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The Connection Between Food And Mental Wellness

The topic of mental wellness has become more openly discussed and heavily researched than ever before. Many new stressors such as the COVID-19 epidemic, economic pressures, and self-isolation are affecting our everyday lives. While therapy and prescribed medications are tested and important tools to improve one’s overall mental health, it’s important to consider the foods that we eat and their roles in maintaining healthy brain function.

Nutritional psychiatry is a growing field of research that examines nutrition as a factor in the development and treatment of mental illness [1]. This area of research is extremely important in understanding how what we eat can impact our mental health. In this article, we’ll go over some of the main ideas from nutritional psychiatry so you can apply them to your diet and eating habits. We’ll also introduce foods, meals, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that have been proven to help increase overall mental wellness.

Food And Your Mood

Researchers in the field of nutritional psychiatry discuss the very close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract – otherwise known as the GI tract. The GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that contribute to the production of neurotransmitters, chemical substances which continuously transfer information between the gut and the brain [2].

Consuming healthy foods promotes the growth of good bacteria, which leads to increased neurotransmitter production. Conversely, eating junk food and processed foods, highly stripped of their original nutritional value, will cause inflammation of the gut and hamper the production of neurotransmitters.

One of the many neurotransmitters your gut produces is serotonin, which can be a key hormone linked to mental wellness [3]. Studies have found that if the brain is supplied with too little serotonin, it may lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Serotonin helps the body regulate various bodily functions, including:

Eating Habits And Your Feelings

When you make better food choices, you can control compulsive eating behaviors and healthy weight management. You can also feel calmer, have more energy, or be more alert. While it’s important to consider what is inside the foods we eat and the way they affect our brain, it’s equally important to consider how, when, why, and where we eat the foods that we do [4].
Here are 17 tips that will help you maintain positive eating habits:

In many cases, people turn to food as a form of coping when they are under stress, bored, anxious, or even when they want to prolong their feelings of joy. The problem is that while eating to soothe and ease your feelings may be helpful in the short run, it usually leads to regret and guilt down the road. You aren’t actually coping with the problem that caused the stress when you eat to soothe.

The most common way of changing eating habits is through cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, as it addresses both thinking patterns and behavior.

Some areas that are addressed through cognitive behavioral treatment include:

  1. CBT can help break linkages: In this context, stimulus control means not eating in a certain setting, or not keeping or consuming unhealthy food choices at home. As a skill for coping with stress, CBT also introduces strategic distractions — substituting unhealthy eating for healthier ones. Among the specific techniques used to break linkages are positive reinforcement, rehearsal, and problem-solving, as well as finding social support.
  2. Establishing your readiness to change: Making a commitment involves recognizing what it takes to reach your goals and then doing what it takes to achieve them.
  3. Being mindful and aware through self-monitoring: It’s a great way to become more aware of what triggers you to eat at the moment, and become more mindful of the food you choose and the portions you consume. Also, it helps you stay focused on achieving long-term goals.

Food On-The-Go

Our modern lifestyles often promote a necessity to implement a “grab and go” meal structure while working, taking care of children, or otherwise tending to one of life’s many demands. This can often mean eating quick and easy options such as fast food, microwaved foods, or ready-to-bake meals.

While convenient, these foods often use ingredients that are highly processed and full of preservatives to keep them shelf-stable. These foods can also be stripped of most of their original vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.

While fast food and ready-to-bake meals have their place in our modern diets and can be very convenient, it’s important to balance these types of foods with home-cooked meals including whole foods complete with as much of their original nutritional value as possible [5].

Alternative healthy diets you can fully or partially follow:

Foods And Vitamins Key For Mental Wellness

Whole Foods

Whole foods are foods that are natural foods that are as close to their original form as possible. Studies have shown that foods with added preservatives, food colorings, and sugar can actually worsen ailments such as depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity.

Eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and non-processed meats are excellent ways to ensure that you intake as much of the naturally occurring chemicals and vitamins found in these foods as possible.

Fiber

As we’ve discussed, the gut and brain are intricately linked and this link is important in maintaining mental wellness [6]. Fermentable fibers and prebiotics are key nutrients that support this link by feeding probiotics in the human gut. In addition, research has shown that they both reduce anxiety and depression, while simultaneously stabilizing gut bacteria levels.

Fiber also helps your body absorb natural food sugars much slower and helps you avoid sugar rushes or crashes.

Some foods high in fiber include:

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are packed full of probiotics, another type of bacteria that are home to your digestive tract. Studies have shown that those who include fermented foods in their diet can display fewer symptoms of social anxiety disorder, especially in those at genetic risk for the disorder [7].

Some natural fermented foods and foods containing probiotics you can include in your diet to ease anxiety symptoms include[8]:

Antioxidants

Antioxidants play an important role in our mental and overall health and are considered to be “brain food”. They play a major role in eliminating harmful free radicals from your body. Free radicals are regularly cleared from your body with aid from antioxidants, but if they accumulate they can cause cellular damage, lead to many other illnesses, and promote premature aging in general [9].

Several studies have suggested that unbalanced oxidative stress and antioxidant defense systems contribute to the development of depression and anxiety [10]. Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state and enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders.

The idea is that antioxidants can remove free radicals and suppress the oxidative stress pathways, which protect against neuronal damage in the brain.

Here are some foods that contain an abundance of antioxidants:

Folate

Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 and is important in maintaining physical and mental wellness. You can also find it as folic acid in its supplemental form. Both forms are metabolized into L-Methylfolate, which crosses the blood-brain barrier and regulates the production of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. These two important neurotransmitters are highly influential when it comes to managing mental wellness [11].

Here are some examples of foods that are naturally high in folate:

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency leads to both medical and psychosocial problems[12]. To function properly, the body needs a sufficient amount of vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D may contribute to depression and anxiety.

Vitamin D deficiency presents similar symptoms to those of depression:

Our bodies naturally produce vitamin D3 when our skin is exposed to sunlight. However, people with darker skin have higher amounts of melanin in their skin which lessens the natural amount of vitamin D their bodies can produce.

Therefore, people who do not get much sunlight, live far from the equator and those with darker skin are at a higher risk of developing vitamin D deficiency [13].

These people should consider taking a vitamin D3 supplement and/or eating these foods naturally high in vitamin D:

Also, foods fortified with vitamin D such as:

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Psychologists have long studied the role of omega-3 fatty acids in mental wellness. Due to its effects on serotonin and dopamine transmission, omega-3 fatty acid plays an important role in brain development and functioning, and deficiencies are linked to mental illnesses[14].

Omega-3 supplements – the most popular being fish oil – are abundant in health stores but it’s important to consider what is inside the many varying types that are sold. The biggest thing to look for in fish oil is their EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) levels. Both are omega-3 fatty acids found naturally in fish but their benefits differ from each other; DHA is known for boosting brain health and EPA is known for its anti-inflammatory effects.

While fish oil supplements can be beneficial to take, it’s also important to find omega-3 fatty acids naturally occurring in foods.

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:

Taking Care of Your Well-Being Through Diet

The foods you choose to put in your body have a significant impact on your overall mental wellness. It’s important to provide your body and brain with the fuel that’ll enable you to make the most out of every day.

Having healthy eating habits, eating nutritious whole foods, and making sure you are intaking enough vitamins and minerals can keep your brain and body functioning at full capacity.

Please feel free to contact us if you or someone you know needs help. Our staff at SoCal Mental Health is here to assist you with achieving your mental health goals.

Sources

  1. Selhub, E., M.D. (2020, March 26) Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
  2. Gomstyn, A. Food For Your Mood: How What You Eat Affects Your Mental Health. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.aetna.com/health-guide/food-affects-mental-health.html
  3. Bancos, I., M.D. (2018, December) What Is Serotonin? Retrieved October 12th, 2021, from https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/serotonin
  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, August 24) The Psychology of Eating. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10681-the-psychology-of-eating
  5. Legg, T., Ph.D.,CRNP. (2020, August 19) These Women Treated Their Anxiety and Depression with Food. Retrieved October 11th, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/best-diets-for-mental-health
  6. Johnson, D., RDN, CDN. Fiber Up for Mental Health. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.matherhospital.org/weight-loss-matters/fiber-up-for-mental-health/
  7. Zagursky, E. (2015, June 9) It’s not all in your head — it’s in your gut, too. Retrieved October 11th, 2021, from https://www.wm.edu/news/stories/2015/fermented-food-social-anxiety-study123.php
  8. Sugar, A. (2013, September 9) Naturally Fermented Foods. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/tips-and-ideas/archive/naturally-fermented-foods
  9. Wilson, D., Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT. (2017, July 29) How do free radicals affect the body? Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318652
  10. Axelrod, K. (2020, July 18) BRAIN FOODS: Roles of Antioxidants in Anxiety and Depression. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://kerriaxelrod.com/brain-foods-role-of-antioxidants-in-anxiety-and-depression/
  11. Muscaritoli, M. (2021, March 8) The Impact of Nutrients on Mental Health and Well-Being: Insights From the Literature. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2021.656290/full
  12. Brennan, D., M.D. (2021, March 30) What to Know About Vitamin D and Mental Health. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/what-to-know-about-vitamin-d-and-mental-health
  13. Salomon, S. H. (2021, January 29) Does Vitamin D Deficiency Pose a Special Risk for Black People? Retrieved October 14th, 2021, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/vitamin-d/does-vitamin-d-deficiency-pose-a-special-risk-for-black-people/
  14. Clay, R.A. (2017, September) The Link Between Food and Mental Health. Retrieved October 14th, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/09/food-mental-health