The Connection Between Nutrition and Mental Health


Jonathan Goodwin

We are what we eat! Nutrition is a crucial component to promoting and maintaining your mental health, so a balanced, nutritious diet is key.

Balanced meal with fruits and vegetables

March is National Nutrition Month, a time for emphasizing balanced diets and healthy eating habits. Instead of writing another article recommending or discouraging certain foods, we wanted to explore a different angle: how nutrition affects our mental health.

Dr. Megan McGinn, who will be joining the Radish Health team as our staff psychologist, has a background in treating patients with eating disorders. We interviewed her on the connection between mental health and nutrition to learn more about how we eat affects how we feel.

At a high level, how does nutrition affect mental health? What are the connections between our brains and our digestive systems?

Nutritional deficiencies are highly correlated with mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.

In addition, our gut is home to roughly 100 million neurons and is highly connected to the brain via the vagus nerve. You may be able to feel this connection when we talk about “gut feelings” like intuition or butterflies in your stomach when you’re experiencing anxiety. As such, the gut has been deemed the “second brain,” so it is important to attend to our digestive health, via the consumption of probiotics and nutrition rich foods.

Are there nutrients that play a role in our mood?

Absolutely. Omega 3 fatty acids play a role in the generation of energy and are positively correlated with a good mood. They are found in foods such as fish, nuts, seeds, raw vegetables, and plant oils (such as flaxseed oil and soybean oil).

Studies have shown that people with a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids have a similar effect as medications used to treat bipolar disorder on neuronal pathways. Finally, they have even been used to reduce aggressive behaviors in the treatment of children with ADHD.

Other essential nutrients for mental health are vitamin B12 and folic acid, as they are necessary for the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood such as dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Psychiatric disorders associated with B12 and folate deficiencies include depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, psychosis, phobias, and dementia.

Alcohol abuse is associated with significant deficiencies in folic acid and B6 so it is important to limit alcohol intake. Foods such as eggs, nuts, and beans will boost levels of B12, while broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leafy green vegetables, peas, beans, and cereal are high in folic acid.

Is this what people called “brain food” when we were growing up?

Haha, yes, you really should listen to your mother and eat your vegetables, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.

How does someone identify a nutrient deficiency?

Severe nutrient deficiencies will result in weight loss, dizziness, hair loss, and interruption of the menstrual cycle for women. If you are experiencing any of these, it is very important to consult your doctor.

However, there are also more subtle symptoms of malnutrition that may indicate you are lacking certain nutrients such as weakness, fatigue, poor concentration, low mood, irritability, feeling cold most of the time, and taking a long time to recover from illness.

How should we view our diet? What are some first steps for making improvements to how we treat our diets?

Food is fuel for our body and mind so it is important to make conscious choices of what to put in your body. In general, an easy rule is it is much better to eat whole foods, meaning anything that is minimally processed.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a well-balanced and non-restrictive diet as fad diets have a poor track record of maintaining healthy weight.

Can you tell us about mindful eating?

Let’s begin by saying that we have been programmed in our society to eat mindlessly – meaning we eat whatever is available and quickly – so that we can return to our demanding lives. This often results in overeating as it takes the brain at least 20 minutes to recognize when we are full.

Mindful eating means listening to our bodies’ natural cravings, while also slowing down and being present while eating. This means we take the time to seek out the food our body intuitively desires, we are not distracted while eating, we attend to the flavors and pleasure of eating itself, and – most importantly – we remain attuned to our bodies’ natural cues that tell us when to stop eating.

Mindful eating will help you become more acquainted with your body so that you have a better understanding of when you are actually hungry and you are less likely to stress eat. It also frees us from perfectionist anxieties concerning what and how much to eat.

How do eating disorders affect our larger mental health?

Disordered eating prevents the brain from absorbing the nutrients it needs to function properly. Restrictive eating, particularly anorexia nervosa, can actually cause adverse changes in the brain, including the weakening of reward centers, disruption of the emotional centers leading to depression, irritability and isolation, and actual shrinking of both white and gray matter.

Low heart rate causes less oxygen to get to the brain, and many people with disordered eating experience difficulty with executive functioning and concentration. Eating disorders often co-occur with anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse.

What are some general tips for improving mental health through nutrition?

Eat regularly to prevent your blood sugar from dropping and decreasing your mood. It is best to eat smaller portions regularly spaced throughout the day. Avoid foods that make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly such as sweets and soft drinks.

Stay hydrated to ensure you can think clearly and concentrate.

Eat at least 5 different colorful fruits and vegetables per day to ensure you are getting essential nutrients. Frozen produce, juices, and smoothies count!

Eat foods that are healthy for your gut (a.k.a. the second brain which impacts how you are feeling). These foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, kimchi, live yogurt, and other probiotics.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. For any patients looking to improve their nutrition, they can book an appointment with a nutritionist for guidance. Patients who need help tending to their mental health can book an appointment with a therapist

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