How Does Food Affect Mental Health?

Posted on March 3, 2023

mental health written on tablet next to healthy food

Experts say that what we eat affects not only our body but also our brain. The brain requires certain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to work at peak performance and stay healthy.

How Food Fuels The Brain

The brain works 24/7. Even when you’re asleep it runs your thoughts, dreams, breathing, and heartbeat — plus it monitors your senses in case you need to wake up. It works hard and needs a constant supply of nutrients.

Much like a high-performance sports car, the brain needs quality “fuel” in order to run right. The quality of your diet influences how your brain functions — after all, you don’t put diesel in a Ferrari. Nutritious foods nourish the brain and protect it from oxidative stress. Your bones, muscles, and organs, as well as the healthy bacteria living in your gut all depend on the nutritional content of the food you eat.

Many nutritionists call the gut your “second brain.” Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells, so it makes sense that your digestive system can influence your emotions and mental health. The neurotransmitter serotonin helps regulate sleep, appetite, and mood, and manages pain. The gastrointestinal tract produces the vast majority of serotonin, so if things are not good in your gut your mood might suffer. Billions of “good” bacteria in your gut also play a vital role in your health, protecting the intestinal lining, forming a barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria, and helping you absorb nutrients from food.

How Does Your Diet Affect Mental Health?

The link between nutrition and brain health is so strong that a whole new medical discipline has developed — nutritional psychiatry. It supports the treatment of mental health conditions with diet (and lifestyle) changes. This link is further confirmed by things we’ve all experienced. How often have you had an upset stomach during stressful times, lost your appetite (or binged) when you were sad, or got anxious or nervous after having too much caffeine?

Experts say that diets high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain, and can worsen symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. Sugar causes a temporary spike in “feel good” neurotransmitters, but the rush is quickly followed by a crash. Sugar also interferes with the body’s ability to regulate insulin, promotes inflammation, and increases oxidative stress (damage caused by free radicals).

Studies have shown that people who consume the typical “Western” diet have more than a 25% greater risk of depression than those who eat a “traditional” diet (like the Mediterranean or Japanese diets). Traditional diets are high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and seafood, and contain relatively small amounts of meats and dairy. They are also low in refined sugars and heavily processed foods. Some traditional foods are fermented and can act as natural probiotics.

A study called “The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents” published in Pediatrics (Vol. 139, No. 2, 2017) associated consumption of fast food, sugar, and soft drinks with higher rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It also showed that children who ate fewer vegetables, fruit, fatty fish, and other foods were more likely to have ADHD.

Nutrient-rich foods can improve your ability to focus and stabilize your mood. Diets of mainly whole, unprocessed foods can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unhealthy diets have been linked to an increased risk of dementia or stroke.

Nutritional psychiatrists say that you should pay attention to how different foods make you feel, both immediately and the next day. Eat a “clean” diet for two to three weeks, eliminating all processed foods and sugar. Many people feel better both physically and emotionally. Slowly re-introduce other foods back into your diet one at a time and see how you feel. You may be surprised by how much worse you feel when you reintroduce highly processed or sugary foods.

Healthy Foods To Include In Your Diet

Here are some healthy things you should add to your diet.

  • Whole Foods. Studies show that preservatives, food colorings, and other additives may cause (or worsen) hyperactivity and depression. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors — they are rich in nutrients that support mental health — fiber, complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, vitamin C, and polyphenols. A good rule of thumb is the closer food is to its natural state the healthier it is to eat. Simple roasted chicken is healthier than battered fried chicken and certainly better than hyper-processed “nuggets,” and a raw apple is healthier than sweetened applesauce or a candy apple!
  • Fiber. Foods rich in fiber — fruits, vegetables, and carbs like whole grains and beans — help absorb glucose more slowly so you can avoid sugar rushes and crashes.
  • Antioxidants and Omega-3. Antioxidants and omega-3 fight inflammation. Eat berries, leafy greens, turmeric, salmon, or other fatty fish, walnuts, chia, or flax seeds.
  • Magnesium. Magnesium is essential for nerve and muscle function, and heartbeat regulation. A deficiency can cause depression and anxiety symptoms. Magnesium-rich foods include almonds, cashews, cacao nibs, pumpkin, chia seeds, spinach (and other dark leafy greens), bananas, and beans.
  • Fermented foods. Fermented foods are natural probiotics that can reinforce your good intestinal bacteria. Examples include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and kombucha.

Incorporating these foods into your diet is worth the extra effort. If you don’t have the time to chop vegetables or cook beans, try frozen fruit or vegetables and 10-minute brown rice. You can also make food swaps. Substitute whole-grain rice, pasta, or bread for the bleached flour versions, drink fruit-infused water instead of soda, or add herbs and spices instead of sugar and salt. Snack on trail mix with nuts and seeds instead of chips, or order a side salad rather than fries.

It is becoming clear that our diet and gut support our mental health and emotional regulation. Eating nutritious foods is one of the best ways to support digestive health. Your brain and body will thank you!

And remember — sharing a meal with family or friends is also a great way to brighten your spirits!

Why Choose Rising Phoenix?

Rising Phoenix Wellness Services is a licensed mental health and substance use disorder Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. We created our addiction and mental health treatment program to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are embraced, not judged, throughout their recovery process.

We offer programming that is based on Integrity, Innovation, Confident Humility, and Mindful Leadership. Contact us today to learn more.

Ready to get started?

Toll-Free Call

100% Confidential