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  • Writer's pictureCarina Hopen

Have You Heard? Nutrition and Mental Health Go Hand-in-Hand


Do you ever feel excessive fatigue, restlessness, tension, guilt, or worry? Do you find your moods, sleeping patterns, and appetite have changed? Is it possible that you could use a mental health boost [that involves a nutrition and lifestyle approach]?

It’s true. What you eat and drink can impact how you feel—both physically and mentally. More and more research shows that a balanced, nutritious diet helps to reduce your risk of experiencing mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

But, there’s more . . .

New studies take that knowledge further. We are now learning that even after feeling those depressive and anxious symptoms, improving the quality of the foods and drinks you consume can help to reduce those symptoms so that you can feel better.

Not all of those recommendations are simply “general” healthy eating principles (but those are really important too!). Sometimes it’s not just what you eat and drink that matters, but how you eat and drink. There is also new evidence that certain types of supplements can help due to their influence on the gut-brain connection. And there are even a few specific things you can consume more—or less—of for depression that are different from anxiety. Beyond nutrition there are several lifestyle [habits/hacks] you can also try that can help.


There is no disputing that good nutrition, as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, helps you to achieve the best physical health. New research shows just how important nutrition can be when it comes to mental health too.

Nutrition and mental health are clearly interconnected. For example, you may have experienced the impact that stress and other mental health challenges can have on appetite, food choices, cravings, [weight,] etc. There are ways to take back control and strategically use nutrition as one of many tools to improve mental health.

According to the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, “There have been many studies that have demonstrated that a good quality diet is important to the risk of or prevention of mental disorders.” This means that by eating a nutritious, balanced diet, you can lower your chances of experiencing mental health concerns in the future.

But, what if you’re already experiencing symptoms?

The good news is that recent clinical trials have found that improving food choices can help to reduce symptoms and improve moods. Choosing the right foods, drinks, and supplements can make a big difference.

This article shares some of the exciting research that links improved nutrition to improved moods and gives you some practical strategies to optimize your nutrition for better mental health.

Before we look at depression and anxiety separately, let’s go over some of the food and nutrient strategies for better mental health in general.


Food and Nutrient Strategies for Better Moods

There are a lot of nutrition strategies that can help to reduce stress and optimize moods in general, whether it’s for depression or anxiety.

Eat a variety of balanced, healthful foods

Ensuring you get a variety of foods helps you meet your nutrition needs for optimal health (physical and mental) every day. This includes loading up on fruits and vegetables and getting enough protein, fiber, and healthy fats. A recent clinical study showed reduced symptoms of depression when participants improved the quality of the foods they ate for three months. The improved diet focused on getting whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, olive oil, and nuts every day; plus legumes, lean red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs a few times per week.

Ensure you’re eating meals as a matter of routine

Sometimes our moods and life in general disrupt our eating patterns. We may forget to eat meals in the first place, or double-up when we forget that we’ve already eaten a meal. Regularly eating nutritious meals can help balance moods. If it will help, consider setting yourself reminders or scheduling mealtimes to ensure that you nourish your body and mind on the regular. Perhaps a meal plan that has all of your meals laid out for you is what you need.

Enjoy your meals mindfully

Eating mindfully is when you pay attention to your food when you eat. This means making thoughtful food choices, eating slowly, chewing well, and savoring the flavors and textures. Not only does mindful eating help keep you focused on enjoying the food in front of you in the present moment, but it helps improve digestion and can positively influence mental health.

Consider probiotics

Several recent studies have found that probiotic supplements may help with depression and anxiety. Probiotics are friendly, live microbes that can improve gut health and are often found as dietary supplements.

The ability of probiotics in the gut to influence moods is because of the gut-brain connection. The gut and brain communicate with each other through the nervous system, as well as via molecules called neurotransmitters. This is the same connection that can cause stomach upset during stressful times, and why some gut conditions can trigger depression or anxiety. It’s an emerging area of research now that is shedding light on how we can leverage gut health for better mental health.


Extra Nutrition Tips for Depressed Moods

Enjoying a a nutrient-rich dietary pattern can help to nourish your body and brain so that you can have energy and feel good throughout the day. A couple of nutrition strategies that can help with depression include curbing intake of refined sugars and enjoying coffee in moderation.

Curb intake of refined sugars

There’s a link between depression and consuming a lot of refined sugar (like the kind found in sweets, desserts, sodas). One of the reasons is that the brain depends on a steady supply of blood sugar (glucose). When we eat or drink refined sugars, they’re absorbed very quickly and spike blood sugar levels like a rollercoaster. This effect can then impact the brain and influence moods. Many people find that when they’re feeling down, they crave sweets to help boost their moods. So while sweets may seem to feel good temporarily, over the long term they can lead to worsening mood swings.

A nutrition strategy that can help reduce intake of refined sugars is to have healthier foods available—especially when it comes to snacks and desserts. Instead of reaching for sweets and sugary drinks, consider fruits, nuts, and unsweetened beverages like fruit-infused water and teas[, and unsweetened dairy/non-dairy milks].

Enjoy coffee in moderation

Coffee contains antioxidants that can help reduce the harmful effects of oxidative stress and inflammation. Coffee also contains caffeine. Low-to-moderate amounts of caffeine can help to increase energy, alertness, and concentration which are often a much appreciated boost for those who need it.

Some studies show that there may be a “sweet spot” of 2-6 cups of coffee per day to help lower the risk for depression. Caffeine intakes may affect different people in different ways (depending on metabolism, etc.), so proceed with caution to find your personal sweet spot.


Extra Nutrition Tip for Anxious Moods

One strategy to reduce feelings of anxiety or serious stress is to ensure you don’t get too much caffeine (from all sources).

Don’t overdo the caffeine

While some coffee may help with symptoms of depression, too much caffeine can increase symptoms of anxiety—especially in those who are more sensitive to it. Some of the side effects of having too much caffeine are jitteriness, increased heart rate, sleep difficulties, and anxiety. Moderating your overall caffeine intake (from all sources including coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, caffeine supplements, some medications, etc.) can help.

For some people, having no more that 400 mg of caffeine (about the amount in four cups of coffee) can help reduce some of these effects. If you start feeling these symptoms and you still want to enjoy your coffee, tea, soda, etc., try switching to decaffeinated options.

Self-care Strategies That Can Help with Depression and Anxiety

While nutrition is essential for good mental and physical health, there are other lifestyle factors that can also play a role.

Physical activity

Exercise can lower symptoms of depression and anxiety—especially when done regularly (e.g., during most days). Physical activity helps us to reduce stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and release “feel good” compounds called endorphins.

Just 30 minutes of walking per day can help improve your mood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, you don’t need those 30 minutes to be done in one session. Breaking it down into three 10-minute sessions during the day can add up to the same health benefits.

Enough sleep

Getting enough quality sleep is great for your body and mind. Sleeping 7-9 hours/night can help you get into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which allows the body to repair tissues and supports a healthy immune system.

The most impactful strategy to get better sleep is to make it a priority and stick to a schedule. You can also try to stop screen time and bright lights before bed as they can trick your brain into thinking that the sun is still out and you should stay awake.

Stress management

Other activities that can help to manage some of the stressors that lead up to or worsen depression and anxiety include mindfulness, meditation, relaxation exercises, deep breathing, and taking time each day to pay attention to the positive. These activities can help to reduce muscle tension, lower the heart rate, and calm the mind.

Examples include practicing gratitude or journaling about good things that happen, noting why you appreciate them and focusing on the positive by challenging negative thoughts. Perhaps you can take some breaks each day to listen to your favorite music, play a game, read, or enjoy a hobby.

Stay connected

Being social with people whom you care about and who care about you is an often forgotten step toward optimal mental health. Reaching out and keeping in touch with friends and family regularly—especially when you need support—can make a world of difference. You can also meet new people by joining a group or volunteering to support an issue that means a lot to you.


Final thoughts

Nutrition can play a big role in reducing the risk of getting depression and anxiety in the first place, and to help manage the symptoms once they occur. The vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats we eat are used to help fuel and function our physical and mental health. This means that our food choices can help to optimize more balanced moods.

For your mental health, enjoy a nutrient-rich variety of foods that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and proteins. Cut back on foods that have refined sugars, and find your personal optimal amount of coffee to enjoy every day can help.

If you’re in crisis: Call 911 for a medical emergency or 988 to reach the suicide hotline.

Need help planning and making nutrition part of your mental health plan? As a certified professional, I’d love to help.

Wondering how to add mood-boosting foods to your current dietary lifestyle? Want some delicious healthier alternatives to sugar-packed sodas and desserts? Need recommended high-quality supplements or probiotics? Book an appointment with me today to see if my program can help you. Click here to schedule your free consultation.


References

BetterHelp. (2023, April 5). 15 symptoms of depression and anxiety. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/depression/15-symptoms-of-depression-and-anxiety/


Center for Disease Control. (2022, July 21). Care for Yourself. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/stress-coping/care-for-yourself/index.html


El Dib, R., Periyasamy, A. G., de Barros, J. L., França, C. G., Senefonte, F. L., Vesentini, G., Alves, M. G. O., Rodrigues, J. V. D. S., Gomaa, H., Gomes Júnior, J. R., Costa, L. F., Von Ancken, T. S., Toneli, C., Suzumura, E. A., Kawakami, C. P., Faustino, E. G., Jorge, E. C., Almeida, J. D., & Kapoor, A. (2021). Probiotics for the treatment of depression and anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clinical nutrition ESPEN, 45, 75–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnesp.2021.07.027 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34620373/


Food and Mood Centre. (n.d.). The SMILEs trial. Retrieved from https://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/smiles-trial/

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, January 29). Diet and depression. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/diet-and-depression-2018022213309

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, July). Caffeine. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/caffeine/


Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, July). Coffee. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/coffee/


Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, January 21). The no-drug approach to mild depression. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-no-drug-approach-to-mild-depression


Harvard Health Publishing. (2023, March 22). Probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/probiotics-may-help-boost-mood-and-cognitive-function


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020, September). Mindful eating. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2021, October). Stress and health. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/stress-and-health/


Kamat, D., Al-Ajlouni, Y. A., & Hall, R. C. W. (2023). The Therapeutic Impact of Plant-Based and Nutritional Supplements on Anxiety, Depressive Symptoms and Sleep Quality among Adults and Elderly: A Systematic Review of the Literature. International journal of environmental research and public health, 20(6), 5171. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20065171 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10049309/


National Institute of Mental Health. (2022, December). Caring for Your Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/caring-for-your-mental-health,

National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Depression. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression


National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders


National Institute of Mental Health. (2022). Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad




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