eyed peas, fortified cereals, brussels sprouts, and beef liver.
Iron and Zinc: Minerals such as iron and zinc protect the brain against oxidative damage, aid in the production of energy, and support the synthesis of neurotransmitters and myelin. They help regulate mood and ensure the proper functioning of mechanisms responsible for sleep. Iron is found in spinach, lentils, white beans, fortified cereals, tofu, beef liver, oysters, and dark chocolate. Zinc is found in: chicken pork chops, lobster, oysters, beef roast, Alaska king crab, and pumpkin seeds.
Magnesium: Magnesium is an essential mineral that serves multiple functions — it helps in the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, and also keeps the heart rhythm healthy. It also maintains the balance of bacteria in the gut, thereby aiding the gut-brain connection. Magnesium can be found in almonds, cashews, peanuts, spinach, black beans, soy milk, and pumpkin and chia seeds.
B Vitamins: B-group vitamins are important for preserving almost all areas of cognitive performance. They help preserve memory in old age and maintain overall cognitive health. By slowing down or preventing the degeneration of neurons, they have been shown to help patients with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and dementia. B vitamins are found in potatoes, bananas, chickpeas, salmon, tuna, clams, beef liver, and chicken breast.
Prebiotics and Probiotics: Prebiotics provide nutrition to the existing bacteria in the gut, and probiotics themselves contain healthy bacteria. Including prebiotics and probiotics in your diet will help maintain stability in your gut and promote emotional well-being. Foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics are:
- Fruits and vegetables – apples, bananas, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, onions, and garlic
- Grains – oats and barley
- Fermented foods – buttermilk, yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and kefir
Antioxidants: Antioxidants play an important role in the maintenance of the structure and functions of the brain. Vitamins A, C, and E — the most common antioxidants in foods — help support vital brain functions such as working memory and attention, and protect against cognitive decline in various mental disorders such as anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. Vitamin A is found in: cow’s milk, carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, ricotta cheese, herring, and beef liver. Vitamin C is found in strawberries, broccoli, red and green peppers, and orange and grapefruit juice.
Path to a Healthy Diet
Incorporating foods that are nutritious and help with your mood can take some effort at first, but the payoff is completely worth it. You can start small, such as replacing pasta, bread, and white rice with their whole-grain variants. The increased fiber will improve glucose absorption, providing a steady dose of energy, without requiring any additional cooking effort.
And if you crave a quick midday or midnight snack, you could prepare a salad beforehand, so you’re not tempted towards those unhealthy chips and sugar-laden foods. Remember, the point is not to make a drastic and immediate change, but to slowly eliminate unhealthy food while adding more nutritious alternatives.
Over time, a healthy diet will not only improve your mood but also boost your energy and focus. And if you are taking any psychiatric medication, the diet will also serve to speed up your recovery by working synergistically with your treatment and providing lasting nourishment to both your body and your mind.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.