Good food keeps you healthy; can it also make you happier?
Nutrition is crucial to living a longer, healthier life. However, the old ‘you are what you eat’ saying doesn’t just apply to physical well-being. A growing body of research shows a balanced diet is crucial for mental health.
But it gets better:
Food can actively heal mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, as well as prevent them. So, there’s really no reason not to tweak diet for mental health.
If you’re dealing with a period of the blues, anxiety, or another issue, here is how to start eating for a happier brain:
Food And Mental Health: What Is The Connection?
Let’s start by stating the obvious:
Your brain is an organ, and it can get sick. Saying a mental health condition is ‘just in your head’ is like saying a broken bone is ‘just in your leg.’ Keeping your brain healthy is an essential part of overall well-being. For your brain to function correctly, it needs energy and nutrients that come from your diet.
The food-to-mood connection is not a new idea, either. Scientists have been looking at the relationship between mental health since the 1950s – exploring topics like gluten sensitivity (1) and vitamin supplementation. While some of the early theories were disproved later, one thing is clear:
Diet affects mental health, and we’ve known it for a while.
And it’s a two-way connection, too. Diet affects how you feel, but your mental well-being also, in turn, affects diet. Low moods can cause you to overeat, undereat, or struggle to maintain a balanced diet.
So, don’t beat yourself up. If you’re struggling with mental health, start where you are. Eating takeout every day? Start experimenting with one easy, healthy recipe every week. Overindulging in sweets? Set out a fruit bowl and keep the candy in the cupboard. This way, it’s easier to reach for the healthy option – and you’ll often do it automatically.
This will be a very comprehensive article – it’s packed full of information and helpful tips. Don’t have time to read through the whole thing? Here’s the quick answer:
The Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fresh produce, seafood, legumes, raw nuts, and olive oil, improves symptoms of depression. It provides a range of other benefits for heart health (2), cancer prevention (3) and more. Focus on leafy greens to reduce chronic inflammation. Introduce some fermented foods, too, like plain yogurt, kimchi, or tempeh, since your gut bacteria affect mood (4).
Your Gut Bacteria Matters
Did you know your brain is directly connected to your intestines? We call that the gut-brain axis (GBA), and it has an immense impact on brain function and mental health. But, there is also another player:
All the bacteria in your intestines!
About 100 trillion bacteria live in your gut, forming a complex ecosystem known as the microbiota. Gut bacteria health has already been proven a factor in various diseases (5) – yes, including mental health conditions.
Certain bacteria are associated with a better quality of life (6) while others are depleted in disease. Unfortunately, we’re constantly putting our gut microbiota at risk. We’re eating more processed food, our soils are treated in a way that depletes bacteria, and antibiotics are widely prescribed (and often overused.)
It’s clear that good bacteria makes you happy. But how do you get that good bacteria?
One recent study (7) suggests diet is the most important factor when it comes to your gut microbiome. Fermented foods can add beneficial bacteria to your intestinal flora, contributing to a healthier gut and healthier brain as a result.
Supplementation is beneficial, too. This systematic review and meta-analysis found a positive effect of probiotics (8) for depression and anxiety – and it looked at 34 different clinical trials!
How To Improve Your Microbiome
The gut microbiome has a direct impact on mental health. To keep your intestinal flora healthy:
- Explore fermented foods and drinks like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, etc.
- Consider a probiotic supplement.
- Practice safe antibiotic use – only take them as prescribed; never take antibiotics for a cold; supplement with a probiotic + prebiotic combination after finishing the course.
Eating To Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to danger. However, chronic inflammation has been linked to multiple diseases, including mental health conditions (9). Your own immune system causes oxidative stress, which in turn can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, and faster aging.
Fortunately, your diet can help.
Plants are rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, which combat inflammation and oxidative stress. Polyphenol-rich diets have been shown to promote mental health, improving both moods and attention spans.
Some of the best sources of polyphenols include:
- Berries like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.
- Leafy greens like kale, sprouts, spinach, and cabbage
- Nuts like hazelnuts, pecans, and almonds
- Flaxseeds, which are also rich in omega-3s
- Herbs and spices like oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage.
Try an easy, brain-friendly snack next time you get hungry. Grab some unsweetened, plain yogurt (for the good bacteria) and add a spoonful of ground flaxseeds and some blueberries. It’s delicious, quick, and packs a ton of polyphenols for a healthy brain.
Make Happy Chemicals
Your brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters – and they need the building blocks to make these. Getting the proper precursors for happy chemicals with your diet is essential for mental well-being.
Take tryptophan, for example.
It’s an essential amino acid (meaning you can’t produce it; you have to get it from your diet), and your brain uses it to make serotonin. It comes as no surprise that getting enough tryptophan is essential for mood – and high-tryptophan diets (10) have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.
It’s not only about neurotransmitters, either. Cysteine is the precursor to your body’s most important antioxidant. There is evidence a cysteine supplement (11) can help in bipolar depression, compulsive disorders, addiction, and even schizophrenia.
Other than supplementation, here are some foods that help you make happy chemicals:
- High-protein foods contain a lot of essential amino acids. Strike a balance between overall health effects and mental benefits by picking foods like eggs, fish, and poultry.
- Introduce plant protein sources like edamame, which is considered a complete protein (it contains all essential amino acids).
- Try pumpkin seeds, which have directly been linked to better mood (12) among a range of other health benefits.
- Cook up a lentil soup since this legume is packed with cysteine.
- Have oatmeal for breakfast – it’s another excellent plant source of cysteine.
Omega 3 And Omega 6: It’s A Balance
Polyunsaturated fats (omega-3s and omega-6s) are essential fatty acids that your body needs for brain health, immunity, and cell growth. However, with the rise of Western diets, we’re consuming far more omega-6s and far too little omega-3s. This has been linked to a higher risk of mood disorders (13), among other negative health consequences.
Adding omega-3s to your diet is the best way to correct the imbalance – and improve your mental health. This is where the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in seafood, excels.
Eating fish twice a week is an easy way to hit your omega-3 target, but it’s not the only one. You can also introduce mussels, shrimp (an excellent source of lean protein, too), oysters, clams, crabs, and so much more. Choose low-mercury species like tuna, salmon, and shrimp for most of your meals to reduce any potential harm.
Finally, if seafood isn’t available or in your budget, supplementation is also proven to improve mental health. In fact, omega-3 supplements seem to be powerful enough to tackle even severe problems like preventing psychosis (14).
Vitamins And Minerals: What You Need & What You Lack
Vitamins and minerals are essential to every process in your system. Your body only needs a small amount of these compounds, but they are crucial to physical and mental health. When it comes to mood and well-being, these are the key micronutrients to consider.
Two B vitamins are especially important when it comes to brain health:
Folate or vitamin B9 is essential for breaking down a toxic compound that builds up in your body called homocysteine. High homocysteine levels have been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that B9 could potentially reduce your risk.
What is more, your body also needs B9 to produce neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. A folate deficiency can wreak havoc on your brain chemistry, increasing the risk of depression and other mood disorders. Supplementing B9 can improve depressive symptoms (15), but you can also get the vitamin from leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.
Vitamin B12 is another vitamin that is crucial for mental health. A 2005 study (16) found that lower B12 levels correlated with a higher incidence of depression. And, better yet, people with enough B12 were more likely to respond to treatment for their condition. Similar to B9, B12 can also reduce your blood homocysteine levels, potentially lowering your dementia risk.
When it comes to B12, there is one critical consideration:
A plant-based diet puts you at risk of deficiency since B12 is only found in animal products. Does this make vegan and vegetarian diets unhealthy?
However, if you are a strict vegan, B12 supplementation is essential for your health.
You can take the vitamin separately or as a part of a B-complex formulation. Other B vitamins have also been implicated in mood disorders (17), so the latter is usually a better option.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin with an essential role in brain development and adult brain function. While you can synthesize it from sunlight, deficiency is incredibly prevalent. Around 40% of European adults (18) and 42% of Americans (19) are vitamin D deficient, which has far-reaching impacts:
Low vitamin D (20) in pregnant women has been linked to schizophrenia and autistic spectrum disorders in the child. In adults, vitamin D deficiency correlates with depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and a range of other neuropsychiatric conditions.
A vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter, is one of the easiest ways to avoid these negative consequences – and enjoy a happy, healthy brain as you age.
Zinc is a microelement with a range of functions in your brain. It’s essential for axonal and synaptic transmission, which is how your nerve cells communicate. Zinc deficiencies have been linked to depression (21), and a low zinc level can be incredibly detrimental to older adults (22).
How do you get your zinc right?
Oysters are packed full of this mineral. In fact, there is no better per-serving source of zinc. But, if oysters aren’t available to you (or gross you out), other sources include crustaceans like crab and lobster, red meat, beans, nuts, and whole wheat.
Magnesium is another mineral with a crucial role in brain chemistry. Magnesium deficiency makes you more susceptible to depression and anxiety (23). It also has a role in subclinical issues like hostility (24), while magnesium supplementation (25) seems to be beneficial to mental health.
Some of the best sources of magnesium include green vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Just a couple of spoonfuls of pumpkin seeds, plus some avocado, for example, tackle your recommended dietary allowance.
Finally, iron is essential for red blood cells, which transmit oxygen to all the organs in your body. Since your brain has one of the highest oxygen demands, it’s no surprise an iron deficiency can make you moody, fatigued, or depressed.
Be careful with this one!
An iron deficiency in an older adult could raise a red flag for a more severe condition. While getting enough iron through leafy greens and red meat is great if you have persisting symptoms of anemia (pale skin, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, etc.), consult your healthcare provider.
This Is How You Eat For A Healthy Brain
Here is the key takeaway from this article:
You have the power to improve your mental health, and even simple dietary tweaks can have a considerable impact.
But, with so many nutrients to consider, how do you begin to plan a healthy meal. This is where the Mediterranean diet comes in.
The Mediterranean diet is one of the best-studied nutritional patterns with proven benefits to physical and mental health. And, in 2012, a group of Australian scientists set out to prove it can directly improve depression.
The SMILE trial (26) was a randomized controlled trial of adults with moderate to severe depression and poor diets. Over 12 weeks, half of them received dietary advice based on the Mediterranean diet. They were taught how to incorporate brain-healthy foods like seafood, legumes, and fresh vegetables, while the other group only received social support.
What happened at the end of the 12 weeks? The group following the Mediterranean diet had a significant improvement in their symptoms – and both groups were still on medication or in therapy.
Eating For A Happy Brain: Summing Up
There you have it – the shortcut. A diet rich in plants, nuts, seafood, and olive oil has directly been proven beneficial – not just in healthy adults but in people with clinical depression.
Whether you’re looking to improve your mood as the winter blues hit, or you’ve been struggling with a mental health condition for a while, diet is a critical factor for a happier, healthier life.
What changes are you making today for a happier tomorrow? Pick one thing, big or small, and get started on your journey toward better mental health now.