Eating well for mental health

Understanding the connection between the foods you eat and mental health.

Various foods.
Photo: Unsplash/Mariana Medvedeva.

Every day we learn more about the connections between what we eat and how it can affect us, especially when it comes to our mental well-being. Our feelings, thoughts and behavior are affected by what we eat and drink. The brain influences what you eat, and what you eat influences your brain.

The relationship between the gut and the central nervous system is controlled by diet, the microbiome and inflammation. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; the microbiome is the collection of all microbes. This includes bacteria, fungi, viruses and their genes, which naturally live on our bodies and inside us. The foods you eat have a direct impact on your mood, cognitive function and mental health.

Serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps the brain and nervous systems cells communicate. The primary function is to stabilize your mood, as well as your feelings of happiness and well-being. Too little serotonin can cause depression. Complex carbohydrates boost your serotonin levels and have a calming effect. You can find complex carbohydrates in foods like brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes and starchy vegetables.

There is a correlation between eating a processed, low-nutrient diet and increased rates of depression and anxiety. On the other hand, eating a diet rich in whole foods decreases risk for these mental health issues. A nutritionally healthy diet like that can also improve your concentration and attention span. To support optimal mental health and overall health, follow these food tips from the Mental Health Foundation:

  • Eat regularly. This can stop your blood sugar levels from dropping, which can make you feel tired and bad-tempered.
  • Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, energy level and ability to concentrate.
  • Eat the right balance of fats. Your brain needs healthy fats to keep working well. Healthy fats include olive oil, grapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, milk and eggs. Avoid trans fats – often found in processed or packaged foods – these can be bad for your mood and your heart health.
  • Include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet. These contain the vitamins and minerals your brain and body need to stay well.
  • Include protein with every meal. It contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your mood.
  • Take care of your gut health. Your gut can reflect how you are feeling: if you are stressed it can speed up or slow down. Healthy food for your gut includes fruit, vegetables, beans, and probiotics such as yogurt, kombucha and sauerkraut.
  • Caffeine can affect your mood. It can cause sleep problems, if you drink it close to bedtime, some people find it makes them irritable and anxious. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, pop, energy drinks and chocolate.
  • Eat mindfully. Mindfulness and mindful eating have the potential to improve our health and our relationship to food.

By following these tips for improving your diet you will notice a positive impact on your mood, sleep, energy and focus in a few weeks. For more on information caregiving or family issues that affect you and your family, visit the MSU Extension website.

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