Can what you eat affect your mood? In short, yes. What you eat matters. Adding healthier options to your plate can improve your mental health by offering your body the essential nutrients that naturally boost serotonin or reduce them by consuming unhealthy meals. Knowing which foods improve your well-being can be difficult. So, to make things a little easier, we are providing a list of healthy foods that stimulate positive mental health and others that negatively impact our psychological behavior.
How does food impact your mental health?
Serotonin is an important chemical and neurotransmitter in the human body that helps regulate your mood. You produce most of your serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract where you digest your food. How those neurotransmitters interact with your digestive system and your brain depends on what you eat, which can shape how you feel mentally.
People who follow the Mediterranean diet or consume healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein have a 25% – 35% lower risk of depression than those who eat high levels of sugar and processed foods. Along with serotonin, another reason scientists believe food affects our mental health is because of how our bodies process good and bad gut bacteria and how that bacteria interact with the brain.
“Foods that help to improve [our] mood work with the gut-brain connection,” said Sarah Thacker, health coach and holistic food therapist. “The digestive system is where an estimated 90 percent of serotonin — the feel-good neurotransmitter — is made, making it vital to have a healthy gut,” she says.
The best foods to eat that promote mental health wellness
- Dark, leafy greens: Foods like kale, spinach, and broccoli are a part of a healthy diet because they are loaded with vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium, folate, and vitamin B-12. Consuming more of these foods can improve your mood and decrease feelings of depression and anxiety. Additionally, these vegetables are also prebiotic foods that provide your body with good gut bacteria, which promotes positive mental health.
- Healthy fats: Examples include oily fish, avocado and extra virgin olive oil. Healthy fats like these have anti-inflammatory properties that could help prevent symptoms of depression and lift your mood.
- Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all low in sugar and high in fiber and vitamin C. Vitamin C can help regulate cortisol levels, which is a key hormone released during stress that causes anxiety.
- Nuts and legumes: Foods like walnuts, almonds, beans, and lentils are staples of healthy eating. They are loaded with healthy fats, protein, fiber, and magnesium linked to reducing anxiety and depression.
- Fermented foods: Research indicates that you can improve your mood and mental health by adding foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles to your diet to help encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Foods to avoid that negatively impact our mental health
- Refined sugar: Simple sugars found in candy or soda can cause blood sugar levels to spike and drop, which could lead to bursts of energy followed by lethargy and possible depression. Fluctuations in blood sugar can also worsen many of the symptoms associated with anxiety.
- Foods high in trans fats: Eating foods high in trans fats like potato chips, pizza, and fast food are linked to decreasing serotonin levels. These foods affect our mental health by causing inflammation that could prevent the production of Omega-3 fatty acids that improve brain function and mental health.
- Caffeine: Too much coffee can leave you feeling shaky and anxious. If you suffer from anxiety, it could be a good idea to limit or cutting out caffeine to lessen symptoms of hypertension. Try drinking caffeine-free herbal tea instead, which tends to have a soothing or relaxing effect.
- Alcohol: People often think of alcohol as a mood elevator, but it’s actually a depressant. More so, alcohol increases anxiety symptoms the morning after drinking, particularly after overindulging. Lastly, alcohol reduces the quality of our sleep.
- Highly processed foods: Limiting or avoiding convenient options like frozen dinners, instant ramen, and any products with added sugar or loads of sodium can boost your mood by increasing serotonin.
A better diet means better mental health
We know it’s difficult to start or even maintain a well-balanced diet. We encourage you to adjust your diet by thinking of ways you can moderate negative foods and increasing others that promote physical and mental well-being that fit your lifestyle. If you are experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression, contact a primary care physician at Northwest Primary Care to discuss ways your diet could be affecting your mental health.