How Our Diet Impacts Our Mental Health

A nutritious diet is not just great for the body, it is great for the mind too. Our brains work hard 24/7, even when we are sleeping, so it is important to nourish it. Our minds and bodies are fuelled by what we eat, therefore it makes sense that what we choose to eat has a direct impact on our brain and ultimately our mental health.

There is a lot of research in motion, exploring the relationship between what we eat, how we feel and how it impacts our behaviour. In addition to examining food, there is scientific research focused on the correlation between the kinds of bacteria that live in our digestive tract and our mental health.

How Foods Affect How We Feel

Our brains work best when they are given the right fuel. Eating high-quality foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can position us for optimal mental health and performance. Conversely, eating foods that contain high amounts of refined sugars are detrimental to the brain and body. Numerous studies have demonstrated a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and increased severity of symptoms of anxiety and depression.

So what foods are right for our brains? Here are some nutrients and foods that have been proven to have an impact on our mental health:

Omega-3 & Omega-6: Research has shown that healthy fats such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, as well as those found in avocados, boost brain power and improve mood. Sources of fatty acids include fish such as salmon and mackerel.

Zinc: Foods rich in Omega-3 and zinc have been found to influence changes in proteins that increase connections between brain cells. Zinc also helps control the body’s response to stress and low levels of this mineral have been linked to depression. Oysters and mussels are a great source of zinc.

B Vitamins: Low B12 levels are associated with greater brain inflammation and higher rates of depression. Beef, fish, sardines, eggs and fortified milk, and cereals have all been found to have high amounts of vitamin B12.

Iron: Iron deficiencies have been linked to depression, and iron deficiencies are common for women of reproductive age. Foods that are naturally rich in iron include red meat, eggs and dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.

Antioxidants: Antioxidants help combat harmful substances in the body called free radicals. They also help increase blood flow to the brain, which can have a positive impact on mood and memory. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries, leafy greens and dark chocolate.

Fermented Foods:  Eating foods rich in healthy bacteria such as kefir and yogurt are widely known to be healthy for your digestive system. What is less commonly understood is their impact on serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite, moods and the inhibition of pain. Approximately 95% of the serotonin in our body is produced in our gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with millions of nerve cells. Some gut germs even help make brain-powering B vitamins. Therefore our digestive system not only helps us digest food but also has an impact on our mental health.

Research has shown that the production of serotonin is very much influenced by the presence of ‘good’ bacteria in our intestines. They play roles in:

  • Protecting our intestinal lining against ‘bad’ bacteria

  • Inhibiting inflammation

  • Improving nutrient absorption

  • Activating neural pathways that travel directly between the digestive system and the brain

In studies that compare more traditional diets, those that contain high levels of vegetables, fruits, seafood, and unprocessed grains, with the typical western diet, the risk of depression has been found to be 25-35% lower. In addition to being low in refined sugar and processed food, these diets are higher in fermented foods like yogurt, which act as natural probiotics. Other sources of natural probiotics include kimchi and sauerkraut.

Eating Well From an Early Age

Having a healthy diet from an early age is linked to better mental health outcomes in children. Nutrition is crucial to brain development. Half of all long-term mental disorders start before the age of 14. Recent studies have indicated that the risk of depression increases by as much as 80% when teens consume a low-quality diet.

How to Eat for Your Brain

Try to become aware of how changes in your diet affect your mood and overall sense of wellbeing. Experiment with your diet by cutting out, or cutting down, processed foods and refined sugars.

Although there is a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of a healthy diet on mental health, it is not considered a substitute for medication or other treatments. Healthy diets and the resulting nutrients that benefit the brain should be part of everyone’s healthy lifestyle and commitment to their own wellbeing.