Despite the decidedly more comfortable lifestyles of young adults today (compared to previous generations) - with practically all basic needs being accessible at their fingertips - the digital age is also replete with mental health issues. About 7.3% of the 365 million youth in India report to be dealing with mental health issues. Globally, that number is as high as 20% . With COVID-19 added to the mix, there are now about one in three adults who face issues with their mental health . Fortunately, we’ve also evolved in our scientific understanding of the cognitive changes taking place in the brain of young adults, while throwing light on how nutrition affects our mental health. Put this information together and you’re now able to identify the nutrients that would help boost one’s mental health during the mid-20s – and that’s exactly what we’ve done here in this article!
The brain of young adults (18-29 years old) and how our diet impacts it
Being 21 years of age generally marks us as being past the point of most of our physiological developments (like puberty and a growth in height) - but our brain keeps developing for another few years. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates our feelings and rational thoughts, only fully develops by the time we’re around 25 years old (which is why our 20s are when we’re actively learning – and not always successfully! – how to control our emotions and make rational decisions) .
The effective development (and even post development) of the prefrontal cortex requires the help of certain nutrients. Our brain is also a dynamic organ that is neuroplastic in nature, which means it’s able to change itself constantly by creating new neural pathways and losing those that are no longer used. Nutrients play key roles in the processes that affect neuroplasticity .
Furthermore, the brain accounts for only 2% of our total bodyweight, but consumes 20% of the total energy we derive from our food . This enormous demand stems from our neurons requiring ample energy to maintain their functioning and connectivity .
A note for women: diet and exercise play a particularly powerful role in mental health
Men's brains are less likely to be affected by their diet; as long as they stick to even moderately healthy meals, their mental well-being isn’t really affected by their food habits. It's only when they consume mostly fast food in their diet that they start experiencing mental distress . On the other hand, women must be more mindful of not only the nutrients they consume, but also have a higher need to exercise regularly for their mental well-being, or they are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and suffer from longer periods of mental distress [7, 8].
A possible reason for this is the difference between the morphology (structure and volume) and neurological connectivity of the brain in men versus women. Women’s brains have denser brain connectivity, which relies on neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that help transmit signals between brain cells or throughout the body). These neurotransmitters are made in our body with the help of certain nutrients, making their health and functioning more dependent on one’s daily diet [9, 10, 11, 12]. On the other hand, men have a larger brain volume in the amygdala, the area responsible for emotions. Any change in this brain volume happens over a longer duration, which is why even eating diets that are partially healthy does not impact their moods [13, 14]. Researchers believe that these differences between men and women may be responsible for influencing their nutritional needs, behavioural traits, and susceptibility to mood disorders .
Foods that are beneficial for mental health
There are certain nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, omega 3 fats, B vitamins such as folate, B-6, and B-12, vitamin D, vitamin E, magnesium, iodine, selenium, iron, and zinc) that we should particularly focus on for our brain health.
Here are some foods that provide us with decent amounts of these:
1. Whole grains
The first thing many diets advocate is to cut down on carbohydrates, and while some kinds of carbohydrates are known to be bad for us, whole grains are not one of them. Whole grains are the unrefined form of grains that we eat regularly (for example, rice, wheat, corn, barley, etc.), and they are a great source of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates help stimulate our brain's production of the feel-good neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is transmitted throughout our body. Without adequate amounts of serotonin in our bodies, we are less prone to depressive states [15, 16]. Ongoing research has additionally found an interesting connection between our gut and mental health: the fibre from carbohydrates present in whole grain works like a prebiotic that feeds the good gut bacteria, and these healthy bacteria produce approximately 90% of the serotonin in our body [17, 18].
2. Fruits and vegetables
We have all been taught as kids that fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients and should be consumed daily for a healthy life – that’s true for any age!
It’s recommended to consume about 6-8 daily servings of fruit and vegetables like bananas, apples, citrus, berries, grapefruit, kiwifruit, carrots, lettuce, cucumber, and green leafy vegetables, particularly spinach, to improve our mental health .
The reason we need such vast amounts of fruits and vegetables: they come with several vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, B-vitamins (especially folate), and carotenoids (antioxidants), which play a vital function in our mental well-being. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that regulates the production of neurotransmitters (like dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and epinephrine) in the brain [20, 21]. Carotenoids are known to reach the brain and neutralise the free radicals generated during low-grade inflammation (LGI), which is a condition that can slowly wear down the body and is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety [22, 23, 24].
Neutralising free radicals is also important because these are unstable molecules that are responsible for cellular ageing, when in excess; we need to balance their amounts in the body with antioxidants, which help stabilise them and prevent their damage .
3. Iodised salt
Iodine is majorly found in seafood and dairy products – but, as Indians, we don't consume enough of seafood to get iodine in its required dose, and the heat-processing of dairy products results in them losing their content of iodine. A simple way to combat this is to use iodised salt or other iodine-fortified foods [26, 27].
The reason we need to maintain optimal iodine levels in the body: this mineral is needed for the body to produce thyroid hormones, which are essential for ‘brain maturation’: a process of brain development where our brain undergoes minor modifications to improve its efficiency and brain function throughout our lifespan .
The lack of these hormones can, in fact, impair brain development and result in the risk of mental disorders (like autism, for children); consuming enough iodine is, then, especially important for women in their mid-20s who are planning for a pregnancy [28, 29].
4. Fish, nuts and seeds
While the benefits of fish are well known, nuts and seeds like almonds, pumpkin seeds, cashew, peanuts, walnuts, flaxseeds, and sunflower seeds also add many nutrients to our body and play an essential role in our mental well-being.
These are high in omega-3 fatty acids, the deficiency of which is commonly associated with mental disorders like bipolar disorder; omega-3 fats are also essential in regulating serotonin [30, 31]. Supplementing our diet with DHA (a type of omega-3 fat that forms part of our brain structures) and another omega-3 fatty acid called EPA is associated with elevated moods and reduced symptoms of depression [32, 33]. It has also been shown to improve our stress resistance .
The nuts and seeds mentioned also contain magnesium, selenium and vitamin E. All of these nutrients help elevate our mental well-being by regulating neurotransmitters and exerting antioxidant protection [37, 38, 39].
5. Meat intake
Consuming meat 2-3 times a week can also benefit our mental well-being. Meat is rich in zinc and iron, and a developing brain needs them as their deficiencies can alter our brain functioning and induce mood changes.
Meat also contains vitamin B12, methionine, and taurine, which work together to preserve the grey matter volume in our brain, which is associated with improved cognitive functions (learning, reasoning, remembering, decision-making, attention etc.) and emotional control .
Note: those who are vegan/non-vegan can substitute meat with plant-based foods that also provide these nutrients (and can choose to supplement when necessary).
Now that we’ve covered the foods that can boost the mental health of young adults, let's talk about the food that can be avoided (by everyone!) to serve the same goal.
What should be avoided?
It’s fairly evident that fast foods should be avoided (given that they aren’t nutrient-dense and are also high in unhealthy fats). Here are some others that are particularly unhelpful for the mental health of people in the mid-20s:
1. Excessive caffeine
It’s generally a good idea to limit caffeine intake to about 400 mg a day, beyond which it can overstimulate our nervous system; this overstimulation is often associated with stress and/or anxiety .
However, this especially applies to young adults, given their high levels of testosterone and oestrogen – hormones that, once used by the body, need to be broken down by the very same enzyme (substance that facilitates chemical reactions in the body; in this case, one that’s called ‘cytochrome P450 1A2’) that breaks down caffeine in the body. With the high levels of these hormones, it’s possible that said enzyme will be more preoccupied with their metabolism than with caffeine’s breakdown - leaving caffeine in the system for longer and increasing the scope for anxiety and nervousness .
Besides coffee, caffeine is also commonly found in soda, energy drinks, tea, and chocolate.
2. High GI Foods
We’ve already mentioned that whole grains come with great benefits for mental health; their counterparts, refined carbohydrates such as white rice and maida products, are best avoided.
These and other sweet/bakery foods are on the high glycemic index (HGI), which means that their consumption leads to a rapid spike in our blood sugar. Frequently consuming them has a direct correlation to mental distress; this isn’t surprising because of how they disturb our blood glucose levels. A regular disturbance in these levels can lead to LGI, which decreases blood flow to the brain and prevents it from getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs for optimal functioning [41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46].
What else can we do to improve our mental well-being in our mid-20s?
Along with the food, the lifestyle habits we follow can also be a great way to boost mental health. Here are a few simple steps to begin:
1. Get adequate sleep
It is a well-known fact that too little sleep (<8 h) and too much sleep (>12 h) are both symptoms of depression .
Our brain is active during our sleep cycle, as we go through different sleep stages. Each plays its own role in brain health, allowing activity in targeted parts of the brain to ramp up or down and enabling better thinking, learning, and memory. Constant interference in this brain activity can lead to mental distress. We consistently need about 7-9 hours of sleep every night to ensure optimal emotional and mental health [48, 49].
2. Maintain an exercise schedule
Exercise plays a vital role in reducing cortisol levels and producing endorphins, which are also known as our body's feel-good chemicals. Alternating between moderate to vigorous intensity of exercises, versus sticking to low- to moderate-intensity exercises, has been shown to be particularly helpful for the cognitive functions and mental health of young adults!
That said, a study found that even as few as 1~2 days per week (lasting at least 10 minutes, each time) of moderate- to high-intensity activity was associated with a variety of mental health benefits, particularly related to coping with challenging situations .
3. Get sunlight
The open secret to getting rid of the blues is stepping out in the sun. Vitamin D is essential for serotonin regulation. Serotonin is also known for regulating our sleep cycle along with our mood. A 2014 study has also compared vitamin D3 supplements and antidepressants, finding them to have a similar effect [31, 51, 52].
Disclaimer: If you're choosing to supplement with vitamin D3, please do so under the guidance of a health professional.
Minor tweaks in our food and lifestyle, which are backed by science, can significantly impact our mental health and well-being – and especially so when we’re in the memorable mid-20s: where self-discovery begins, habits develop, and life presents a world of wonderful possibilities. Here’s to making the most of them!
If you have any feedback on or questions about the information in this article, leave a comment below – we’d love to hear from you!