Foods that support gut health to reduce anxiety, depression, and overall foods for mental health. Learn which foods/nutrients that play a role in mental health.

What Does Mental Health Mean?

According to– “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”

According to Merriam-Webster the definition of health=the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit, especially freedom from physical disease or pain.

Your brain is always ON, 24 hours 7 days a week! Even when you are asleep. Your brain requires a constant supply of “fuel” that comes from foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. What you eat directly affects your brain and eventually, your mood.

Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from stress, “waste” (re: free radicals), which can damage cells. A diet rich in refined sugars or a general lack of nutrients can create a less favorable environment for stable moods and general mental health, not to mention a diet that lacks proper nutrition can cause inflammation and impair overall brain function.

Check list for mood health

  • Eat healthy fats
    Foods to Eat: To increase your intake the essential fatty acids (re: omega-3 fatty acids/omega-6 fatty acids), look to oily fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies, cod liver, herring, and mackerel; eggs. Plant foods rich in omega-3s include nuts-walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios; seeds-flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds; soybeans/edamame; green leafy veggies; avocado, canola oil, fish oil, flaxseed oil, and safflower oil.
  • Gut Health & Mental Health
    The gut-brain connection and key hormone production-serotonin happens in the digestive tract, the link between gut health is key. The gut brain connection is NO JOKE.  It can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa.Do certain situations make you “feel nauseous”? We use these expressions for a reason. The gastrointestinal tract is responsive to emotions. Anger, anxiety, sadness — all these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut.

    The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A distressed intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a distressed brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.

    Gut bacteria affects brain health, so changing your gut bacteria may improve your brain health. Probiotics are live bacteria that have health benefits if eaten. Probiotics are best known for their role in digestive health, but new research suggests that bacteria in the gut sends and receives signals to the brain (known as the “gut-brain partnership).

  • Fermented foods
    Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and cheese all contain healthy microbes. In a study published in 2013 found that fermented foods have been shown to alter brain activity in a positive way. In a study published in 2017, researchers found that the majority of studies found positive effects of probiotics on depression symptoms.Foods to Eat: Yogurt is a well-known source of probiotics, but the beneficial bacteria can also be found in kefir, and fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, miso paste, tempeh, and pickled vegetables.
  • Prebiotics are types of dietary fiber that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut. This helps the gut bacteria produce nutrients for your gut and leads to a healthier digestive system. This is just another reason we should be consuming a diet rich in whole foods, which include fiber and prebiotics for the good bacteria in our digestive system.Foods to Eat: Onions/leeks, garlic (raw), flaxseeds, Jerusalem artichokes, oats, asparagus, apples, and bananas.
  • Whole Grains
    Gluten-free grains or whole grains, both are great sources of carbohydrates, which our body breaks down into glucose. Glucose is the primary energy source for the brain — the brain loves to thrive on glucose and uses it up quickly for all the activities it’s responsible for. Keep in mind-not all carbohydrates are created equal! Try to consume more whole grains or whole food carbohydrates which are better sources of fiber and nutrients. The fiber in whole grain carbohydrates will reduce the blood sugar highs in comparison to simple sugars like the ones found in processed sweets, sugary beverages, and candies. Whole grains are also good sources of a variety of nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron, fiber, and more.

    Foods to Eat:
    Look for grains in their whole form, such as steel-cut oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, millet, and bulgur.

  • Load up on Vegetables
    Vegetables including dark leafy greens are great foods for mental health because they’re rich in antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Including vitamin K, C, A, beta-carotene, calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and much more. Studies have found that greater vegetable consumption is associated with a decreased risk of depression.

    Foods to Eat: Vegetables include spinach, edamame, artichokes, okra, turnip greens, avocado, and broccoli.

  • Serotonin
    Serotonin plays many roles in our body, especially in stabilizing moods, sleep, appetite, and digestion. Studies show that serotonin levels can have an effect on mood and behavior, and the chemical is commonly linked to feeling good and living longer. It is synthesized from tryptophan- the important brain neurotransmitter serotonin, can affect mood, digestion, and health is produced in the gut. Certain bacteria found the gut play a large part in producing the serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have also been linked to IBS, heart disease and osteoporosis.

    The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion, such as feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, and joy can trigger symptoms in the gut. The gut-brain connection goes both ways—stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress and/or depression.

Food & Mental Health

Outside the extent of science, there’s also a part that can’t be ignored, that is 100% subjective — For example: comfort food, just because, or meals you enjoy that bring you happiness.

The wonderful thing about nutrition and health is that it’s completely unique to you. Yes, there’s research and studies that will show what we know about certain topics and how it impacts that group being studied, but it still comes down to your genetic makeup. Always use science and evidence-based research as the backbone, but don’t forget to make sure it works for you as an individual.

Think about a home cooked meal you grew up with, that always nurtures a sense of family, maybe your moms chicken soup. Those are foods that can cause a little mental and emotional boost during times where you’re searching for a connection.

Finding a sense of connection/family in meals can be part of a healthy relationship with food — it becomes an unhealthy relationship with food when you’re relying on food to comfort, calm, or connect you to others. Just like anything else in health, it’s complex and every part plays a role in the complete package of health.

Bottom line

Our diets, lifestyles, internal/external factors can impact our mental health in different ways — the key is finding what works for you through trial and error and professional guidance if needed to help nurture a healthy relationship with food.

We know that a diet rich in whole foods, especially rich in nutrients like omega-3 fats, vitamin D, fiber, lean protein, probiotic/prebiotic-rich foods can make a positive impact in our mental health.

What are your experiences with using food to help improve your mental and emotional health? What other lifestyle changes have you made to help support your mental health?

If You Need Help, seek professional guidance.

We all need help — I am happy to admit that what gets me through anxiety is speaking with my family, friends, checking in with my physician regularly, and using other modes of functional medicine that kept me grounded like running, meditation, and yoga.

Always remember, that you’re not alone even if it feels like you are. We are always growing and changing, during difficult times as well.

Carol Aguirre MS, RD/LDN