You are what you eat, right?
Well, actually, yeah — to some extent, anyway.
It turns out there’s quite a connection between how you fuel your body and how your brain works. That means the right diet could help support your mental wellness. On the flip side, some foods can make it harder to shake a bout of depression or anxiety.
There’s not always (or even often) an easy answer when it comes to treating mental illness or boosting your mental health. But with the right combination, you might fare better in the long run.
Disclaimer: the following is intended for information only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any physical or mental health condition. Please talk to your doctor before starting a new dietary regimen and/or treatment plan.
Ready to find the right foods for your mental health? First things first . . .
Catch the buzz about the food-brain connection.
You may have heard about serotonin before. It’s sometimes thought of as the “happy hormone” because high levels are associated with good moods and positive mental health.
Serotonin makes a difference for your brain, but it’s developed in your digestive tract.
Yep, the same system that breaks down your lunch also produces a chemical for mood regulation.
What you eat plays a role in what kind of bacteria hang out in your gut. If your digestive tract is populated with good bacteria, your system will likely be healthier.
As a result, your body may deal with less inflammation. It might also do a better job of fighting off the kind of bacteria that can make you sick. And, most important to the mental health conversation, it can support proper brain function.
In part, good nutrition may limit the effects of free radicals and other harmful substances.
Researchers have found evidence that a nutritious diet really does support mental health. Studies show that there are lower depression rates in cultures where most people eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. For people in those communities, the risk of developing a mood disorder may be as much as 35% lower than it is for people who eat a lot of processed foods.
Next, load your shopping cart with foods that support mental health.
Now that you know how important healthy eating is for your brain, it’s time to rethink your shopping habits. Next time you go to the store, make sure these nutrient-dense foods are on your list:
- Berries and bananas
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
- Fatty fish
- Fortified milk and juice
- Dark chocolate
Berries and bananas
Many fruits are rich in brain-healthy properties. Eating fruit delivers a big dose of antioxidants to your body. And antioxidant compounds may limit the damaging effects of free radicals.
Plus, some fruits can benefit your mental health in other ways as well. Bananas are a top choice since they contain tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin.
Blueberries are linked to improving your mood and reducing feelings of depression. Researchers think these effects are related to the flavonoids they contain.
To boost your belly health, make yourself a bowl of yogurt. This dairy product is packed with live and active cultures. In other words, it’s full of good bacteria. Remember, beneficial bacteria support the production of serotonin and may limit the amount of inflammation in your body.
Studies suggest that the more folate you consume, the less likely you are to develop depression. Folate is also known as folic acid. You can get it from veggies with dark green leaves.
Good examples include kale, spinach and romaine lettuce. Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus count, too.
Your brain appreciates it when you eat complex carbohydrates. That’s because they can boost serotonin levels. Sweet potatoes are a smart source of complex carbs. Plus, they have high levels of beta-carotene. That’s a chemical with the power to protect brain cells against damage.
Lean protein provides the energy your brain needs for quick thinking. Without enough protein, you might feel foggy or sluggish.
Fish is a good source of protein. And some varieties also provide a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Eating more fatty acids may help treat some types of depression.
Salmon, herring and tuna are some of the best options to try.
For a mood-boosting snack on the go, grab a handful of walnuts. According to some studies, they may have a pick-me-up effect. And they appear to be particularly effective at helping young men feel happier.
Fortified milk and juice
Vitamin D seems to play a role in mood regulation. Research shows that people with depression often have lower levels of this vitamin than their peers. Vitamin D production is stimulated by exposure to sunlight. This may help to explain why seasonal affective disorder often flares up in the winter.
Fortunately, there are ways to increase your vitamin D even when you can’t get outside. Food manufacturers often pack extra vitamin D into popular drinks. Milk and orange juice are two common examples. Just watch the sugar content on juice.
Your body doesn’t do so well when it’s short on water. Dehydration can leave you feeling fatigued and irritable. If you want to perk up your mood, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water each day.
That means drinking eight, 8-oz. glasses of water a day, right? Not necessarily.
Men need about 15.5 cups a day while women should aim for 11.5 cups. Those amounts represent total fluid intake, though, which includes some from the foods you eat. The general guidance is to drink when you’re thirsty, but your individual needs may differ.
Protecting your mental health shouldn’t keep you from eating any treats. Instead, let yourself enjoy some dark chocolate. Studies show that treating yourself to chocolate can reduce the chances that you’ll have symptoms of depression that day.
And before you start throwing junk into your cart, consider the impact.
Healthy eating isn’t just about what you put into your body. It’s also about what you leave out.
If you want to improve your mental health, work on kicking your sugar habit. Sugar seems to feed depression. Research shows that mood disorders are more common among people who consume a lot of sugar.
To that end, pay attention to product labels. Sugar tends to hide in a variety of processed foods and drinks.
Caffeine is another thing to limit for some people. Your body responds to caffeine and anxiety in similar ways. If you already struggle with anxiety problems, coffee and other stimulants could make the problem worse. The caffeine content could leave you feeling crabby, restless or nervous.
Be careful about refined grains, too. You might crave bread and other carbs when you’re down in the dumps, but it’s worth resisting the temptation. Refined grains can make your blood sugar spike, which is a prescription for ending up on an emotional rollercoaster.
But remember: diet isn’t everything.
It’s smart to choose foods that support mental wellness. But diet alone might not be enough to keep your mind and your mood in the right shape. Nutritious eating should be just one part of your mental health routine. It’s on par with self care and getting regular exercise.
But for many people, those activities alone aren’t enough.
You might need therapy and medication, too. Don’t back away from these options if they’ll help you become your best self. Clean eating can be a good supplement, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you do to foster your mental health.
Along with other practices, though, eating right could make a big difference in your wellbeing. Pay attention to how your food makes you feel. After a few weeks of healthy dietary changes, you may notice that both your body and your mind are in better shape.