Nutrition + Mental Health

Photo by Bryan Minear

Photo by Bryan Minear


How do the foods you eat affect your mental health? Is it true that “you are what you eat?” You may feel physically better when you eat certain foods but how does what you put on your plate affect your mental health?

From your morning cup of coffee to the newest trend in fermented foods, what you eat affects your body and your mind. Eating too much of some things and too little of others affects anxiety, depression and how you handle stress. 


Coffee — Can you feel alert without feeling anxious?

Coffee wakes you up in the morning and perks you up midday.  However, too much can cause the negative side effects of an increased heartrate and dehydration. A growing body of research also points to the anxiety producing affects from the caffeine in coffee. At the same time, some research points to the protective nature of coffee against depression. Where do you draw the line?

A great alternative to your daily cup is green tea. Green tea contains caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine. Caffeine has many positive effects on attention and cognition but alone may be detrimental to your sense of well-being by causing anxiety. L-theanine with caffeine improves mood and concentration. This amino acid has also been shown to increase dopamine in the brain, helping to ease anxiety.  


Kombucha — The Gut-Brain Axis

Kombucha and other fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms that can help with digestion. Consuming probiotics like those in fermented foods helps with digestion when your own gut bacteria may be compromised due to illness, antibiotics and stress. The process of fermentation not only creates beneficial bacteria but it also increases the bioavailability of mood-stabilizing B-vitamins, magnesium and zinc.

There are many food sources containing probiotics. These include yogurt, miso (fermented soybean paste), sauerkraut, and kefir (for the vegan readers: this is now available on the market in a non-dairy version).

There is emerging research into the relationship between gut health and mental health via the gut-brain axis. A healthy variety of bacteria in your stomach breaks down the indigestible fibers from the food you eat to produce neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin.  These neurotransmitters are responsible for system-wide functions in the body. Dopamine helps control your sense of reward and pleasure while also helping to regulate your emotional response. Serotonin regulates sleep and reduces anxiety. 

You can also help your stomach create more serotonin by increasing the amount of the amino acid tryptophan that you eat because this amino acid is a precursor to serotonin. Tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods including turkey but plant-based foods such as soy and walnuts are also rich sources. Research shows that combining tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates helps your body to better utilize the amino acid for serotonin production and protein biosynthesis.


Chia Seeds — The link between Omega-3’s and happiness

The seeds you once used to grow your chia pet are full of omega-3 fatty acids. What do omega-3 fatty acids do for your brain and your mental health? Epidemiological studies on one well known source of omega-3’s, fish, show that higher levels of fish consumption decrease the prevalence of depression. Findings such as these have increased the use of omega-3 fatty acids to aid several mood disorders including PTSD and depression.

Omega-3’s are important to your brain health because they modulate neurotransmitters that send signals to your nerve cells. Omega-3’s are especially important with modulating serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters discussed above under probiotics, and they also modulate noradrenaline. This neurotransmitter works on the brain to increase alertness, arousal and a call to action. At times this response is necessary but too much noradrenaline can tax your system-which often happens in times of stress.

Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, walnuts or chia seeds can help you be more equipped to deal with life’s daily stressors.

No one food is a panacea for depression, anxiety or stress but adopting a balanced diet of fiber-rich fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats will help maintain the strength of your body and your mind. For mood stability, it is important to incorporate a variety of foods and beverages that are rich with antioxidants, fiber, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids. 

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