Guest Post By: Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker
Nearly one in five Americans struggle with mental illness each year. While many people know a healthy diet is great for the body, not many are aware it’s also beneficial for the mind. Small dietary changes can boost cognitive function and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders. Daily food choices change how the immune system works, the body’s response to stress and how disease affects each person throughout their life.
How does poor nutrition negatively affect mental health?
Gut and brain health go hand-in-hand. While the digestive system is known for processing food through the body, it also influences a person’s emotional health. In fact, serotonin, which is mainly produced in the gastrointestinal tract, is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep and appetite. That’s why it’s important to understand how different foods can affect the body in various ways. Naturally, when maintaining a diet rich in healthy foods, the body is more likely to receive the nutrition required for optimal brain function.
Foods that Improve Mental Health
A healthy diet is one of the most influential variables to brain health. Unfortunately, ice cream, French fries and pizza are often the comfort foods people turn to when they’re feeling stressed or upset. Though these foods may provide a temporary mood boost, eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting processed foods and incorporating whole foods in the diet is best for mental health. Some of the most beneficial foods for brain health include:
- Lean Protein: Fish, turkey, chicken, eggs and beans, among other protein sources, can help keep serotonin levels balanced. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and increase the amount of serotonin produced which can directly affect a person’s mood.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Salmon, mackerel, walnuts, and chia seeds are great sources for omega-3 fatty acids, which have a significant effect on the production of neurotransmitters to help boost learning and memory. Similar to fatty-fish, nut and seed varieties such as walnuts and flax seeds are full of omega-3 fatty acids as well. These nutrients can help reduce depression and increase the production of “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin in the body.
- Whole Grains: The brain’s main source of energy is glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. Complex, whole-grain carbohydrates release glucose more slowly, helping the body feel fuller longer and providing a steady fuel source. Grains such as brown rice, oats and quinoa are rich in amino acids, such as lysine, which help regulate stress and anxiety.
- Berries: These fruit varieties are high in antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin K and fiber. For example, blueberries are great for improved memory and concentration and increase levels of serotonin in the brain to help alleviate depression.
- Greens: Spinach, kale, broccoli and asparagus are a few examples of greens full of mood and energy boosting vitamins and minerals. Folate, commonly found in leafy greens, is known to regulate the production of serotonin and help prevent feelings of depression and anxiety.
- Dark Chocolate: Flavonoids in dark chocolate increase healthy blood flow to the brain. This helps improve memory and prevent mental decline throughout the aging process. Dark chocolate is also high in magnesium, which suppresses stress hormones like cortisol.
Grace Derocha is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.