The Impact of Nutrition on Mental Health: Foods that Nourish Your Mind and Body
Your mind and body are intertwined. As a result, poor mental health can negatively impact your physical health and vice versa. So, it only makes sense that proper nutrition not only benefits your body but also your mind.
Whether you think about it or not, your nutrition affects your day-to-day life — from your energy levels to your immunity. That’s why eating well matters so much. A balanced diet ensures you feel mentally and physically healthy each day.
The Brain-Gut Connection
Decades of scientific research have shown that the brain and gut directly impact one another. The GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that affect the production of substances that carry messages to the brain, including dopamine and serotonin. The gut also contains 500 million neurons that link the digestive system to the brain. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, is one of the largest nerves and sends signals from the brain to the gastrointestinal tract and back.
Neurotransmitters in the brain control your feelings and emotions, but many of them are also produced by your gut cells. In fact, a large portion of serotonin is made in the gut. The neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is also produced in the gut and helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. (Maybe this explains the “butterflies in your stomach” sensation when you’re nervous.)
GABA is gaining increased attention in the mental health world for its potential to stabilize mood disorders, as many medications focus on serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. It’s been found to modulate neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. This is especially important in learning, memory, and recovery from brain injuries. As we learn more about GABA’s influence on mental health, the benefits of supplements, diets, and other interventions that increase GABA production are becoming more apparent.
You can’t argue with biology. The mind and gut are proven to be connected, so it’s no wonder that what we eat directly affects our mental well-being. Eating nutritionally dense food promotes the growth of good bacteria, which affects the production of serotonin and dopamine. When the body can produce optimal levels of these chemicals, your brain receives positive messages, and your mental state reflects it. When production is below what it should be, your mood will suffer.
Here’s the problem: Stress has several behavioral symptoms, including poor eating habits. When people feel stressed, a balanced diet is rarely the first thing on their minds. More often than not, people tend to over- or under-eat when stressed, and in either case, many turn to processed foods. Processed foods train the brain to crave more of the same rather than eating nutrient-rich foods. Additionally, many of these processed foods contain refined sugar, which causes inflammation throughout the body and further alters mood.
While certain foods can harm your mental and physical health, others have mood-boosting qualities that benefit your brain and gut. Here are some foods experts recommend:
Foods like salmon that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids support brain health and regulate mood. They also have some anti-inflammatory effects, which can enhance neurotransmitter function.
Blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are all high in antioxidants and vitamin C, which can help counteract the effects of stress.
Nuts and seeds
These foods are full of protein, magnesium, and healthy fats. Magnesium helps maintain nerve and muscle function and a steady heartbeat and is vital to the food-mood connection.
Whole grains, sweet potatoes, and quinoa provide healthy amounts of glucose into the bloodstream, stabilizing blood sugar levels and preventing mood swings.
Fermented food is packed with probiotics that positively influence gut health, so look for opportunities to add sides like sauerkraut, kimchi, and plain yogurt to your meals.
Lentils, chickpeas, and beans are high in protein and amino acids that help with serotonin production.
Lean meats and poultry are good sources of protein that provide the amino acids necessary to create neurotransmitters.
These are just a few foods that benefit your mind and gut. With a few simple adjustments to your diet, you’ll be on your way to better physical and mental health.
The Art of Mindful Eating
We recommend practicing mindful eating to facilitate a positive cycle of mind and gut health. Mindful eating focuses on the why and how of eating, forcing you to be thoughtful about your food choices. It also increases your awareness of triggers that make you want to eat when you aren’t necessarily hungry.
Learning the art of mindful eating takes time and practice, but it can have lasting impacts on your physical and mental well-being. For starters, it reduces overeating and emotional eating that often result from stress, as it encourages you to eat slowly and listen to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. Tuning into your body’s cues allows you to become aware of when you’re genuinely hungry versus eating out of boredom or to fill a void. And while mindful eating combats the side effects of stress, it also improves the onset of stress by maintaining gut health.
Overall, mindful eating strengthens the mind-body connection by helping you understand how different foods impact your physical and mental health. This increased self-awareness will lead you to make better food choices that affect your overall well-being.