For anyone who’s even remotely familiar with nutrition’s effects, it should already be quite apparent that what we consume does far more than merely supply us with energy. That said - it’s still fascinating to learn about how the food we eat can affect our mental health!
Read on to understand why our nutrition is important to our mental health, and what we can eat to improve this connection.
Nutrition’s Role in Mental Health
Over the past few years, a discipline called ‘nutritional psychiatry’ has emerged with a strong focus on the role of nutrition in addressing mental health issues – something that’s often ignored but has remarkable implications .
It’s all based on the fact that our body needs certain nutrients in order to build ‘neurotransmitters’. These are chemical messengers that help transmit electrical signals in our brain (and the rest of our body) .
When this process doesn’t take place properly, mental illnesses like depression, hyperactivity, and bipolar disorder can ensue [3, 4, 5]. It logically follows that consuming neurotransmitter-building nutrients could improve the functioning of these electrical signals, in turn promoting mental health.
Even the foods that increase levels of our body’s feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, etc., could reduce symptoms of mental health issues that are deep-rooted in anxiety, distress and depression .
While we, as always, reiterate the importance of getting as wide a range of nutrients into our regular meals as possible, we can also look for foods that specifically improve our mental health.
Foods that Improve Mental Health
The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids. In addition to building lean muscle and our hair and skin tissue, they also build neurotransmitters and feel-good hormones . For example, tryptophan is an amino acid that’s used by the body in the production of serotonin, a feel-good chemical, while an amino acid called taurine is known to elicit a calming effect on the brain [8, 9].
Common protein-rich foods include meat, fish, tofu, cheese, beans, lentils, yogurt, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It’s been discovered that being deficient in omega-3 fatty acids is the most common nutritional deficiency that’s correlated with mental disorders like bipolar disorder . This would make sense, given that the ‘long-chain’ form of omega-3 fats, called DHA, helps build neurotransmitters as well as directly forms some structures of the brain .
Supplementing our diet with DHA and another omega-3 fatty acid called EPA is associated with an elevated mood and reduced symptoms of depression, and has been shown to improve our resistance to stress [12, 13, 14].
These fats are found in fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, anchovies), flaxseed oil, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Fibre-rich and Probiotic Foods
The fibre from carbohydrates plays a particularly large role in supporting our mental health .
For one, they feed the good gut bacteria, which improve our mental health both directly and indirectly:
- They improve our levels of feel-good hormones: it’s estimated that 90% of our serotonin is produced by our good gut bacteria, which directly affects our moods [16, 17]
- A healthy composition of gut bacteria has been linked to lower rates of depression 
Fibre also tends to alter the pH of our gut, which discourages the growth of the harmful strains of bacteria that can promote inflammation in the gut. This inflammation suppresses the body’s production of both serotonin and dopamine, and a lowered state of this inflammation has been linked to reduced symptoms of depression .
Fibre-rich foods that feed our good gut bacteria (known as “prebiotics”) include whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Probiotics (foods that contain good bacteria) include yogurt and other fermented foods .
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are involved in almost every function of the human body.
The B-vitamins, specifically B2, B6, B9 (folate) and B12, are critical to the normal functioning of our brain and nervous system. This includes playing a role in producing neurotransmitters and feel-good hormones, and the insulating sheath that’s around nerves .
Deficiencies in the B-vitamins are known to affect our mood and other brain functions to a very large extent . For example, patients suffering from depression have shown to be deficient in folate . Some studies also indicate that vitamin B12 can delay the onset of signs of dementia .
Some good sources of B-vitamins include seafood, liver from meat, whole grains, and vegetables, especially dark green leafy ones.
Even deficiencies in vitamin D, calcium, chromium, selenium, iodine, and iron have been linked to mental health issues [5, 24, 25, 26]. The best way to avoid these deficiencies is a well-balanced diet. If that’s not feasible, or there happens to be an existing deficiency, supplementation is also a great option.
Note on refined carbohydrates and their detrimental effects on mental health:
Now that we’ve discovered how some nutrients can improve our mental health, it’s also important to understand how certain foods can negatively affect it.
Refined carbohydrates and foods that have a high glycaemic index and load (consumed in the form of candies, packaged fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, etc.) get rapidly digested by our system, after which they’re converted to blood glucose. This causes a sudden spike in our blood sugar.
The incidence of mental health problems (like depression) has been correlated to the use of refined carbohydrates, either because of this very blood glucose surge, or because these refined carbohydrates are believed to create an imbalance between our gut’s good and bad bacteria, or because of both [27, 28].
All the evidence points towards an intricate link between nutrition and mental health. While we constantly keep an eye for updates in the world of nutritional psychiatry, the information that’s already available is convincing enough for us to begin acting on it. We hope you found this article helpful and would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts to share!