Nutritional Psychiatry: Foods to Improve Mental Health

When thinking about physical health, one of the first things that come to mind is nutrition and exercise. We are taught from an early age the importance of staying active and eating vegetables and fruits, getting enough sleep, and so on. This assists with proper growth as we age into adulthood, and also has an effect on our quality of life, stamina, and physical capabilities.

While it may not seem quite as obvious, the same healthy choices have an effect on our mental health, too. In recent years, more research has been done into the human diet, and how it affects our lives, productivity, and quality and length of life. While it will come as no surprise that, for example, fast food isn’t the best for you physically, it isn’t too good for you mentally, either.

What foods have the most effect on our moods? What if a person has a mood disorder, depression, or anxiety? Can a healthier diet result in less psychological distress?


Nutrition and Mental Health

Take a moment and try to think back to a time when you weren’t allowed to have dessert after dinner without finishing your green beans, or were told to finish your carrots before leaving the dinner table to play. Sound familiar?

That’s because, in an effort to encourage growth and good eating habits, parents of young children are told to make sure their children get good nutrients from healthy food, such as vegetables and fruits. In terms of a reward system, this conditions kids to think that healthy food is more of a consequence than something to help us in the long run.

It turns out, however, that eating these foods is much more positive for us, internally and externally. Researchers have found that the foods we eat have an effect on our hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that creates new neurons and affects our perception and mood. Comparing this to the ‘sugar high’ you might get from that candy bar, the nutrients from a vitamin-rich choice can in fact promote neurogenesis, thus creating those new neurons and promoting good energy and more clarity.

The other factor here is the production of serotonin. What most people don’t know is that serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and helps you to sleep, have an appetite, regulate your moods, and handle discomfort and/or pain. Essentially, this means one of our body’s natural mood stabilizers is produced by gut bacteria. When we’re stress, this bacteria is stifled and we feel more sluggish and depressed as a result.


Unhealthy Diet Linked to Depression, Anxiety

The food pyramid is taught in school, and we are generally encouraged to eat vegetables, drink a lot of water, and avoid foods that are high in sugar. These unhealthy foods are definitely linked to stunting growth in children and put us at higher risk for depression and anxiety. It has yet to be proven that they can cause mental disorders, but it is known that they can exacerbate them.

What foods should you try to avoid or cut down?

  • Sugar
  • Processed food
  • Fried food
  • Refined grains (white bread)
  • Fast food
  • Large amounts of caffeine
  • Meat
  • Dairy products
  • White flour

Not only does the food you take in affect your mood, but remember that it’s it your body’s fuel. Sugary or overly caffeinated drinks will give you a sugar high, but can cause panic attacks or make anxiety worse, and can lead to a drop in your mood after the initial buzz. If you’re looking for an afternoon pick-me-up, try a cup of tea. This has lower caffeine and includes the antioxidants that can help focus.

Unhealthy dietary patterns can also lead to diabetes and other physical health problems, such as weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure,  Obesity, another problem sometimes caused by poor diet, can lead to low self-esteem which can develop into depression and social anxiety.

Foods are closer to their ‘natural state’ and are high in nutrients and have a positive impact on your brain chemistry and overall mood. Some of the choices that you can include that will also promote good energy and reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety include:

  • Grains: Whole grain pasta, hearty bread, cereal, granola
  • Fruit: Apples, bananas, grapefruit, citrus fruits
  • Vegetables: Carrots, spinach, cucumber
  • Antioxidants: Dark chocolate, salmon, berries, turmeric
  • Fiber: Beans, avocados, berries, whole grains
  • Magnesium-rich foods: Dark chocolate, nuts, leafy greens, bananas, beans
  • Fish: Salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines (Omega-3s!)
  • Legumes: Chickpeas, peanuts, peas, lentils

The studies that have been done on the effect of these types of foods have shown that they can impact a person’s quality of life, sleep habits, self-efficacy, general self-esteem, and optimism about life. While it is better to have any food closest to its natural form, processed fruits and vegetables are better than resorting back to processed food, such as fast food or sugary choices.

While you might find that buying fresh food with better ingredients is harder on your wallet than, say, a burger and fries from McDonald’s, it can be easily managed with the right research. Look for local Farmers’ Markets in your area, and also consider buying frozen vegetables to store for later. One of the main difficulties with buying fresh produce is constantly eating it as quickly as you buy it, which can be challenging. It is a learning process, but well worth it.


Maintaining a Balanced Diet

After you’ve developed a new routine and your gut is feeling cleaner, your mental focus will likely improve. By eating whole foods and making healthier choices, your body doesn’t have to spend as much time breaking down the processed foods and sugars which are much more difficult to digest. You’ll have more energy to put into things during the day and will feel lighter and more awake.

Remember: everything in moderation! It’s okay if you choose to indulge in some cheesecake or a dish of ice cream, as long as you balance it out with some fruits and vegetables. Try to learn some new ways to cook that will make them more appealing to you. The most important thing to take away is that balance is the ideal goal. If you don’t have foods in your routine that can affect your mood—much like a substance can—you will maintain a baseline that is manageable and much healthier for your mind.

While a healthy, balanced diet is helpful for your mental wellness, in some cases more professional help is needed. If you or a loved one are feeling the need to reach out, our Admissions Specialists are more than happy to discuss your situation or any questions you might have. Please feel free to reach out to us today – we are open 24/7 and available to talk at your convenience.

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