Our brains are hungry. In fact, brain cells are by far the hungriest cells in our bodies. They make up only 2% of our body weight, but use about 20% of the food energy we take in. And that energy goes toward our mental health as much as our physical health.
Many of us have experienced the close link between nutrition and mental health when we get “hangry,” that hunger-fueled mix of anger and irritability that consumes us when we skip a meal or forget to pack a snack.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, nutrition has a crucial role to play in protecting and improving our mental health, or even helping us manage a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or trauma.
For the past five years, Marianne Bloudoff, BSc, a registered dietitian, has made nutrition and mental health the focus of her work at Homewood Ravensview, a private mental health and addiction treatment centre on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
“A well-nourished brain is more focused, better able to handle stressors, and ensures a more stable mood,” Bloudoff explained. “You need those building blocks to create a foundation for the recovery journey.”
In this article, she explains the link between nutrition and mental health, and shares some of her tips for using nutrition to support better mental health.
From good food to good mood
Food components help the body create neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin (the so-called “happy hormones”), which alleviate anxiety and depression and boost mental health.
These neurotransmitters are sensitive to food intake, so changes in our eating patterns can have effects on behavior, sleep, and energy levels. The way we eat can also improve the effectiveness of medications, including antidepressants.
The food we eat can also help our mental health by ensuring that we build a healthy microbiome. This is what we call the 100 trillion bacteria—some helpful, some harmful—that can be found in the gut. When we eat probiotics and fermented foods that contain healthy bacteria (yogurt and kimchi are two examples), we can create a healthier, more resilient microbiome. This, in turn, creates a healthy feedback loop between our bodies and minds. Good food produces a good mood, and that in turn reduces the stress that can disrupt our digestive processes and prevent our gut from absorbing and metabolizing nutrients. As an interesting example of this phenomenon, Bloudoff pointed out that 26% of people with anxiety disorders have a digestive condition called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Simplifying good nutrition for mental health
Mental health can complicate nutrition. When people are depressed, they may not have an appetite or the energy to source and prepare healthy foods. ADHD can make it difficult to plan, shop for, or prepare meals. Substance abuse can add another layer of difficulty to the issue.
But that doesn’t mean good nutrition has to be complicated. In fact, Bloudoff tries to make it as simple as possible for her patients to eat nutritious diets by making sure her recommendations take into account their unique needs and lifestyle.
“Every patient is different, so it’s about finding what works for the person,” she explained. “What is their reality? What kind of food can they afford? What do they have access to? What’s culturally appropriate for them? What do they like? Are they feeding just themselves or a whole family? Do they have allergies? What do they know how to prepare? One person might live in a big city close to a supermarket. Another might live in a rural area where they fish or hunt.”
By taking into account the individual’s broader context, including their background, geography, culture, family status, strengths and capabilities, community support, and more, she can ensure the foods she recommends to her patients will be easier and more intuitive for them to source, prepare, and enjoy.
Eat these key nutrients for brain health
While there’s no universal diet for good mental health, there are specific nutrients that everyone needs to ensure they consume in order to lay the groundwork for a healthier body and mind.
Omega-3 fats can be found in oily fish, such as salmon and sardines, and plant sources such as walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds. Omega-3 fats build brain cell membranes, reduce inflammation, and promote new brain cell formation, which can improve mood and memory, and reduce the occurrence of brain disorders.
These can be found in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and our bodies break them down slowly so they deliver energy consistently over a longer period of time. Eating meals or snacks that include complex carbs every three to five hours can contribute to a more stable, happy mood.
You’ll find B vitamins in meat, dairy, eggs, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables, while vitamin D can be found in eggs, meat, and oily fish. Deficiencies in vitamin B12 can cause depression, irritability, agitation, psychosis, and decrease antidepressant response, while deficiencies in vitamin D have been found in people with depression, seasonal affective disorder, and schizophrenia.
Iron, magnesium, and zinc are all minerals associated with brain health. Iron stimulates brain development and protects against dementia, while magnesium is associated with improved sleep, and both magnesium and zinc help to protect against depression. Meat, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens are good sources of iron, while pumpkin and flax seeds, almonds, cashews, avocado, tofu, spinach, swiss chard, and black beans all contain magnesium. Zinc can be found in oysters, crab, beef, pork, chicken, and beans.
Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids, which can be found in all fruits and vegetables. These nutrients help the brain fight oxidative damage and neural inflammation by preventing harmful free radicals from forming. This helps to protect the brain against neurodegenerative disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Tryptophan is an amino acid needed to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, calmness, and relaxation. Another amino acid, tyrosine, is needed to create the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which create feelings of pleasure and improve motivation, alertness, and focus. Tryptophan and tyrosine can both be found in protein-rich foods including nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, yogurt, meat, fish, beans, lentils, and eggs.
You may not think of it as a nutrient, but water is essential to healthy brain function. In fact, a mere 1% drop in hydration is associated with a 5% drop in cognitive function, while a 2% drop can cause short-term memory impairment and difficulty focusing. Drinking enough water and getting hydration from other food and beverage sources helps us stay alert.
Being nourished as well as fed
The connection between nutrition and mental health goes beyond getting enough of the right nutrients. It has emotional, social, and cultural dimensions that can nourish us in deep and meaningful ways, and Bloudoff said these aspects are just as important to our mental health. That’s why she stresses the importance of eating for enjoyment, meaning, and connection.
“The foods we choose and our eating experiences also impact our emotional health,” Bloudoff explained. “We have emotional and cultural connections to food, and we connect with others over food.”
Eating with others has many benefits, including building social connections with family, friends, coworkers and exploring new foods you might not normally try.
“Whether it’s the classic, nuclear-family meals on Sunday night or meeting up with friends for coffee and a snack, these are ways to foster emotional and mental health.”
Eat for pleasure
Including foods we enjoy in our diets can promote positive emotions, and it also motivates us to seek food out regularly enough that we stay nourished and energetic. Cultural or traditional foods, especially, can help us strengthen personal and cultural connections as well as delivering important sources of key nutrients.
“Food is more than just fuel. When it’s pleasurable, culturally appropriate, and meaningful, it’s going to make you feel good on more levels than just the physical.”
A vital piece of the puzzle
Recovery is a complex and multifaceted process, and nutrition is one of many aspects that impact mental wellness. At Homewood Ravensview, Bloudoff works alongside physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, addictions counsellors, occupational therapists, and recreation, horticulture, music, and art therapists. But good nutrition can set the stage for success across the wellness journey.
“Nutrition doesn’t replace therapy or medications, but they all work together holistically,” she explained. ” Medications don’t work properly if you don’t have adequate nutrition. Therapy may not be as effective if you’re not feeding your brain so you can give it your focus and energy. Nutrition is one of those foundational pieces that help us do all the things that are important from a mental health perspective.”