If you’ve ever felt “hangry” – that distinct mixture of hunger and frustration – then you already know that food, or lack thereof, can have a huge impact on our mental health. But it’s not just when or how much we eat that can alter the way we feel, it’s also what we eat. Our diet can affect our mood in many ways. Certain foods can help us feel good physically, and when we feel good physically, we’re more likely to feel good mentally. But those same foods can also improve our mood through our brain chemistry.
How? Read on to find out about the varied connections between the foods we eat and our mental health.
The link between nutrition and mental health
Research in the last few decades has revealed a strong connection between our brain and digestive system. Turns out, having that “gut feeling” isn’t just an expression. Our brain and gut communicate with one another, and problems with your gut health can cause problems with your mental health (and vice versa). For example, recent studies have shown that people with irritable bowel syndrome are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
This connection between the brain and gut is called the gut-brain axis. The emerging field of nutritional psychiatry aims to use the gut-brain axis in treating many common mental illnesses through diet.
Some foods have a direct impact on our neurotransmitters, or the chemical messengers that carry signals throughout the body. What, when and how much we eat is connected to the following neurotransmitters and hormones:
Nearly 95% of our total supply of serotonin is made in the intestines, so the two are closely connected. Serotonin helps regulate our digestion, and digestion helps regulate our levels of serotonin. In addition to a diet with plenty of gut-healthy foods, regular exercise can also trigger serotonin production.
Serotonin is known to boost our sense of happiness and well-being, hence its nickname as the “happy” chemical. It also plays a role in regulating appetite, sleep and metabolism. Antidepressants – the SSRIs and SNRIs – function by increasing our levels of serotonin.
Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. Activities that our brain considers good for us and that we find pleasurable, like eating a food we’ve been craving, can trigger the release of dopamine. It’s our brain’s way of reinforcing the behavior and saying, “Let’s do that again.”
This is also how dopamine contributes to addiction: The intense pleasure of using certain drugs floods our system with more dopamine than normal, which makes us want to repeat the same behavior again and again. But dopamine isn’t all bad. It also helps us feel motivated, control our physical movements, and learn and retain new information.
To make dopamine, our brain needs an amino acid called tyrosine. Certain foods – like poultry, dairy, bananas, avocados and soy – contain more tyrosine than others, and eating them could potentially increase your level of dopamine.
Norepinephrine is both a hormone and neurotransmitter, with the former being produced by the adrenal glands, and the latter being made in the brain stem. Norepinephrine is closely related to adrenaline, or epinephrine, and both are vital to the body’s fight-or-flight response. Together, they raise blood pressure and get your heart pumping faster to help you face any perceived danger.
But whereas adrenaline is only released during times of intense stress, norepinephrine is circulated throughout the body more frequently and in smaller doses. It’s involved in keeping our brain and body alert and energized, and kickstarting our digestion. It can help you get out of bed once you’ve woken up, power through the last part of a workout and maintain focus while learning.
Norepinephrine is made from dopamine, which means tyrosine can help in its production as well. Eating throughout the day – three balanced meals with protein, vegetables and whole grains – can help you maintain a stable balance of norepinephrine.
Our bodies release the hormone cortisol to help us respond to internal and external stress, which is why it’s known as the stress hormone. After the initial jolt of adrenaline, our bodies start pumping out cortisol, and will continue to do so until we no longer feel stressed.
When we go a long time without eating, our blood sugar drops. This drop causes a surge of both adrenaline and cortisol, which is your body’s way of telling you to eat. In some people, a surge of cortisol can cause feelings of aggression – that “hangry” feeling.
Foods that can help improve your mental health
Most people can experience mood-lifting and stabilizing benefits when they eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats. However, there is no one right diet for all people. Here are some foods to include in your diet if you’re looking to improve your mood:
Complex carbohydrates to boost serotonin
Complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables, whole grain bread and pasta, legumes, oatmeal and quinoa, supply the body with the energy it needs to function well. They also help an amino acid called tryptophan (found in turkey, chicken, bananas, tofu and cheese) more easily cross the blood-brain barrier. As more tryptophan enters your brain, more serotonin is formed. This can improve your mood.
Nuts and seeds for tryptophan
Nuts and seeds are both excellent sources of tryptophan, which has been found to increase levels of both melatonin and serotonin in the body. They can also supply zinc and selenium, two minerals that help maintain proper brain function and ward off depression.
Try to incorporate almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts and walnuts, as well as pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds into your diet. Most people need just a small serving, about what can fit in the palm of your hand, each day to see benefits.
Avocado for whole-body benefits
Avocados are a powerhouse of healthy fats, and recent studies suggest they may have a positive effect on your gut bacteria. They also contain a significant amount of folate, or vitamin B9, which assists your brain in the creation of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Avocados are also amazing for your heart health, lowering levels of bad cholesterol and keeping high blood pressure at bay.
Dark chocolate to clear your head
Dark chocolate is high in plant-based micronutrients called flavanols. In addition to lowering blood pressure and preventing blood clots, flavanols also increase blood flow to the brain. This improves thinking and mental clarity, which can put anyone in a better mood.
In addition to dark chocolate and cocoa powder, flavanols can also be found in berries, apples, citrus, red wine, and green and black tea.
Seafood is brain food
Fish and shellfish are a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are key to brain function and health. Eating an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids can protect your brain from inflammation, which lowers your risk of depression, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
To increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, eat more oysters and shrimp, and oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and herring. For plant-based sources of omega-3s, try eating more olive oil, seaweed, walnuts, edamame and hemp seeds.
Leafy greens to help you relax
Leafy green vegetables are excellent sources of folate (vitamin B9) and magnesium, both of which increase serotonin levels, lower stress and curb anxiety. Incorporate kale, spinach, collard greens, watercress, arugula, romaine lettuce and beet greens into your diet to get more folate and magnesium.
In addition to boosting brain health, leafy greens are excellent for your heart health and eye health. They can also help prevent cancer.
Cruciferous vegetables to calm inflammation
Cruciferous vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals that act as powerful anti-inflammatory agents in the body, and which can increase your serotonin and dopamine levels. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and Bok choy are also excellent sources of a mineral called chromium, which encourages the production of norepinephrine.
Fermented foods make for a happy gut
Fermented foods can help you maintain a healthy and robust microbiome in your gut, thus supporting the health of your brain through the gut-brain axis. You may consider taking probiotic and prebiotic supplements, but the most effective way to support your digestion is through diet. Good dietary sources of probiotics include yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
Vitamin D can increase serotonin in your brain. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in a few foods, added to others and available as a dietary supplement. We can get vitamin D from the sun and from foods such as salmon, eggs (pasture-raised eggs have much more than caged eggs), milk and plant-based milks fortified with vitamin D.
When we eat – and how much – can also influence mental health
It’s not just about what you eat, but also when and how much. Our mood can be significantly affected by prolonged hunger, as well as by overeating. When you stick to a consistent schedule with your meals, you’re better able to regulate your mood.
- Eat breakfast: Eating breakfast can give you the energy you need to start your day off right. The daily act of eating breakfast can improve your memory, strengthen your metabolism and give you a feeling of calm.
- Eat throughout the day: To avoid mood-altering dips in blood sugar, eat three balanced meals throughout the day. Strive for a mixture of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats in each one. Carbohydrates for the quick boost they provide, and protein and fats for the sustained energy you need to power through your day.
- Practice mindfulness when you eat: Being intentional and present when you eat can help you notice how certain foods make you feel. Avoid distractions while eating, chew food slowly and completely before swallowing and set your fork and spoon down every now and then. This slower way of eating will also make you more aware of your body’s cues that say you’ve had enough.
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration can really bring your mood down. Even mild dehydration can cause cognitive difficulties, fatigue and low mood. Thirst is an early sign of dehydration, so drink water throughout the day, before you feel thirsty.
Our dietitians are here to help you feel your best
Nutrition is just one part of holistic health, but it plays a role in nearly every bodily process. While there is no single diet that will work for every person – and no one super food that can solve every problem – the potential benefits of a good diet are worth the time it may take to find one that works for you.
If you need guidance or support, our compassionate dietitians are here to help you every step of the way.