Nutrition & Mental Health Must Know Facts
For many people, heading into winter months means a dip in mental health and emotional well-being. From having less sunshine to bask in, to fewer opportunities to get outside in the first place, to cramped quarters with burdensome family members around the holidays, it's no wonder why!
In this article, we cover how nutrition can help depression, PTSD, and mental heal mental illness. With 1 in 5 U.S. adults facing a mental illness annually1, there’s no better time than now to put the pieces together and eat for your health.
Here you’ll find what to eat and what not to eat for mental health, with an emphasis on the things you can do for yourself — or for someone close to you — to help keep mental health up when the winter season gets you down.
How Does Nutrition Affect Mental Health?
Food plays a major role in energy, mindset, and brain health. For example, think of your energy levels the last time you forgot to drink water in the morning. Or how about the “hanger” (hunger + anger) of when you last skipped a meal and your blood sugar dipped?
Keep that direct experience in mind, and zoom way out. Extensive research studies confirm that people who eat unhealthily are more likely to have mental health problems like depression2 and PTSD3.
At Resync, we want to help you gain all the data on nutrition to keep your brain healthy, as we believe healthy brain = mental health.
So, it should be no surprise when we say that how you fuel your body directly correlates with your mental performance. If you’ve read the Resync blog before, you know that processed foods and sugar are detrimental to physical health. By extension, an unhealthy body is just the same as an unhealthy mind, so nurture your mental health for complete well-being.
To be clear, staying mentally healthy requires more than just good nutrition. There’s a reason the phrase: “Get out of your head, and get into your body” resonates with so many.
Getting regular exercise, as the CEO of Resync, Barbara Depta likes to talk about purposeful movement routines are one of the easiest and most effective ways to get out of a bad headspace. Practices that foster the mind-body connection — like yoga, gyrotonics, gyrokinesis, meditation, tai chi, mindful lengthening & stretching — strengthen the calming neural pathways4 or reconnecting with your nervous system through movement with Core Boot.
Although we don't cover these lifestyle practices here in this blog, the importance of a sound connected body for a sound mind cannot be overstated!
Additionally, equally important to diet, emotional health, and lifestyle is avoiding alcohol and drug abuse.
- If you or someone you know needs help quitting, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration with their hotline: 1-800-662-4357 (1-800-662-HELP).
- If you or someone you know is depressed and in crisis, reach out to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
As you try to avoid getting wrapped up in stressful things that don’t truly matter over the holidays, help yourself put your best foot forward by sticking to these nutrition tips.
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What To Eat For Mental Health
A general healthy diet goes far in maintaining a positive mindset. Eating a diverse spectrum of whole, unprocessed foods is one of the best things you can do for your physical, emotional, and mental health.
It may sound boring, but the same simple and old advice can work wonders.
Try to have:
- Lots of colorful fruits and vegetables - dark berries and leafy veggies can do wonders for your heart, gut and brain health
- Plenty of nuts, seeds, and beans - fiber is essential for healthy gut, brain, and immune health. Those systems rely on each other. When one goes down the other is impacted.
- Moderate amounts of healthy animal or plant-based proteins
- Ample healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil
- A minimum of processed, sugary, salty, and fried foods
Implementing such general advice can take a few tries to get it right for you. Some people do best with a plant-based diet lower in fat, whereas others truly do their best with a high-fat, low-carb diet. The Mediterranean diet, moderate in most things but high in healthy fats, is another excellent option to consider.
When looking at the highest quality research5, scientists have found that vegan and Mediterranean diets may be some of the most effective dietary interventions to reduce the symptoms of depression.
Almost a decade ago Boonie L Beezhold conducted a cross sectional study with her colleagues that showed that vegetarian diets are associated with improved mood states.
Remember, you do not need to go vegan or vegetarian to keep your brain healthy and support mental health. We are sharing what has been recorded by researchers and what healthy options you have.
Additionally, there's no such thing as going on a diet; your diet is what you eat; day in, day out; year in, year out. So, play around with what you eat and try to find what really works best for you.
Living in a way to maintain a healthy weight — whatever that weight is for you — is important for mental health. Scientists are still trying to understand why there is a connection between carrying around excess weight and mental health issues like depression. But regardless of why it exists, the relationship is overwhelmingly evident6.
On the other hand, not getting enough healthy calories can deprive your brain of the fuel it needs to function. When you know that your brain eats up 20% of your daily calories7, it’s all too obvious that poor fuel equals poor (mental) performance!
Another factor getting in the way is the fact that many studies cannot tell whether depression leads to obesity, or if obesity leads to depression. Considering how prevalent diet culture and fatphobia are, you can bet that the relationship goes both ways. Please take care of yourself, treat your body like your best friend, try your best to embrace healthy food choices and your mental health will follow the right direction.
Antioxidants and Anti-inflammatory Foods
Inflammation in the brain shows up in most, if not all, mental health issues8. Foods that contribute antioxidant vitamins and anti-inflammatory plant polyphenols hold huge potential in shifting away from damaging inflammation and towards a positive, anti-inflammatory state.
That is what you and us want.
Antioxidants and anti-inflammatories include a constellation of nutrients. Herbs, spices, medicinal mushrooms, berries, and colorful dark veggies are just a few foods that contribute to your brain’s ability to fight oxidizing free radicals.
Aside from the nutrients that directly fight inflammation, certain nutrients can regulate the entire anti- / pro- inflammatory landscape. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, sulfur, selenium, and others all play pivotal roles in sensing and responding to inflammatory triggers.
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One often-overlooked element fundamental to mental health is getting enough oxygen to the brain. Between the overwhelmingly sedentary lifestyle the average person leads and the typical diet that devoids the body of nutrients essential for oxygenation, an average brain doesn’t get nearly as much oxygen as it needs.
For oxygen-boosting power, look to your green and red leafy vegetables, the reds for their high nitrate content. Red spinach, arugula, bok choy, rhubarb, kale, beets, and many more are shown to increase levels of nitric oxide, the molecule that promotes blood flow. Research even shows9 that having a supplemental plant-based nitrate source leads to greater blood flow to the brain and ensuing cognitive-enhancing effects. See the full list of nitrate-rich veggies here.
What Foods make Mental Health Issues Worse?
Sugar and Refined Carbs
Sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to spikes and subsequent dips in blood sugar, which wreak havoc on your body’s metabolism. Besides being a major contributor to the epidemic of overweight, obesity, and metabolic diseases, that blood sugar rollercoaster also means wild swings in the availability of fuel to your brain. It’s easy to see how a brain with no fuel could slip into some bad spaces.
Processed foods provide calories while robbing your body of nourishment. Simply put: processed foods wire your brain to crave more, which leads to eating more calories, and unhealthy weight gain10. With unhealthy weight gain leading to inflammation — and a slew of biased social pressures — this is an easy fix to minimize emotional damage.
Foods that can lead to inflammation litter the food landscape in the modern world. A number of inflammatory triggers are covered with sugar, refined grains, and processed foods, but there are more.
Fried food contains oxidized fats, which fast-track your body to a state of inflammation. Blackened foods cause inflammatory damage at the genetic level. Meat made in a factory typically has much more omega-6 fatty acids than anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
In all, it’s the foods that detract from a healthy diet that most contribute to poor mental health. Even though it’s easy to cope with emotional stress with comfort foods like these, save them for the rare special occasion and you will be doing your mental health a big favor.
How To Eat When You're Facing Mental Health Issues
What To Eat for Mental Health
No food is going to cure mental health challenges or illness. But when added to therapy, movement, and the right lifestyle, you can give yourself a leg up by incorporating these foods:
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, canola oil, “high-oleic” oils
- Healthy carbs: whole unprocessed grains, root vegetables, fruit and other veggies
- Healthy proteins: fish, lean unprocessed meats (be aware of portions and arachidonic acid can be detrimental to mood changes, soy and beans, nuts, and seeds
- Omega-3s: fatty fish, wild game, walnuts, flax, chia, hemp
- Probiotics: yogurt and live fermented foods (or a quality supplement)atty fish, wild game, walnuts, flax, chia, hemp
- Prebiotics and fiber: vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
- Oxygenators: reds and leafy vegetables like arugula, kale, rhubarb, bok choy, and others
- Anti-inflammatories/antioxidants: berries, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, green and red leafy veggies, colorful and flavorful veggies, ginger, turmeric, and other herbs and spices
As part of an overall healthy dietary pattern, and especially as part of a vegan or Mediterranean way of eating, these tips will get you far. They’re helpful for much more than just mental health, too! Know that this list is not exhaustive, so talk to a nutrition professional for more details.
What Not To Eat For Mental Health
If you or someone you know has a mental illness, then cut yourself a break and avoid these foods:
- Refined grains (like white rice, white flour, etc.)
- Processed and packaged foods
- Saturated fats (unless following a ketogenic lifestyle)
- Fried foods
- Blackened foods
- High omega-6 fatty acids (conventional meat, corn oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, etc.)
Ultimately, when faced with the challenges of winter, short days, and longer colder nights, your presence and emotional availability are the best holiday present you can give.
When you take care of your body and mind nutritionally, it becomes easier to open up to the world of possibilities in front of you. So honor the gut-brain connection, which will nourish a healthy mindset and a virtuous cycle of mental well-being!
If you liked this article, check out another article on the relationship between low energy, PTSD, and blood flow here: Blood Flow: The Missing Link Between Your Brain and Your Body.
Check Out Our Other Blogs
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Resync is backed by research. That’s why we break down complex science into practical takeaways you can use today. When you have the right information, you are empowered to make the right decision for you.
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Helping you lead a healthier life,
-The Resync Team
Written Registered by:
Detrick Snyder, MPH, RDN
This content is for general informational purposes only, and does not constitute the practice of any professional healthcare service, INCLUDING the giving of medical advice. No provider-patient relationship is formed. The use of this information, and the materials linked to this content is at the user's own risk. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should abide by the advice of their healthcare provider, and should not disregard or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have.
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