Yes, it’s commonly known how food positively impacts the body, but what about mental health?
“You are what you eat.”
You don’t have to say much to convince someone that eating nutritious and healthy food can improve physical health, but food also has the power to keep people mentally fit. Think of your brain as a flower. When a flower receives top-notch soil, quality fertilizer, sunlight, and water, it blossoms and flourishes. If it lacks any of these necessities, it’s bound to wilt and be at its worst.
Like a flower, your brain also has requirements. Your brain needs the best nutrients to be highly functional so that you can also be at your best mental state. By eating foods that contain the right vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, you help brain your fight off oxidative stress caused by free radicals, substances that can damage cells and the code of your DNA.
Before we dive into a discussion about the best foods and supplements that may improve cognitive function, let’s take a closer look at why food impacts our mental health.
How Food Influences Mental Health
Serotonin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter, a substance produced by neurons that contributes to activity in the nervous system. Serotonin not only regulates sleep, appetite, and pain, but also mood. Thus, serotonin has a direct correlation with mental health.
Here’s the science behind it: the gastrointestinal tract contains 95 percent of the serotonin in the human body. Because serotonin contains a countless number of neurons, your digestive system not only breaks down food but also helps shape your emotions.
Good bacteria in your intestines influence the production of serotonin. The bacteria protect the lining of your intestines (which contains neurons) and fight off bad bacteria. The good bacteria limits inflammation, improves the absorption of nutrients from food, and activates neural pathways between your stomach and your brain. In summary, since your gut acts as your second brain, when it’s fed nutritious food, it’s bound to improve cognitive function.
The Mediterranean Diet
It’s a no brainer (no pun intended) that fruits and vegetables can put you in the best physical shape, but research shows that healthy foods can help you mentally. Since fresh fruits and vegetables are key aspects of the Mediterranean diet, the diet may promote mental fitness. Grains, legumes, and seafood are also staples of the Mediterranean diet, which may reduce depression.
One study examined people age sixty-five or older living in Mediterranean regions and how their diets impacted their mental health. The results indicated that people who followed the Mediterranean diet displayed significantly less depression than those who didn’t. While you don’t necessarily have to adopt the Mediterranean diet to improve your mental health, it may provide a little guidance when choosing foods that can help you on your journey to better mental health.
Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet may impact your mental health. Here is a rundown of nutrients you may want to incorporate into your everyday diet if you want to be mentally at your best.
What to Eat and What Not to Eat
- Folate is a B vitamin that is found in many foods and may help lower depression. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meats are rich in folate.
- Vitamin D not only builds strong teeth and bones, but may also reduce depression. You can obtain Vitamin D from the sun or from foods such as fish, dairy products, and orange juice.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are important not only for your body but also for your brain. Foods that contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids include fish, flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts.
- H20: There’s a reason people always tell you to drink eight glasses of water a day, which is about two liters. Dehydration can cause fatigue, concentration problems, and mood changes, and all can negatively affect your mental health.
Certain foods can improve your mental health. On the other hand, other foods can harm your mental well-being. Below are a few items you should limit in your diet if you want to optimize your mental health:
- Caffeine: Consuming more than 200 milligrams of caffeine, which is roughly two cups of coffee, can increase anxiety and the risk of panic attacks. This is especially true for people who are sensitive to caffeine. In fact, people have been diagnosed with caffeine-induced anxiety disorder.
- Refined carbohydrates: Whether it’s cake, pastries, or soft drinks, people often use refined carbohydrates as pick-me-ups to brighten their days or as rewards for accomplishments. But, carbs can add pounds and affect the mind. According to researchers, women with no history of substance abuse, depression, or other mental illnesses who consumed refined carbohydrates increased their chances of depression.
- Sugar: High amounts of sugar and starches can increase inflammation in the body and brain. Inflammation in the brain can contribute to depression, so consider eliminating or reducing sugar in the diet.
- Processed food: Canned soups, chips, and bacon may be a quick and easy way to satisfy the appetite, but processed foods are linked to depression. A study of more than 3,400 people found that people who consumed substantial amounts of processed food were more likely to be depressed, while those who ate more whole foods had a much lower risk of experiencing depression.
The next time you’re at the grocery store, don’t only shop for foods that will put you in the best physical shape, buy foods that will make you mentally strong. As mental health issues affect one in four people globally, maybe the key to taking care of mental health is to look at every bite we take.
Charles Watson is the head research and content writer for Sunshine Behavioral Health, a leader in behavioral and addiction treatment. When not writing, you can catch Charles reading new material from his favorite author Tim Ferriss. He can be reached directly on Twitter at @charleswatson00, or at https://www.sunshinebehavioralhealth.com.