You are what you eat…The link between food and mental health
Food and mental health
Food and mental health are highly intertwined. The human body needs appropriate nutrients in order to function properly. Nourishing your body with nutritious foods helps you show up as the best version of yourself. Learning to balance your diet is a key component of your own personal self care plan.
The food we choose to eat impacts our sleep patterns, digestive tract, gut microbiome, mental health, and many other parts of our overall health. Learning to eat in a way that fuels your body helps improve many different areas of your life.
Learning how food affects mental health is especially crucial. Diets high in processed foods and refined sugars are much more likely to cause issues such as depression and anxiety. If you want to maintain mental wellness, learning how to eat a balanced diet is key.
The link between food and mental health
At some point you’ve probably heard someone say the phrase, “you are what you eat”. And this couldn’t be more true, especially as it comes to your brain. Today, the emerging field of “nutritional psychiatry” is centered around studying how diet and nutrition impact your mental wellbeing.
Food and your mind are highly intertwined due to your gastrointestinal system, often referred to as your “gut”. The gut contains many microbes that serve different functions in the body. One of the main functions is digesting neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to your brain to regulate sleep, pain, mood, and emotion.
It’s helpful to think of it like this: your brain is an organ in your body that is always on. And it needs a constant supply of fuel in order to function at its best. When you fill your body with nourishing foods, your brain is getting premium fuel.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells”.
When you eat foods that are not nourishing your brain, such as processed foods and refined sugars, this can be damaging. Your brain does not have a great ability to get rid of unwanted substances, so when you’re consuming food that is poor in nutrition it stays there for a while.
There have been many studies showing a correlation between diets high in refined sugar, and impaired brain function (including anxiety and depression). Watching what you eat and consuming a balanced diet is key to improving your mental health.
Foods to improve mental health
When you’re on your next grocery run, try picking up these brain power-packed foods.
Preservatives, food dyes, and other additives can be detrimental to your mental health. Next time you’re at the grocery store, try to pick the options free of additives. A good rule of thumb is to read the ingredient list on the package. If you can’t easily decipher what most of the ingredients are, chances are it’s not good for your brain.
Foods rich in antioxidants are key to fighting inflammation in your whole body. Make sure you’re eating lots of berries, leafy green veggies, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as chia seeds and salmon).
Magnesium is a mineral that helps with many body functions. From nerve and muscle function, to keeping a heartbeat steady—magnesium is vital to staying healthy. Magnesium is known to be a crucial component of your mood. A magnesium deficiency can negatively impact your gut bacteria, therefore causing depression and anxiety symptoms. Try eating foods rich in magnesium, such as dark chocolate, cocoa nibs, almonds, cashews, spinach, other dark greens, bananas and beans.
Turmeric holds a lot of brain power. It’s known to boost memory, ease symptoms of depression, reduce inflammation, and help generate brain cells. Turmeric includes the active ingredient, Curcumin. Curcumin is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound, meaning it can directly enter the brain and benefit brain cells.
Adding turmeric into your diet can be simple. Try adding a dash to your morning coffee or tea, or add it into your smoothies. Turmeric is also a common spice used in curries and other Indian dishes.
When thinking about foods to improve mental health, pumpkin seeds probably aren’t the first thing that come to mind. But they are actually great for your mental health! Pumpkin seeds are packed with zinc, magnesium, copper, and iron. These micronutrients play an important role in maintaining your mental health, and are a great addition to any diet.
Foods and habits to avoid
There are also certain foods and habits you should avoid if you want to improve your mental health.
Ultra-processed foods are ones that are industrially processed. They typically contain more calories, added sugar, salt, and unsaturated fats. Common food items that include ultra-processed ingredients are cakes, candies, sweet beverages, and other baked goods.
Eating ultra-processed foods regularly has been shown to increase the likelihood of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Therefore, it’s important to consume these in moderation and as a treat.
Alcohol has a close link to mental health conditions, especially depression, stress, and anxiety. If you find yourself struggling with mental health, it’s beneficial to avoid alcohol or make sure you’re drinking in moderation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women should have no more than one drink a day and men should have no more than 2 drinks a day.
Not getting enough sleep is all too common. Sleep is associated with poor mental health, and is also shown to impact your gut health. If you’re having trouble falling sleeping, try cutting your caffeine intake throughout the day.
Irregular Eating Times
The times we eat meals are shown to impact many factors, such as the food choices we make, our circadian rhythm, inflammation, and our gut microbiome. All of these factors impact your mental health in their own way, so it’s important to try and incorporate regular mealtimes when possible.Balancing your meal times helps balance your mood.