Treating Mental Health With Food

Most clients initially join our program with weight loss and physical health and wellbeing as their goal; however, they are always delightfully surprised with the accompanying positive changes in their mental and emotional health after just a few weeks of “cleaning up” their diet. This is not a coincidence! When you improve the dietary choices you make, it has a tremendous impact on both your body and brain. Our gut flora plays a critical role in our mental health: a healthy microbiome decreases inflammation and boosts levels of the “feel-good” hormone, serotonin.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, sleep, memory, and behavior, improve brain function and relieve anxiety.  In fact, about 95% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut lining! Studies show that when people transition to a “clean”, anti-inflammatory diet, they can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety up to 60 percent– better results than most prescription drugs!

Here are seven basic principles that all of our programs adhere to in order to support both physical and mental health:

  • Limit or avoid wheat, dairy, soy, corn and sugar. These five highly inflammatory foods disrupt the gut microflora which has a significant impact on mental and emotional health – both long and short-term. Additionally, too much sugar decreases the BDNF protein (responsible for learning, remembering and creating new memories), lowers our ability to cope with stress, and can actually cause physiological withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming it (i.e./ fatigue, confusion, jitters and anxiety). 
  • Eat plenty of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids- they are essential for the proper functioning of the brain and gut microbiome. Some great sources of monounsaturated fats are seeds (pumpkin, chia & flax), nuts (almonds, cashews & walnuts), cold-pressed olive oil, and avocados. Wild Alaskan salmon, cod, sardines and anchovies are rich in Omega-3’s while also low in mercury. Omega 3’s provide two essential fatty acids- EPA and DHA - which regulate neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), lower inflammation and support healthy brain function. In fact, an omega-3 deficiency is quite common amongst patients battling depression and anxiety, and a number of studies have linked higher fish consumption to lower rates of mental illness.
  • Eat plenty of lean protein such as poultry, seafood, legumes, eggs and nuts. Organic, lean protein provides energy to help your body think and react quickly, and makes you less apt to reach for sugary, processed snacks. It also contains all eight essential amino acids which the body converts into mood-boosting neurotransmitters (the chemicals which facilitate communication between brain cells) such as dopamine and serotonin. Lastly, eating protein-rich foods helps to ensure you're reaching your daily RV of iron -  a mineral essential for preventing anemia. Anemia can cause irritability, fatigue and lack of motivation, so in order to help preserve your mental health, it's important to have a diet that includes sufficient sources of iron-rich protein.
  • Eat plenty of vitamin-rich veggies and berries. Antioxidants and other essential vitamins help the function of enzymes responsible for serotonin synthesis; therefore, enhancing your diet with foods rich in Vitamins C, E, B12 (cobalamin) and B9 (folate) may be beneficial in both reducing symptoms and prevention of depression and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, kale, spinach and arugula are all fantastic sources of Vitamin C. When we’re anxious, sad or stressed-out, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells; therefore, ensuring we eat enough Vitamin C-rich foods may help to elevate mood, behavior and concentration. Additionally, several studies have shown a strong correlation between stress-related mental illness and Vitamin E deficiency, and that supplementation with this antioxidant may be even more effective than Prozac in treating depression. Some of our favorite sources of Vitamin E include almonds, dark leafy greens, broccoli, avocado, olives, basil and hazelnuts. Vitamin B12 and B9 are both essential for the production of norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine, and play critical roles in supporting a healthy central nervous system. Cobalamin is found in animal products such as meat, poultry, eggs and seafood, and folate is found in asparagus, legumes, leafy greens, Brussel Sprouts and citrus fruits. 
  • Drink plenty of water, as even mild dehydration negatively impacts mood, focus and energy levels. We don't experience the feeling of "thirst" until dehydration is already setting in, and by then our physical and mental performance is already on the downswing. 
  • Limit or avoid alcohol– it is a depressant, full-stop. Alcohol depletes the “feel-good” neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) which can eventually lead to chronic dysregulation. Drinking may negatively impact your energy, mood and sleep, and over time, alter the chemical composition of your brain. It impairs decision making, lowers inhibitions, and is associated with an increase in aggressive and dangerous behaviors. This is particularly concerning for those people already battling mental health issues, as it may worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress- both short and long term. 
  • Limit or avoid caffeine – it can make it difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, cause jitters or irritability, and in some cases worsen depression and anxiety. Additionally, quitting caffeine "cold turkey" can actually trigger symptoms of withdrawal - particularly for people who are sensitive to amphetamine-like substances- until your body readjusts. One exception to this is antioxidant-rich green tea (especially matcha). Green tea contains the amino acid L-Theanine which has a calming effect on the central nervous system and may stimulate the production of GABA, serotonin and dopamine (the "feel good" hormones). 

In addition to following the above guidelines, there are a few other nutrients that may be particularly beneficial for mental health.

  • Eating foods rich in magnesium may help a person to feel calmer and reduce symptoms of depression. Some examples include leafy greens (spinach & Swiss chard), almonds, legumes, seeds, avocado and everyone’s favorite – dark chocolate. 
  • Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to create serotonin, and is abundant in eggs, pineapple, bananas, soybeans, turkey and…dark chocolate!
  • Zinc, a mineral essential for nerve and brain development, is stored primarily in the brain regions responsible for emotions. Foods rich in zinc are oysters, egg yolks, beef, cashews and pepitas.
  • Anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger and turmeric may help to lower stress and anxiety by decreasing oxidative stress often found in people experiencing mental illness.

*Please note: we are not medical professionals, nor should this be regarded as medical advice. We do not endorse or reject any one particular dietary theory or method; we simply believe in the power of eating whole, real organic foods as nature intended. However, regardless of where you fall on the “spectrum of mental health” your diet is always a key component. Even if you are presently taking prescription medications, they will be more effective if you eat balanced diet rich in vitamins/minerals, protein and healthy fats, minimize intake of processed and refined foods, drink plenty of water and minimal/no alcohol, and pay attention to food allergies/sensitivities. As always, please consult with your physician before embarking on any new diet or supplement regime. 

These are challenging and unprecedented times that we are living in, so we wish you all a safe, healthy and easy spring. Godspeed to better and brighter days ahead.

In good health, 

Megan + Robyn