How Diet Can Improve Mental Health

Eating healthy can improve not only your physical health but also your mental health which is a core component of optimal health and overall well-being.

It is obvious that mental health is crucial for improving one’s personal life, but it also improves ones financial status by reducing medical and social expenses, and enhances the state of a nation. Therefore, people and governments are very interested in improving the populations’ mental health state, and the best way to do this, which is also the cheapest and easiest way, is through change of diet.

There’s ample research that confirms that an unhealthy diet is a significant risk factor not only for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes, but also for mental disorders. In fact, the research shows that the same nutritional factors related with chronic health conditions share a common aspect with the risk of mental health conditions. (1-2) I will cover these aspects in this article.

I will also mention specific foods that will help you improve your overall mental health and wellbeing.

Healthy Diet and Mental Health Connection

Our central nervous system and our brain need key nutrients to maintain optimal function and to support our mental health. Nutrition also affects brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change throughout our life) which is vital for mental health. Connections between nutritional status and mental health states have especially been proven for depression, cognitive function, dementia, and psychiatric disorders.

The prevalence of mental disorders is on the rise leading to a disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation and behavior.

A systematic study published in 2014 has shown a link between a healthy diet and mental health in children and adolescents. That research shows that there’s a correlation between the two from a very early age, and following a healthy dietary routine is vital for a child to grow into a healthy adult with positive mental health. [3]

Another study from 2018 showed that young adults (aged 18-25) with low access to healthy food, will suffer from many mental health symptoms (depression, anxiety, substance-use disorders and more) attributed to high stress levels and the college environment. (4)

Unfortunately mental health issues affect 22% of the U.S. young adult population. Figures are similar throughout most of the Western world.

Increased access to healthy foods at affordable prices, also in school campuses, will lead to improved mental health and well-being status of young adults. 

Unhealthy diets and obesity directly link to a higher risk of depression. This link goes both ways as well, as depression was found to also lead to obesity. [5]

Some specific foods have shown to have a positive effect on mental health.

Let’s see what foods these are.

5 Foods Groups You Should Eat to Improve Your Mental Health

1) Serotonin elevating foods:

The amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to the release of serotonin, referred to as nature’s happy pill. Although 90% of serotonin is produced in the intestines for appetite and digestion regulation, 10% is produced in the brain, for the brain in regulation of mood, sleep and memory. 

Now although it is well known that tryptophan is found in animal products, especially poultry, consuming animal products will not help the tryptophan reach the brain and have its calming effect there. The reason is that although blood tryptophan levels do rise following the consumption of animal products,  there will be a reduction in brain tryptophan levels. This is because tryptophan is the last amino acid to transverse the blood brain barrier as it competes with the other amino acids. 

So how can this be changed allowing more tryptophan to reach the brain? 

The answer is a high carbohydrate.  A high carbohydrate diet triggers insulin release, and leads the muscles to take in the other amino acids for fuel while leaving the amino acid tryptophan available to be absorbed by the brain for serotonin production.

* When people experience carbohydrate cravings, this is often a message from the brain to get more tryptophan in order to alleviate mental health issues, and anxiety and depression symptoms. But unfortunately many people fear that the consumption of carbohydrates will lead to weight gain and they try to avoid carbohydrates only to find themselves consuming sugar rich foods that lead to a surge in insulin release, and if there is sufficient protein in the diet, then more tryptophan will enter the brain and lead to more serotonin production allowing them to feel better, albeit only for the short term.

Instead, whole grain carbohydrate rich foods keep insulin levels in the blood steady, allowing sufficient tryptophan to pass the blood brain barrier and have its calming effect on the brain through serotonin production.

Foods that contain lean protein are crucial for supplying the amino acid tryptophan. When consumed with sufficient carbohydrates either from root vegetables or whole grains, which act as fuel for both our brains and our bodies while also releasing insulin, allowing the absorption of tryptophan into the brain, will lead to improved mental health.

The top best foods for increasing brain serotonin levels are therefore:

  • Tryptophan rich foods including oats, whole wheat (preferably organic), whole grain rice, wild rice, cucumbers, beans, barley, soy, potatoes, butternut squash and its seeds, sea vegetables, mushrooms, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables.
  • Protein-rich plant-based foods including beans, lentils, peas, tofu, and peanut butter.

2) Foods that lower homocysteine levels

Folate, vitamin B6 and B12 take part in homocysteine breakdown, and deficiencies of these nutrients result in increased blood levels of homocysteine. 

High homocysteine levels exasperate mental health conditions increasing depression and anxiety as well as Alzheimer’s, dementia, declining memory, poor concentration and judgment and lowered mood. 

High homocysteine levels interfere with the way our cells use oxygen and lead to damage to the arteries and increased free radical damage. Furthermore, homocysteine reduces brain oxygen supply and reduces function of neurotransmitters, and, in high levels, homocysteine is a neurotoxin. [8-11]

The top best foods for lowering homocysteine levels are therefore:

  • Foods rich in vitamin B6 including potatoes, chickpeas, butternut and acorn squash, non citrus fruits, avocado, and pistachio nuts.
  • Foods rich in folate including leafy greens such as spinach, turnip, romaine lettuce and  lentils, beats, and broccoli, legumes, citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables, and beets.
  • Foods rich in B12 – once a week the consumption of lean animal meat,  for those consuming a vegan plant based diet, this vitamin should be consumed via supplements in the absorbable form of methylcobalamine on a weekly basis.

3) Foods that form a healthy lipid profile

Foods rich in the B vitamin niacin (B3) increase the “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein) and improve one’s overall lipid profile [12, 13], Niacin also helps neurogenesis, (the growth of new brain cells) and the repair of existing brain cells essential for mental health and self control. [14]

Phospholipids, which maintain the integrity and functionality of brain cell membranes are a marker for mental health. Their preservation is dependent on sufficient essential fatty acids in the diet, and sufficient fat-soluble vitamins for mental health [15] .

On the other hand, high intakes of dietary saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, and total calories have been shown to impair mental health. [16-18]

Another food source that regulates the integrity and fluidity of cell membranes and prevents brain deterioration and inflammation are omega 3 fatty acids. These are essential for our bodies, since our bodies cannot produce these fats and they are vital for mental health. [19] A study published in 2017 shows that a healthy Mediterranean style diet that contains omega 3 fatty acid supplements improves mental health in adults who suffer from depression. [6]

The top best foods that form a healthy lipid profile are therefore:

  • foods rich in niacin (vitamin B3) such as passionfruit, avocado, tomatoes, dates, potatoes, mushrooms, peanuts and legumes
  • Foods rich in fat soluble vitamins including carrots, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and pumpkin for the precursor of vitamin A (beta carotene, although caution should be taken to consume these foods regularly since not all people convert beta carotene to vitamin A efficiently), leafy green vegetables for Vitamin K, and sun exposure for vitamin D.
  • foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids including walnuts, chia, flax and hemp seeds and sea vegetables.

4) Foods high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity:

Tight balance between oxidative stress and antioxidant levels is essential to maintain the structural integrity of brain cells and optimal functioning of the brain [20]. 

Phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, promote the expression of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) increasing neuroplasticity, (the brains ability to change when needed).[12]. Additionally, phytonutrients reduce inflammation, which has been described as a major cause and consequence of mental health conditions [13]. Omega 3 fatty acids, mentioned above also reduce inflammation. [21] One comprehensive study conducted in England on 14,000 individuals, has shown that fruit and vegetable consumption leads to mental well-being in all individuals. On the other hand, an unhealthy lifestyle with high alcohol intake and high obesity rates leads to low mental health and reduced wellbeing. [7]

The top best foods that are rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity are therefore:

  • foods rich in antioxidant activity and rich in phytonutrients such as leeks, onions, garlic, eggplant, grapes and berries, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach, and dark leafy green vegetables.

5)  Foods that help maintain stable blood sugar levels. 

Recent findings consistently reported the positive association between stable blood sugar levels and mental health [22-26] 

The microbiome is a key player in the regulation of mood, cognition, and anxiety. Dietary fiber, which stabilizes blood sugar levels, is also a prebiotic and its consumption improves the composition of the microbiota helping to reduce common mental health conditions. [13]

The top best foods that help maintain stable blood sugar levels are therefore:

  • fiber rich and complex carbohydrate rich foods include bananas, oranges, apples, mangoes, strawberries, raspberries, beans and legumes, whole grains and nuts. 

The Bottom Line

The link between a healthy diet and improved mental health is clear. Now all that needs to be done  is to ensure you are consuming a nutrient dense, high fiber and high essential fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables to improve your mental health state, your self control and behaviour, and thus your overall wellbeing.

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Galit Goldfarb

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