A big thank you to Charles Watson for submitting this well-researched and timely guest article. Many diseases are brought on by lack of proper nutrition, and the healing foods shared in this article could make a huge difference in your life. Share this article and try some new yummy suggestions in your own diet! Penelope 🙂
Mental health, especially as it relates to suicide, addiction, and adolescent development, has been receiving a lot of media attention lately. We are finally seeing a shift away from hiding and stigmatizing mental health conditions and instead are seeing more open discussions on mental illness and how to maintain good mental health. There has also been significant research investigating how our food choices may help with mental health issues.
A study from the Amsterdam Public Health Research Institute found that diets high in sugar, processed foods, and refined flour correlated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. On the other hand, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of fat were observed most often in people who did not have anxiety and depression.
Another study from JSS Medical College and the Central Food Technological Research Institute found that people with depression, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) were more likely than the general population to have deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.
How Does Diet Impact Mental Health?
Diets that include large amounts of sugar, deep-fried, or highly processed foods tend to have lower amounts of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Most highly processed foods have little to no nutritional value, leading to deficiencies in essential nutrients. Research has found that people who consume diets consisting primarily of highly processed foods have a 60 percent increased risk of developing depression.
In contrast, diets high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and avocados have high levels of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that the body and brain need for optimum health. These healthy foods may increase the brain’s hippocampal volume, which is the area of the brain responsible for mental health, learning, and memory.
Three nutrients have been found to be especially helpful in improving mental health: vitamin D, B-group vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Vitamin D, often referred to as the sunshine vitamin, is essential for regulating mood and improving critical thinking. Sunlight is a major source of vitamin D, although it can also be found in eggs and fish. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to depression, especially during times of the year with reduced sunlight, which is the winter season in many regions.
B-group vitamins, including folate, niacin, and B12, are important for regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit neurological information from cell to cell.
Folate is found in dark leafy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, while B12 is found in fish, meat, eggs, and milk. Vegans and vegetarians often require supplements to maintain appropriate B12 levels. Research shows that people with low levels of B12 or folate have a higher risk of depression.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have received a great deal of attention for their ability to reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential for brain health. Rresearch has determined that they may be as effective as antidepressants for reducing symptoms of depression. People who eat foods with abundant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, and dark leafy greens, have a 30 percent lower risk of depression.
Five Great Foods for Boosting Mental Health
Eating healthy to boost mental health does not need to be expensive or stressful. If you currently are eating a diet high in processed foods, start by incorporating a few brain-boosting foods into your diet and slowly increase the amounts of healthy whole foods in your diet. Plant-based diets with whole foods and the Mediterranean diet are both rich in foods that may improve mood and mental health. The following five foods are delicious and healthy ways to boost your mental health:
Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, watercress, mustard greens, and arugula are chock-full of folate, which may increase serotonin levels in the brain. Leafy greens are so good for mental health that some researchers gave these nutritional wonders the top ranks on their Antidepressant Food Score, an analysis of foods and how they may affect depression. Such rankings suggest that diets high in dark leafy greens may prevent or improve depressive disorders.
Avocados are wonderful additions to a brain-boosting diet. They contain beneficial fats the brain needs for optimum health. In addition, they have omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, magnesium, and high levels of folate. Avocados are linked to healthy brain function as well as reduced levels of depression and anxiety.
While caffeine can make us jittery or increase anxiety, green tea contains significant amounts of theanine, an amino acid with calming and anti-anxiety properties that seem to counteract the anxiety-causing effects of caffeine. While research is still being conducted on the benefits of green tea and mental health, early results are promising, showing that the L-theanine, an amino acid in green tea, may increase the brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin.
Fatty fish, including trout, sardines, salmon, and mackerel, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Sardines and salmon also contain vitamin D, making these fish nutritional powerhouses. Eating two to three servings of fish per week has been linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression. There has even been research that omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the anxiety that may occur during substance abuse treatment.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, chia seeds, seaweed, hemp seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, edamame, and kidney beans also have high levels of these important omega-3 fatty acids.
Sometimes, having a sweet treat can boost our mood. Yet sugar crashes and nutrient-depletion that occur because of eating too much cake, ice cream, and candy may actually harm our mental health. Moderation is key, and so is eating the right types of foods. One of those foods is dark chocolate, an item that has been found to be beneficial for reducing stress, boosting mood, and easing symptoms of depression.
While researchers are not exactly sure why dark chocolate produces such effects, one study determined that flavanoids in dark chocolate reduce inflammation along neural pathways and improve blood flow. Dark chocolate also contains tryptophan, a substance that enhances serotonin levels in the brain, helping us to feel more calm and happy.
While diet alone is no substitution for professional mental health care, incorporating these five foods in your diet and moving towards a more plant-based and healthier diet may help improve your mental health. While medication may be needed to treat your anxiety or depression, improving your diet can also make your medications even more effective by optimizing the health of your brain and body. If we really are what we eat, then our bodies and minds depend on us to eat as healthy as possible!
Charles Watson is the current head researcher and writer for Sunshine Behavioral Health – Texas mental health division, the leader in mental health recovery. A lifelong health advocate, he can be reached directly on Twitter at @charleswatson00