Have you ever heard the phrase ‘you are what you eat?’ Turns out, it’s much more than just a phrase used by tired parents to try and get their kids to eat vegetables. The things we eat are literally the fuel for our bodies, and different things will make our bodies behave in different ways. That includes your mind.
That might surprise you, but good nutrition isn’t just about losing weight. Yes, it is one of the big reasons people will start to examine what they eat a bit more closely, but nutrition is also the foundation of good mental health, and something as simple as adjusting what you eat can have a huge impact on our mood, our outlook, and even the chemicals our brains produce!
How Food Impacts Our Mental Health
Studies have shown time and time again that what we eat and drink affects how we think, feel and behave. After all, the brain is an organ, and just like our heart, liver and stomach, our brains require different chemicals to stay in balance and work properly. The right balance of things like complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and water keeps your brain healthy and able to do its job properly.
The other thing that has a big impact on your mental health is actually your gut. Did you know that about 95% of your body’s supply of serotonin is produced in the gut? That’s the ‘happy hormone, which means you need a good variety of healthy gut bacteria to create that healthy microbiome and lots of serotonin. A diet lacking in the proper nutrients can actually kill off some of these good gut bacteria and cause others to function less efficiently, which means less feel-good serotonin for your brain.
While it’s true that good nutrition isn’t the solution to many mental health problems, particularly when there are environmental, biological, and emotional factors at play, but it does form part of the foundation for good mental health. And with new research finding that nutrition may play an important role in the prevention, development, and management of diagnosed mental health problems (including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD and dementia), it’s never been more important to understand what you eat and how to make the best healthy choices for your body and mind.
The Prime Nutrients for Your Mental Health
While we know that just having the right vitamins and minerals in your diet won’t ‘cure’ any form of mental illness, there have been numerous studies that show that they can have an influence. Evidence from clinical research supports the idea that essential vitamins and minerals are beneficial for certain mental health problems. They include:
- Vitamins B1, B3, B5, B6, B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Folic acid
- Amino acids
These can all be found in natural foods, and all of them can positively influence brain health. For example, you can find vitamins B1, B3 and B5 in abundance in whole grains and vegetables, while B12 is more commonly found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. You can get your daily dose of zinc and selenium by eating nuts, seeds, fish or oysters, and green leafy vegetables are a rich source of folic acid and magnesium.
But what happens when you don’t have enough of these nutrients in your system? Well, it turns out there is a pretty clear link between nutritional deficiencies and common mental health symptoms. For example, vitamin B6 deficiency can cause irritability, poor memory, stress and depression. A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to confusion, poor memory and even psychosis. Anxiety, depression, psychosis, insomnia and irritability are all signs of a lack of folic acid and magnesium, while low levels of zinc can lead to confusion, a blank mind, depression, loss of appetite and lack of motivation. When you put it like that, it’s easy to see how what we put into our bodies can impact our mental health, making it worse or better.
So What Should I Eat?
Food is one of the primal joys in life, and so you should definitely choose to eat foods you enjoy and take pleasure in eating! But you should also be conscious of the impact this could have, and strive for a nutritionally balanced diet. That looks different for everyone, and the NHS has some great guidelines on finding out what a healthy, balanced diet should be.
One approach that studies have found to be effective is a Mediterranean-style diet. This consists of a lot of vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil, cereal and grains, supplemented with fish oil. Research done on this particular diet has shown that it can actually help reduce the symptoms of depression quite dramatically, as well as boosting heart and gut health. And if you’re one of those people who struggles to get the balance quite right, vitamin and mineral supplements can help as you get things on track.
We believe that mental health should be treated holistically. There is very rarely just one thing that causes mental health problems, and so if you only address one thing at a time you end up firefighting all the time, rather than getting to the root of the problem. Improving your nutrition might seem like a small thing, but it can make a big difference to your mood and make you feel happier and healthier, which puts you in a better position to manage any mental health issues you may have. If you would like to know more about nutrition for mental health, just go to the Nutrition section in videos on you Melp app.
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