The foods you choose to eat not only have an impact on your body, but your mind as well – and it’s a factor many overlook when it comes to fostering good mental health, experts say.
“We often overlook nutrition when it comes to mental health,” Andrea D’Ambrosio, spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada and registered dietitian at Dietetic Directions, says. “People might think of having diabetes or heart disease and then inquiring about the role of nutrition in improving these conditions, but we often overlook the value of the foods that we eat with how we feel when we’re managing things like anxiety and depression.”
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According to Tristaca Curley, registered dietitian at Fueling with Food, there are a variety of nutrients that are implicated in regulating mood, particularly with decreasing the risk of depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.
“This stems from the fact that all of our nutrients are actually building blocks for different chemicals within the body like our neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the brain that have specific functions – those are all built when we have certain types of foods,” she says. “These specific types of foods have been found to play a role in some neurotransmitters that are involved with mood like serotonin, dopamine and GABA.”
And just like the food you choose can impact your mood, the mood you’re in can also impact the foods you choose. When the latter occurs, Curley says, it can also feed into a cycle of promoting depressed moods.
“Whenever we report our mood to be decreased – like depressed or irritable – we tend to have poor diets and seek out comfort foods and tend to not have as much drive to put the time into meal prep and choose healthier foods,” she says. “So they pretty much impact each other. A poor mood will cause us to make poor mood choices which will make our poor mood even worse.”
So, sometimes in order to better your mood, taking a holistic approach through diet may be the kick-start one needs to break the cycle, D’Ambrosio says.
A good place to start is by incorporating these five brain healthy foods into your diet.
This pink fish is rich in Omega-3 and anti-inflammatory fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which are healthy fats that are essential (meaning we must consume them from our diet because our body cannot create them on its own) d’Ambrosio says. These fatty acids are important because they help with our brain cell membrane.
“The fatty acids basically help protect our brains and cells and help with anti-inflammation so our brain can send signals to other parts of our body,” D’Ambrosio explains. “An imbalance of Omega-3 fats also impacts how our brain cells communicate with one another, and research has found that a lower intake of Omega-3 is associated with a higher risk of depression.”
Salmon also contains vitamin D, which is another nutrient that is important in the management of depression and supporting immune function, she adds.
“Lentils are loaded with the B vitamin folate which is needed to produce serotonin,” D’Ambrosio points out. “Serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter, or also known as the ‘happy hormone.’”
Lentils are also low on the glycemic index, which means they cause our blood sugar to rise at a more gradual rate, helping to regulate blood sugar levels which helps with mood and keeping a consistent energy throughout the day, she says. Lentils also help with the production of serotonin.
“Bananas are mood-enhancing because it affects tryptophan, which is another essential amino acid that helps produce serotonin,” D’Ambrosio says.
Tryptophan also helps with sleep, regulates our food intake – both which are associated with impacting mood as well, D’Ambrosio adds.
“Bananas also get other vitamins and minerals like potassium, vitamin B6 and fibre which all support our body utilizing tryptophan for serotonin production,” she says.
Kefir, D’Ambrosio explains, is a dairy beverage high in probiotics. It’s described as a drinkable yogurt with a thinner consistency.
Gut health has been linked to mental health in several studies including one published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. Another study out of the University of Virginia Health System also found that a probiotic found in yogurt had the ability to reduce depression symptoms.
“When we’re looking at improving mental health, we now have to look at the gut to see how we can support good health bacteria which can also help with improving mood,” D’Ambrosio says.
It’s fairly new research, but D’Ambrosio says that the good bacteria in our stomachs – known as microflora – can affect our brain and mental health.
Just be careful, she says. Some flavours contain high sugar content. So it’s best to stick with the original plain flavour.
5. Sweet potato
Sweet potatoes are rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene, D’Ambrosio says. This helps in reducing damage to the brain cells, which can have a negative impact on mental health.
It can also be helpful in reducing the oxidative stress on DNA, which has been linked with depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, she adds.
Other helpful nutrients
If you want to expand your choices, make sure to look for foods rich in these other helpful nutrients.
Iron: “We know that iron plays a really big role in the production of serotonin and dopamine,” Curley says. “So these neurotransmitters keep our mood more regulated and happier and decrease the risk of depression.” Find iron in foods like red meat, beans or fortified grains like bread and potatoes.
B vitamin: This is especially true for vitamins B1, B3 and B12, Curley says. “Those B vitamins, in particular, play a role in decreasing the risk of irritability and depression,” she says. “The types of foods that have a lot of those B vitamins include your animal proteins – like meats, fish and poultry, as well as eggs and dairy, or fortified non-dairy sources.”
Selenium: “A selenium deficiency has been shown to leave us feeling depressed and having other negative mood states,” Curley says. “Like feeling sad, overwhelmed and anxiety are all related to the deficiency.” Foods with selenium include animal proteins like meats, fish and poultry. It can also be found in seeds like pumpkin and sunflower, as well as Brazil nuts.
It’s not always easy giving your kitchen cupboards a makeover. So if you want to include more of these foods into your diet, don’t go in all at once. Instead, Curley suggests starting out with small changes.
“If you’re feeling in a sub-optimal mood, maybe just pick out two of these foods to try in a week because you may not have the energy to overhaul your diet all at once,” Curley suggests. “It can also be helpful to get some bloodwork from your doctor to see where you’re at with your iron, folate and B vitamin levels stand. That way, you’ll know that if you are deficient and your doctor may suggest supplements to help with those particular deficiencies.”
Also, D’Ambrosio suggests keeping your meal times as regular as possible.
“This really means having three meals a day and not skipping meals,” she says. “And really making a dedication to having a structure and keeping to these schedules, and not going extended periods without eating can really help your mood and energy levels.”