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The Science Behind the Nutrition and Mental Health Link

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

One of the most impactful ways to improve well-being is by activating the power of food as medicine for mental health. Research shows that what we eat can prevent or even reverse symptoms of depression and other mental health issues.

The role of nutrition in mental health has been increasingly recognized and validated by researchers and experts in the field. In fact, a new area of research known as nutritional psychiatry focuses on the use of food and supplements to provide essential nutrients that support mental health. Let’s look more closely at the association between nutrition and mental health, and how food and mood are intertwined.

The Science of Food and How the Body Uses It

What makes food so powerful in supporting both physical and mental health? In large part, it’s the activity of the phytonutrients they contain. Phytonutrients, sometimes called phytochemicals, are chemicals produced by plants. They provide a host of benefits, including enhancing immunity, repairing DNA damage from exposure to toxins, and reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Moreover, certain types of phytonutrients support brain functioning and the growth of new brain cells. This is critical to mental health, because the activity of neurotransmitters (the chemicals released in the brain) is directly related to mood and well-being. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine help regulate our mood and emotions.

How Nutrition and Mental Health Are Connected

Researchers have found that particular diets and foods with phytonutrients play a major role in supporting mental health. A review study on the relationship between nutrition and mental health in children and adolescents found numerous potential biological pathways and mechanisms by which diet quality influences mental health—and specifically teen depression symptoms.

In fact, studies have shown that the risk of depression is 25 to 35 percent lower for people who eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains, and fish. In addition, a study done with adolescents found that the impact of nutrition on depression was even more significant: Teens who ate a low-quality diet had an 80 percent higher risk of depression when compared to teens who ate a better-quality diet. High-fat, high-sugar diets negatively affect the proteins that control brain development.

Yet another study, this one of more than 12,000 people, found that those who increased the amount of fruits and vegetables they ate were happier and more satisfied with life than those who did not. And the groundbreaking “SMILES trial” found that food actually helped reverse symptoms of major depression. For three months, one group of study participants ate a diet with more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, and less sugar, fried food, and processed foods. The other group continued eating their usual unhealthy diets while attending social support groups. After three months, 8 percent of the latter group no longer met the criteria for major depression. But a full one-third of those who changed their diet experienced remission from major depression.

The Microbiome: Our ‘Belly Brain’

Another part of the nutrition and mental health picture is the microbiome—the collection of microbes in our gut. The gastrointestinal tract is sometimes called the “belly brain” because some 100 million neurons are embedded in its walls. Furthermore, the vast majority of the information carried by the nervous system travels from the gut to the brain, rather than the other way around.

“Diet helps shape our mental health from the inside out—or, from the bottom up,” says Jeffrey Zurofsky, Culinary Program Director at Newport Academy. “That’s because about 95 percent of serotonin, one of the hormones involved in mood and emotion regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract.”

Serotonin levels in the brain help regulate mood; in fact, one the causes of depression is low serotonin activity. Therefore, the health of our microbiome has a direct impact on our emotional well-being. Researchers have found that people with healthy microbiomes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. And what we eat is a primary factor in regulating gut health.

“Microbiota may influence the development of brain regions involved in our response to stress and control stress-related conditions such as anxiety and depression,” writes Jane Foster, author of the article “Gut Feelings: Bacteria and the Brain” in the journal Cerebrum. In one study, participants who took probiotics to balance the levels of microbiota for 30 days had fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression than the control group.

The Best Foods for Well-Being

A 2018 study isolated the nutrients that help prevent depression, as well as supporting recovery from depressive disorders. Furthermore, they looked at the top foods to eat daily, as these foods provide the highest doses of these nutrients. Hence, they support healthy brain functioning and “belly brain” functioning.

The Top 12 Nutrients for Mental Health

  • Folate

  • Iron

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Magnesium

  • Potassium Selenium

  • Thiamine

  • Vitamin A

  • Vitamin B6

  • Vitamin B12

  • Vitamin C

  • Zinc

The Foods That Fight Depression

  • Bivalves, such as oysters and mussels

  • Various seafoods

  • Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower

  • Leafy greens

  • Lettuces

  • eppers

  • Organ meats

Scientists are continuing to zero in on the best foods to help children, adolescents, and adults maintain mental and physical health. For example, in September 2019, the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research began officially recommending omega-3 supplements as

adjunctive therapy for major depressive disorder.

Article posted through Newport Academy.

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