It may seem obvious that the food you eat has an impact on how you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically. The truth is, many people don’t think about it. We can’t tell you how many clients tell us after a few weeks of working together on something completely unrelated: “Wow! I can’t believe I thought how I felt before was normal.”
While there are many factors that influence mental health, the food you eat is one of the important tools in your toolkit to better mental health, brain clarity and mood.
In general, anti-inflammatory dietary patterns that emphasize the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and healthy fats like seafood and olives, and that limit the consumption of highly processed and fried foods and sugar, have been associated with a reduction in depression and anxiety (1, 2). These diets are high in nutrients that support brain health and the nervous system.
Here are some very stark examples of why nutrients matter when it comes to mental health…A 5 year study following pregnant Norwegian women found a positive association between “unhealthy” diets during pregnancy and early childhood and behavioural and emotional problems in children. There have also been several studies done over the years on institutionalized offenders (both youth and young adults) that have found that when given multi-vitamin/mineral supplements and/or fed a nutrient-dense diet, the participants exhibit less violent and other antisocial behaviour than those not given the supplements or diet. Another small but similar study found very similar results when they gave schoolchildren ages 6 to 11 years nutritional supplements. (Source)
While most nutrients influence brain health and hormones in one way or another, there are specific nutrients you want to keep an eye on. The B vitamins are needed for the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the body that influence mood, such as serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. Low levels of B vitamins (especially B12, folate and B6) may be linked to depression. The important thing to note about B12 is that it can only be obtained from animal foods or a supplement. Some medications, like the birth control pill, can lead to B vitamin depletion as well as low vitamin C, E and many minerals. It’s worth discussing this with your primary care practitioner. While most doctors will check for B12 deficiency, a naturopath or functional medicine doctor is your best bet for requesting more comprehensive nutritional testing.
Another important nutrient to consider is vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency (experienced by at least 10 percent of Canadians) may be associated with an increased risk or severity of depression. This can also be identified through a simple blood test usually covered by benefits plans. Omega 3’s (which play a key role in brain development and signaling) can also support a healthy brain and supplementation may be effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression (1, 2). Food sources of omega 3’s include certain nuts and seeds like chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, and of course fish and seafood.
If you’re concerned that your diet may not be the most nutritious, start with small steps like planning your meals each week, making more homecooked meals and aiming to fill half your plate with veggies at lunch and dinner. If you’d like more guidance, the meal plans included in our weekly meal planning program are a geat place to start and cover a wide variety of foods so you have more energy, fewer cravings, and a clearer mind. We can also put together custom meal plans for you or your family.
Another area that doesn’t receive a lot of attention is blood sugar control. When your blood sugar levels spike, typically after a meal or snack high in carbs and/or sugar, it follows by a crash. Even over the short term, these dramatic blood sugar fluctuations can cause irritability, low motivation, and brain fog. You also aren’t in the best position to manage a stressful situation.
In order to balance your blood sugar levels, try to ensure carbohydrates are paired with protein and/or healthy fats to slow the glucose spike. Protein is also made up of amino acids that help create neurotransmitters (those important mood-regulating chemicals). Replacing refined carbs like flours, sugars with whole, high fiber alternatives will also result in more steady blood sugar levels. A formula you can try is to fill half your plate with lower carb veggies like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini, fill a quarter of your plate with your favourite protein, and then use the remaining quarter of the plate for your starches (potatoes, root veggies, grains, etc.). Lastly, incorporate a few tablespoons of healthy fats like nuts/seeds, avocados, olives, or their oils. We have more tips you can try in this article.
One of the areas we find fascinating is the gut-brain link. The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract contains trillions of bacteria and hundreds of different species. These bacteria play an important role in our health and influence everything from inflammation, immunity, digestion, to mental health and more. Researchers have even identified how specific strains of bacteria have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. Many of the brain chemicals that influence mood, learning and memory, like serotonin for example, are actually created in the gut by these bacteria!
How can you support your gut? Gut health can be significantly improved by getting enough fiber every day through a variety of different plant foods. Fiber not only supports the overall health of the gut and feeds these bacteria, but researchers have even identified specific types of prebiotic fiber that reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Constantly elevated cortisol can lead to burnout. If you tend to get bloated by a lot of veggies, gradually and slowly increasing your fiber intake over time will help your gut bacteria adapt. Researchers at Standford also found that eating fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and miso regularly can actually increase your gut bacterial diversity too. The more fermented foods you eat, the better!
There is no one-size fits all approach to mental health, but we know that the food you eat can play a huge role for many people. So much so that there’s a whole field of nutritional psychology emerging that aims to take a more holistic approach to mental health, which includes the diet-mental health relationship. If you are looking for a place to start, the HEAL website has lots of recipes that cover everything we’ve outlined above. The great news is that when you start to feel better mentally, it’s so much easier to continue to make healthier food choices.