From a young age, we’re taught that eating well is good for our bodies. But what we are not always told is that good nutrition actually affects our mental health, too. One way that our food intake impacts our mental health involves the close relationship between our brain and our gastrointestinal tract, often called the “second brain.” Basically, eating nutritionally-dense food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which helps in the production of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, which help keep our emotions balanced. When our brain receives appropriate levels of these chemicals, our mental state often reflects it. On the other hand, when we are not absorbing adequate levels, our mood and emotions can be negatively affected.
To get all the nutrients that improve mental functioning, it’s important to eat meals and snacks that include a variety of foods, rather than eating the same meals each day. Food variety refers to different types of food from the entire range of food categories like vegetables, fruit, pastas, breads, meat, fish, and dairy products. Eating a variety of foods is also important for obtaining a mix of fatty acids and amino acids, which is important for cognitive health and mood regulation.
Plus, exposure to a greater variety of healthy foods is more likely to keep you motivated and interested in exploring new ways to keep yourself well-nourished. As you maintain food variety in your diet, keep in mind that the following 4 food categories are especially known for boosting mental health:
Probiotics: Healthy bacteria that helps in the production of neurotransmitters are found in foods with active cultures, like yogurt, kefir, tempeh and pickled vegetables. They can also help reduce anxiety and stress. An imbalance of gut bacteria, or dysbiosis, is connected to many diseases, including mood disorders like depression.
Whole Grains: Whole grains are rich in B vitamins that are important for energy and optimal brain health. The fiber content in whole grains also helps to keep blood sugar from spiking and crashing, which help to prevent mood swings. And, your brain needs glucose which comes from carbohydrates. Complex carbs are best, so be sure to integrate whole wheat, oats, brown rice, beans and soy.
Leafy Greens: Dark leafy greens take first place in managing and even preventing anxiety. There is also a lot of research that says leafy greens such as kale, arugula, spinach, and collard greens may help keep your brain sharp. They are known to improve memory and slow cognitive decline. Leafy greens are also high in folic acid which can help counter depression and fatigue.
Omega-Rich: Foods like salmon, sardines, flax seed, and walnuts are high in omega-3s which help in the production and management of healthy neurotransmitters. Long-term deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids have been known to increase the risk of developing various mental health conditions, including depression and bipolar disorder.
Your goal should be to keep your meals fun and satisfying by choosing a variety of foods from different food groups, plus different choices from within the same group, and be mindful about integrating some of the foods known for boosting mental health. Even small changes to your weekly diet can make a big difference to your overall wellness. If you’re struggling, please reach out to us for help. At River Oaks, we are committed to helping you keep both your mind and body healthy.
Written by Lauren Presutti