If you're like most people, you can identify certain "healthy" foods, but you are not sure why you should choose some foods over others. Regardless of your health history, it's important to eat a healthy diet of whole foods — primarily fruits, vegetables and lean meats. But understanding the impact certain foods have on your body is critical to managing mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety.
Recently an area of study has emerged globally, called "nutritional psychiatry." It's a fancy term for the field of study aimed at the correlation between diet and mental health. While this area of study is relatively new to the scene, it is rapidly becoming a bigger topic of discussion because, by 2020, the Centers for Disease Control has projected depression will rank as the second-most common cause of disability.
How Nutrition Affects Mental Health
In the last five years, researchers have publicized the results of several studies showing the link between what people eat and their mental health. While there is a growing interest in the impact of food for mental health wellness, the studies have focused explicitly on the importance of diet in depression and anxiety. And the results are notable.
For one thing, a healthy diet is important for brain development in both children and adults. Why? When a person eats something high in nutrients, their body converts those nutrients and uses them to fuel brain function. It enables the brain to transmit messages to other parts of the body for optimal functioning, and it can also help the brain stay strong and send signals to other parts of the brain. When someone is struggling with depression or anxiety, it becomes even more critical that their brain is functioning well. If they lack essential nutrients, their brain will not be able to work and send signals the way it should, and this will likely have a direct impact on their mood.
At the other end of the body, healthy food has a huge impact on your gut, which is where your immune system lives. Not only does your body use this system of "good" bacteria to prevent disease and infection, but it is also designed to control inflammation and even generate B vitamins. Inflammation, in particular, has a direct impact on a person's mood and understanding of what's going on around them.
While there has been much study into this topic over the last several years, researchers still have a long way to go in truly understanding the connection between a healthy diet and mental health. Much of the early evidence has come from "observational studies," meaning the researchers collected data from observing how people were already living, and not from a study with controlled variables.
It will take some time to establish a fuller understanding of how diet affects mental health, but, for now, the message is clear: While good nutrition is important for everyone, it can be a vital tool for someone struggling with mental health issues because of its impact on the brain.
There are a number of foods that are high in nutrients that directly impact brain health, including the following nutrients:
1. B Vitamins
There are several different B vitamins, but one of the most important for brain function and health is B12. People who are low in B12 have higher levels of inflammation and often higher rates of depression. Low levels of folate, which is also one form of the vitamin B9, have also been connected with depressed moods.
This mineral is vital because it helps the body control its stress levels. Because of this, the less zinc you have in your body, the higher risk you have of being negatively impacted by stress.
Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, has also been linked to depression.
4. Omega 3s
These are also called "fatty acids," but they are not a "fat" like we'd associate with butter or meat. Instead, they are powerhouse nutrients that have been shown to improve memory and brain function and may also play an essential role in your mood.
How to Eat a Well-Balanced Diet
This may seem like a lot to take in. After all, terms like "fatty acids," "anemia" and "folate" probably are not ones you use in daily life. And they certainly are not in the foods you eat. Or, are they?
The truth is, these essential nutrients are easy to find — if you know where to look.
A healthy diet is more than just portion control or skipping dessert after meals. In this case, a healthy diet includes fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, yogurt, seafood and lean meats, in moderation. It means avoiding added sugars and junk food, and using "healthy fats," such as olive oil, avocado and nuts. This type of eating is often called the "Mediterranean Diet" or "eating clean," although such labels can be confusing, since there are many variations on these terms and many weight-loss plans claiming to implement their principles.
We are not advocating a particular diet plan or weight loss of any kind. What we are talking about here is much more than a fad or a diet. We are talking about a lifestyle that has the potential to have a major impact on people's mental health.
What you eat matters.
The Benefits of Eating a Healthy, Well-Balanced Diet
Much of the significant research that supports the role of nutrition in mental health has been conducted on people who were simultaneously receiving treatment or taking medication for depression or anxiety. So, while nutrition has shown to be a valuable part of a treatment plan for depression and anxiety, it is just one component. An individual who is undergoing treatment for depression or anxiety needs to continue on a well-rounded treatment plan as determined by their doctor, which often also includes a combination of medication and therapy.
The reason it is important to understand the link between nutrition and mental health is that it has been a valuable addition to the treatment toolkit. It helps strengthen a person's mind and body to be able to process their medication better. When your body is receiving the proper nutrition it needs, it can receive medication more effectively. Not only that, but certain foods contain nutrients that improve mood and decrease feelings of depression by providing the proper nutrients to your brain. "Brain food" really is a thing!
Not only will eating the right foods help balance out your brain and body chemistry, but it is essential for someone who is coping with a mental health condition to learn how to care for themselves physically, as well as mentally. If you neglect your physical health, it will be harder to achieve real and lasting results in treatment for your mental health.
In other words, medication works better when a person is eating healthy. But, as we mentioned before, nutrition is just one of several tools to incorporate into a successful treatment strategy. Besides a healthy diet, there are several other things you can do to strengthen the mind and body along with your treatment journey and even once you reach the end of your formal treatment plan.
Exercise is a hugely important way to improve your physical and mental health. Not only does exercise release endorphins, or chemicals that promote a feeling of well-being, but it can also serve as a healthy outlet for your energy. The other excellent thing about exercise is that it is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to participate in your treatment actively.
It can be empowering to know you are doing something that will help improve the condition of your mind and body. And, depending on what you are doing to get exercise, you may find it gives you the opportunity to become more social and interact with other people. When you take an exercise class or even walk through your neighborhood, you'll have more opportunities to greet and interact with others.
It's no secret sleep troubles are often tangled in a complicated web. But, as part of your treatment plan, it is critical to work toward getting enough sleep on a nightly basis. Depending on your diagnosis, your treatment team may have prescribed sleep aids to help with this. Whether you are taking sleep medication or not, you can actively help set yourself up for better sleep. Reserve time at the end of your day to read a book or listen to soft music. Avoid late-night screen time, and put away your phone or computer because the LED screen can actively stimulate your brain, rather than preparing it to sleep. And, of course, avoid consuming caffeine late in the day so it will not disrupt your sleep.
3. Drink Water
Everyone knows it's important to drink water, but did you know if your body is habitually dehydrated, it could be contributing to your depression? That's right. Chronic dehydration can negatively impact serotonin levels — which affect your mood — as well as brain energy. It can also increase the stress in your body. If you are receiving treatment for depression and anxiety, it is vital to drink enough water each day to help improve your body and brain function.
Foods for Mental Wellness
One thing we have not discussed in much detail is why the focus on nutrition seems to center on depression and anxiety. These two mental health conditions have the most research in understanding the link between nutrition and symptom control. However, that does not mean that those struggling with other mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder, may not benefit from eating a balanced diet as well. Anyone struggling with illness — mental or physical — should always consult with their doctor about nutrition and how to arrange their diet during treatment.
When it comes to food for mental health and wellness, it's essential to eat things that give you the most nutrients with a healthy number of calories. While there are many options out there, here are 10 foods that pack a nutritional punch.
Just one serving of salmon will give you tons of vitamin D, potassium, protein, vitamin B and omega 3s. The omega 3s are especially good for brain health. And, as if all those nutrients weren't enough, salmon also contains tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin. As we mentioned before, serotonin works inside the brain to regulate moods.
This one is good for both brain and gut health, thanks to its ample supply of vitamin C, potassium, folate and fiber. The first three are essential for good brain health, while fiber has huge benefits lower in the body. The fiber acts as something called a "prebiotic," which is essential for fostering good probiotic growth in the gut.
It is incredible to realize what happens in your digestive tract can have a direct impact on what is going on in your brain! If you seem to have trouble eating fresh vegetables fast enough and they go bad, buying bags of frozen broccoli can be a good way to keep this important vegetable on hand.
3. Chia Seeds
Not only are chia seeds a huge source of omega 3s, but they also contain magnesium, potassium and calcium. All that in just one tablespoon of these little tiny seeds! Unlike sunflower seeds, you shouldn't eat them plain. Typically, people eat them in chia pudding, which is reminiscent of tapioca, or add them to smoothies or yogurt.
Yes, that's right. We said liver. Now, before you completely gloss over this one, hear us out. Liver is high in potassium, protein, selenium, zinc, iron, B6, B12, folate and niacin. And all of those are essential nutrients for mental health. So, if you are one of those people who likes liver and onions, then dig right in! If not, there are other ways to get the benefits of this. You can eat a liverwurst sandwich or pate on crackers and still get the same benefits. In fact, because liver is so high in B12, you'll only need a small amount once or twice a month to reap the benefits of this.
Spinach is just one of several dark, leafy greens that have considerable benefits on mental health. There's also kale, collard greens, beet greens and chard, all of which are high in potassium, magnesium, iron, folate and calcium. They also contain omega 3s. Sometimes people balk at this because they picture eating spinach plain. But it is easy to incorporate these leafy greens into things you already love. For example, you can blend spinach or kale into a smoothie or add it to your favorite homemade soup recipe.
Yogurt is well-known for its probiotics, which are essential to good gut health. And, as we have said, good gut health is important. Different varieties of yogurt have different kinds of probiotics, so if you alternate which types of yogurt you eat, you'll get the benefits of each. Besides probiotics, yogurt is also an excellent source of potassium, calcium and B vitamins, including the all-important B12.
These powerhouses are full of nutrition. Besides being one of a small group of food sources for vitamin D — the nutrient you get primarily from sunlight — they are also full of protein, B12 and, if they are pasture-raised eggs, omega 3s. While most people think of eggs as only a breakfast food, they are easy to incorporate into any meal.
Berries are proof good nutrition does not need to be complicated. These versatile, readily available foods can have incredible health benefits. Whether you choose strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries, you'll be consuming fruit full of antioxidants, vitamin C, potassium, fiber and important digestive enzymes. Berries are delightful plain or added to yogurt or smoothies.
9. Oysters and Mussels
We've already established salmon is one seafood item that provides several important nutrients. But did you know oysters do, too? Just four ounces of oysters has more than five times the recommended daily amount of zinc. Besides that, they also contain B12, magnesium and calcium, as well as iron. Similar to oysters, mussels are also excellent for brain health because they provide high levels of selenium. Studies have shown a correlation between low selenium levels and increased risk of depression.
10. Brazil Nuts
Nuts, in general, have a range of nutritional properties. They contain vitamin E, tryptophan and magnesium. But the thing that sets the Brazil nut apart from the rest is its high selenium content. A serving of Brazil nuts has 125 percent of the suggested daily intake of this crucial nutrient. As we just stated, this mineral is vital in improving and maintaining several health conditions, including overall brain health and function.
Seek Help When You Need It
When you have a mental health issue, it can be tempting to try to cope on your own. Many people find they need professional help to treat a mental health disorder. As hard as it can be to ask, there is no shame in asking for help.
At Brookhaven Retreat, we provide comprehensive, individualized treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, trauma, addiction and more. What makes us unique is that we are a voluntary, private mental health treatment facility for women only. We understand the unique mental health challenges facing women and it is our goal to provide a safe and secure environment for women to confront these issues and heal.
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression, anxiety or another mental health issue, we hope you will have the courage to seek help. For more information about Brookhaven Retreat and how we can help you change your life and take back your future, contact us today.