Image courtesy of Harvard Health.
When it comes to healthy eating, we spend a lot of time focusing on how it makes our bodies feel. People choose to eat healthy to regulate their weight, their physical energy, and their internal health. We are constantly aware of how healthy eating affects our bodies, and we place a lot of focus on it. And while healthy eating does do a lot of good for our bodies physically, the mental health effects of healthy eating are largely ignored.
You might be surprised to find out how healthy eating can affect our brains. Healthy eating is one of the least discussed parts of mental health, but it happens to be one of the most important ones. Just like your other organs need the right nutrients to thrive, your brain needs them to thrive as well. It simply won’t function as well when it is deprived of the nutrients that it needs. The next time you think about improving your diet, you should keep in mind all the mental health benefits it can bring as well as all the physical ones.
Food and Its Effect on Mental Health
Unhealthy foods don’t only affect your body, they also affect your mind.
Your brain needs high quality nutrition to function at its best, and ingesting too many low quality foods deprives it of what it needs to maintain a positive mood. It is not often stated, but the food that you eat actually affects your serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, appetite, and pain levels.
When someone is low on serotonin, they usually suffer from low mood levels, and can even suffer from depression. We think of serotonin as something produced by the brain, but that is not actually the case. About 95% of the serotonin in your body is produced in the gastrolienal tract. That is why food has a much larger impact on your mental health than you would expect.
Your digestive system isn’t only for digesting food, it also regulates your emotions. Serotonin is greatly influenced by the kind of bacteria that sits in your gut. Good bacteria helps your gut absorb nutrients properly and also reduces inflammation, while bad bacteria limits your gut’s ability to absorb the proper nutrients and contributes to inflammation. Studies have shown that people with unhealthy diets are significantly more likely to suffer from depression than those with healthier diets. Just like a bad diet can make you feel lethargic and weak, it can also make you feel sad and low energy.
Healthy Foods and Mental Health
Healthy foods will keep your brain functioning at its highest level.
When you eat a diet filled with healthy foods, you are improving your brain’s function and therefore your mood. The chemicals that exist within healthy foods contribute to your gut’s bacteria and lead to better serotonin production. Healthy foods contain the right combination of vitamins that your body needs to regulate your mood. Taking in vitamins in abundance produces the best environment for your gut bacteria to thrive. You don’t even have to give up foods that are considered bad, you just have to make sure that the good calories you take in outweigh the empty calories.
Carbs are a central part of most people’s diets, but you have to be careful with your carb intake. Carbs can boost your serotonin, but too much of the wrong kinds of carbs can cause your serotonin levels to fluctuate rather than stay consistent. That ends up leading to feelings of fatigue. Unrefined carbs are the healthiest options. They lead to a slow release of sugars in your system over time rather than a quick sugar spike.
Certain vitamins play a greater role in metabolizing serotonin than others. Vitamin B-12 for instance, has a big effect on serotonin production. If you make sure you get enough of it, you run a far lesser risk of dealing with depression than someone who lacks the vitamin in their diet. Vitamin B-12can be found in beef, chicken, fish, shellfish, and in fortified cereals.
Studies have found that depression is a less common ailment in countries that eat fish as a major part of their diets. That is because of the positive effects that omega-3 fatty acids have on our mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, and they can also travel through the brain’s cell membranes and make contact with the molecules in the brain that are related to our moods.
Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish along with nuts and seeds. Some high omega-3 fatty fish are anchovies, salmon, and sardines. Other fatty fish include catfish and trout. The nuts with a high level of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Folate or vitamin B9, is another vitamin that plays a large part in our mental health. Studies have found that low folate levels are associated with depression and even dementia. This is a vitamin that you should make sure to get in abundance if you want your brain to function at its best. Some of the foods that have a high amount of folate include dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, beans, nuts, and seafood.
Healthy eating and mental health have a really strong correlation even though you don’t often hear about it. If you find yourself constantly feeling down without knowing a reason for it, your diet can be a good place to look. If you’re not already getting all the nutrients you need to maintain your mental health, a change in your diet can significantly change your life for the better.