By Amanda N. Wegner
Can your food affect your mood? Absolutely. In the most basic terms, food is fuel, and the quality of the food that you use to fuel your body matters. More specifically, as one expert wrote on the Harvard Health Blog: “Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel.”
This is the stuff of nutritional psychiatry, a relatively young but fascinating field of study that examines how diet quality and nutritional deficiencies affect one’s mood and, more globally, mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder and more.
The culprit is that many people do not eat enough or the right nutrients that are essential for good brain health, instead opting for a diet of heavily processed food containing artificial additives and sugar. That is, the nutritional quality of the “fuel” from a convenience store burger and fries pales in comparison to the quality of grilled salmon on a bed of mixed greens with a homemade vinaigrette.
“Over the past several years, research studies reveal some foods can help improve your mood while others may make it worse,” says Nina Brkovic, MS, RDN, a clinical dietician who practices at Mercyhealth’s Lake Geneva and Janesville locations. “Diets that are energy-dense, highly processed, high in pro-inflammatory fats and lacking in fiber — Western-style dietary patterns — have been linked to increased prevalence of depression.”
While she notes that further research and larger clinical trials are still needed to clarify the mechanism linking food to mood, in her practice, Brkovic says that a majority of people she has encountered that lack psychological and emotional stability are lacking adequate nutrition as well.
What is it about not-so-good-for-us food that makes it even worse for our brains? It all boils down to inflammation. Research has found that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain, but the inflammatory response actually starts in our gut.
“A person’s diet is one of the major epigenetic influences on inflammation,” says Samantha (Sam) Schleiger, MS, RDN, CD, an integrative registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice and owner of The Simple Dietitian, Elkhorn. “That said, inflammation is an essential physiological process that supports healing in the event of toxin exposure, injury, infection or other trauma. Generally, it is a short-lived, regenerative process. However, if inflammation is sustained beyond what is actually needed for the repair of bodily tissues and shifts to more of a chronic state — chronic inflammation — the brain and nervous system can be negatively impacted.”
In her private practice focused on “whole food as medicine,” Schleiger begins investigating the cause of one’s inflammation by looking first to the gastrointestinal tract. “Science points us to the individual’s digestive system and microbiome because disruptions here can contribute to neuroinflammation. That said, the microbiota-brain-gutaxis has recently become one of the most talked about topics. Although this may seem new to the public, groundbreaking medical theories and practices in the 19th and 20th centuries linked microbes to mood disorders.”
Several dietary components can fuel or suppress inflammation, says Schleiger, including excess calories, refined sugars and low omega-3 fatty acid intake. Additionally, intolerance to ingredients such as gluten, casein or other food chemicals may contribute to an individual’s inflammatory response.
The inflammatory response that starts in the gut can be associated, in part, with a lack of nutrients from our food such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins and minerals, all of which are essential to help keep our bodies functioning at an optimal level. “Diets lacking in essential vitamins and minerals may cause depression, inability to concentrate and fatigue,” says Brkovic. “Eating many processed foods can leave you feeling sluggish. Skipping meals or cutting calories significantly, may make you feel foggy and tired.”
Research shows there are a number of important vitamins and minerals needed for physical, mental and emotional health. A few of the more critical include:
• Magnesium is one of most important minerals for optimal health, yet it is often lacking in modern diets. In fact, the current recommended daily allowance for adults is 320 mg to 420 mg daily, but most of us average just 250 mg daily. Called “nature’s chill pill,” the correlation between magnesium and depression and anxiety is strong. One study found that a daily magnesium citrate supplement led to a significant improvement in depression and anxiety, regardless of age, gender or severity of depression.
• Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for the development and function of the central nervous system, having a hand in everything from gene expression to cerebral blood flow to the production of neurons. A lack of omega-3s has been associated with low mood, cognitive decline and poor comprehension.
• Vitamin B complex and zinc are other supplements found to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you are curious about nutrient deficiencies, Schleiger recommends seeking out a provider who can order these lab tests.
A LIFELONG EATING PLAN
The good news is that better nutrition and in turn, better mental health, doesn’t require a prescription or a hefty price tag. Whether you’re struggling with issues on a more day-to-day or situational basis like mental clarity or a foul mood, or something more serious and systemic like depression and anxiety, filling your plate and your belly with healthful, nutrient-dense foods provides lifelong benefits.
“I would suggest aiming for a balanced diet. The most effective diets incorporate foods from all food groups, such as lean protein, whole grain, dairy and plenty of fruits and vegetables,” says Brkovic.
“Aim for portion control and think of your diet as a lifestyle change. A diet with a restrictive food plan such as a low-carb diet isn’t sustainable long-term… A well-balanced diet with moderate portions from all of the food groups is a better option for long-term weight loss and for your mood.”
Schleiger adds some additional tips for healthful eating:
- Start shopping the perimeter of the grocery store for fresh produce, high- quality meats, seafood and poultry, full- fat dairy and ethically sourced foods. Hit up the bulk section for raw nuts and seeds, unsweetened dried fruit and the like.
- Incorporate more raw fruits and vegetables into your diet, including those with deep pigments and a variety of colors.
- Decrease processed food and refined sugar intake. Schleiger waves a flag of caution here, these refined sugars can be found in many foods on the shelves!
- Use a keen eye when reading nutrition and food labels. “Just because it’s labeled ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean it has the best ingredients,” she says.
- Generally speaking, she says, it is ideal to transition your diet by incorporating better food choices versus counting calories, weighing foods and guessing on food labels. Keep the majority of your diet derived from fresh foods and ethically sourced protein sources.
- Drink more water! Cut out sugary, sweetened beverages such as soda, sweetened fruit drinks, sports drinks, etc. Instead, go with non-sweetened beverages, including water (the top choice), unsweetened tea or fruit- infused water.
- Incorporate fermented foods into your diet, such as kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt and pickled vegetables. Fermented foods are chockfull of beneficial prebiotics and probiotics, which assist in maintaining a healthy digestive system.