Turns out, the food you eat is kind of a big deal for your brain. Here’s what you need to know about how nutrition impacts mental health.
Food Impacts Mood—Here’s How
Food has the power to change your mood. Researchers think this happens in a few different ways, including neuroinflammation (an inflammatory response in the brain/nervous system) and changes to the gut microbiome.
Like elsewhere in the body, inflammation has both positive and negative effects in the brain. It’s initially helpful, but causes harm when it’s left unchecked for too long. Neuroinflammation can make it difficult to cope with stress and might even lead to depression for some people.
A traditional eating pattern with omega-3s from fish may help decrease inflammation and balance out this system.
Like inflammation, the gut microbiome thrives on balance. Recent studies have discovered that intestinal bacteria are connected to the brain and that they communicate with each other along a biochemical pathway called the the gut-brain axis.
When the microbiome is out of balance, pro-inflammatory compounds travel from the gut to the brain, leading to neuroinflammation in severe cases. This could be one of the reasons a reduction in intestinal bacteria (a sign of intestinal imbalance) is associated with higher risk for brain-related disorders like depression and anxiety.
Researchers are currently studying whether prebiotics and fermented foods can support mental health by restoring balance to the microbiome and gut-brain axis.
Other Ways Nutrition Impacts Mental Health:
- Oxidative stress
- Immune system
- Neuroplasticity (forming new connections in the brain)
- Metabolic functions (mitochondria)
How to Eat for Mental Health
Numerous studies have concluded a traditional or Mediterranean-style eating pattern supports mental health and reduces risk for anxiety and depression. This eating pattern emphasizes whole foods, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, fish, and nuts.
Produce contains beneficial phytonutrients that are partly responsible for the health benefits of this eating pattern. Think “eat the rainbow” when it comes to your fruits and veggies.
Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, seafood, walnuts, and flaxseeds) are especially important for mental health. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) like omega-3s are needed for normal brain function, and they help regulate the neuroinflammatory response.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics strengthen bacterial colonization of the gut, which could improve communication along the gut-brain axis.
Prebiotics (indigestible compounds that support growth of intestinal bacteria) are found in a variety of foods, including garlic, leeks, asparagus, oats, barley, bananas, apples, and flaxseed.
Fermented foods such as miso, tempeh, kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, and certain cheeses contain probiotics (live microorganisms) that colonize the gut and may support mental health for some people.
Brain-Boosting Recipes to Try:
How Does This Fit with Intuitive Eating?
As a dietitian who practices from an intuitive-eating lens, I have to mention the importance of individualization here. It’s okay if some of the foods I mentioned above don’t work for you, and it’s also fine to eat things that aren’t considered “healthy” for your brain. What matters most is your general eating pattern—a single meal won’t make or break you.
What works best for me probably won’t be the same as what works best for you. And that’s okay.
Usually nutrition-and-lifestyle recommendations are just that—recommendations. Listening to your body (and mind) and learning what makes you feel best will be your greatest source of wisdom. Take guidance from your healthcare team, but don’t lose sight of this internal connection.
Should You Take Supplements?
While supplementation seems to improve brain health for some, a balanced eating pattern with a full range of nutrients from whole foods is probably even better. The lesson: always put food first.
That being said, some of the supplements currently under review for potential brain-boosting benefits include: Omega-3s (fish oils), vitamin D, SAMe (S-Adenosyl methionine), NAC (N-acetyl cysteine), CBD oil (Cannabidiol), zinc, B vitamins, and probiotics.
Supplementation appears most beneficial in cases of deficiency, but we need more human studies to fully understand its effects on mental health.
If you suspect a nutritional deficiency or are otherwise interested in trying a supplement, I recommend asking your doctor for relevant blood tests first. A dietitian or doctor can use these results to make better-informed recommendations for supplementation.
What About the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is a controlled, high-fat, low-protein, and low-carb eating pattern. While some early research has shown promise for brain health, these studies have primarily been conducted on animals, so it’s impossible to generalize the results to a human population.
At this point, scientists say there’s not enough evidence to support the ketogenic diet for depression or anxiety.
In my opinion, the diet is restrictive and unsustainable for most people. (See “intuitive eating” above.)
Food has the power to impact mood and your ability to cope with stress. To support optimal mental health, feed your brain (and gut) a consistent supply of energy from whole foods, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, fish, and nuts.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet or lifestyle for brain health. Listen to your body, and use the guidance of your healthcare team to learn what makes you feel best.
More Lifestyle Changes for Optimal Mental Health:
Nutrition is only one of many important lifestyle pillars that influences mental health. Here are a few more ways to naturally improve your mood and cope with stress.
- Movement — The feel-good benefits of exercise for your mood and stress levels are real. Even better if you can do it outside.
- Meditation — Search YouTube or download an app to get started (I like Aware).
- Time in nature — Read this post from fellow RD, Carlene, to learn how to add forest bathing to your daily life. (Even if you aren’t outdoorsy.)
- Gratitude practice — I started bookending my days with gratitude by thinking of three things I’m grateful for when I wake up in the morning, and three more again before I fall asleep at night. It’s simple and so effective for strengthening mindset.
Want to learn how to prep, store and cook fresh fruits and vegetables for optimal mental health?
Download my free Seasonal Produce Guide. Just click on the image above to subscribe and access the PDF document. You’ll also receive my twice-monthly newsletter, and you may unsubscribe at any time.
DiSabato D, Quan N, Godbout JP. Neuroinflammation: the devil is in the details. J Neurochem 2016:139(136-153). doi: 10.1111/jnc.13607
Mørkl S, et al. The role of nutrition and the gut-brain axis in psychiatry. Neuropsychobiology. 2018:Sep 17(1-9). doi: 10.1159/000492834.
Lassale C et al. Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry. 2018:Sep 26. doi: 10.1038/s41380-018-0237-8.
Larrieu T, Layé S. Food and mood: role of nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for depression and anxiety. Front Physiol. 2018:Aug 6;9:1047. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.01047.
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