Feeding Our Minds: The Importance of Nutrition For Mental Health

The old adage “you are what you eat” sounds oversimplified but has surprising validity to it. What we consume becomes a part of us on a physiological level. Cells regenerate with the nutrients that are supplied to them when we consume food and liquid. Research has been steadily proving this point to be true over the last two decades. Our diet is directly reflected in our ability to think, move, and function overall. 

When it comes to mental health, we have discovered that we have the ability to influence the severity of mental illness based on what we eat. For example, a diet full of processed foods, artificial colorings, and sweets with little to no fruits and vegetables has been associated with an increased incidence of depression and anxiety. Inversely, a diet low in processed food but rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods is associated with a significantly lowered risk of anxiety and depression. Because of this, it has become more important than ever to consume a diet filled with nutrient-dense, healthy foods.

Gut Health For Positive Mental Health

The largest influence on our mental health, in regard to factors we can control, is our gut health. The gut-brain axis plays an intricate role in the health of our brains. In fact, roughly 90% of the serotonin produced in our body comes directly from the gut. 

Diet plays a massive role in the overall function of our gut. This area of our bodies contains both beneficial and harmful strains of bacteria. When we consume whole foods rich in vitamins and minerals, we effectively feed the good bacteria. Foods that are heavily processed serve as an agent that feeds the negative bacteria. 

When our gut is imbalanced, it can cause the body to suffer from various illnesses such as Crohn's, irritable bowel syndrome, or ulcerative colitis. As a result, we feel unwell and often seek medication. The body and mind are constantly working to achieve homeostasis. When one aspect is unwell, the entire body suffers. Similarly, when we feel physically well, we are better equipped to achieve a positive state of mental health. The ability to move comfortably is increased, and as such we are more active. The health of the body, both physically and mentally, is deeply intertwined.

Certain nutrients offer our bodies specific advantages when it comes to mental health. Below are some of the most common mental illnesses and the research-based dietary elements that can actively prevent or treat them.

Foods That Fight Anxiety

Certain foods, herbs, and minerals can directly impact certain mental illnesses and can provide both relief and prevention-based abilities. Cilantro, for example, has been shown to have a natural calming effect that can soothe anxiety. Another powerful herb for anxiety is valerian root. This root, often found in teas or capsule form, is often used in place of medication due to its strength. 

In terms of regularly consumed food, the type of carbohydrates we eat is one of the most impactful ways we can control our mood. Refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar spikes that cause irritability, frustration, and even depression. Complex carbohydrates, in contrast, release nutrients slowly in order to avoid these spikes. As a result, the body feels full for longer and blood glucose levels remain steady. 

Bananas are another easily included food that provide anti-anxiety abilities. They contain high levels of magnesium, which work as a calming agent. Another way to include both protein and anti-anxiety benefits in your diet is with turkey. This protein-rich meat is full of tryptophan, which produces serotonin and induces relaxation. Asparagus contains tryptophan as well. It is known for its ability to calm anxiety attacks, support healthy sleep cycles, and balance mood. Aside from these aforementioned nutrients, there are countless other ways to tailor your diet to accommodate anxiety.

Foods That Fight Depression

Nutrition has the ability to play a key role in not only the onset but severity of depression. One of the most highly emphasized diets for fighting mental disorders is the Mediterranean diet. This diet consists of lean proteins, leafy green vegetables, and antioxidant-rich fruits. 

Vitamin D is crucial for positive affect and is readily available in this specific diet. Milk, Swiss chard, and cottage cheese provide high levels of this vitamin and are great to include on a daily basis. Vitamin D supplies the body with the ability to fight inflammation, which is attributed to depression-related symptoms. 

B-12 is another way to fight depression. Foods like clams and muscles provide the brain with enough B-12 to combat severe depression. Specifically, a lack of SAM, which is a substance that the brain requires to process mood, is attributed to a greater incidence of depression. By adding in seafood of this kind, your brain is better equipped to fight off depression-related symptoms.

Mindfulness When Eating

Another important aspect of nutrition that directly affects mental health is mindfulness. Being in tune with our body's needs helps us achieve adequate nutrition. Similarly, the ability to ignore emotional cues that drive us to consume fattier, more processed foods is an important distinction. Often, people suffering from poor mental health remain in a cycle of lacking nutrition. This happens when we overeat due to stress, indulge in unhealthy, sugar-filled desserts when sad, or even undereat when facing an emotional issue. All of these situations deprive the body of the nutrients it needs to thrive. 

Your Brain On Food

Maintaining a well-balanced diet allows the brain to access the vitamins and minerals it needs to operate at maximum. An example of this is getting a sufficient amount of protein in your diet. The brain relies on protein to form memories, process emotions, and make non-impulsive decisions. Fatty acids are another crucial dietary addition that provides the brain with the ability to regulate the nervous system and boosts gut health.

Barriers To Positive Mental Health-Related Diets

It is important to account for potential barriers to adequate access to the diet necessary to achieve positive mental health. Socioeconomic status is one factor that inhibits access to high-quality, nutrient-dense foods. It is important to distinguish that maintaining a whole-food diet is important, but not vital to achieving positive mental health. Exercise, meditation, and breathwork are important elements to include to actively fight mental illness.

In general, it is increasingly important to be aware of what we consume on a daily basis in regard to overall mental wellness. Anxiety, depression, and other commonly debilitating mental illnesses can be positively impacted through proper diet and nutrition. By consuming whole, nutrient-dense, healthy foods, we can be better equipped to minimize the impacts of anxiety and depression and better improve our overall well-being. 

We Can Help!

Online Treatment Programs provides Teletherapy Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs allowing participants to receive intensive therapy with our licensed therapists and psychiatrists without having to leave home.  If you or someone you know is struggling to overcome depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma, panic attacks, PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, or other mental health or addiction issues, we can help.  To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our teletherapy programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.

MHThrive provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit our website to learn more.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any severe mental health or substance abuse issues, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.

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Online Treatment Programs

08 February, 2023

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