Foods to support your mental health

Jennifer Gilliland, RD, LD, CDE, PCC

        Can food affect our mental health? Absolutely!
        Have you ever felt fatigued after eating? Ever felt jittery or anxious if you eat certain foods or wait a little too long to eat? Ever felt angry or irritable after eating a lot of processed foods? Food is fuel for our bodies as well as our brains so if we aren’t “feeding our minds” with healthier choices we may see that reflected in our moods.
        Here are some foods that may have an impact on how you are feeling without you even knowing it.
        Sugar: Sugar tends to be a significant part of the American meal plan. Certainly, it can affect your blood sugars if you have diabetes, but even if you don’t, there are still dips and spikes in blood sugars that may contribute to mood changes. Your blood sugars can spike to the “high end of normal” and then drop to the “lower end” and that can trigger feelings of depression, anxiety or irritability.
        Sugar is considered a root cause of chronic inflammation as well. This will impact the immune system, brain and many body systems. Decreasing sugar consumption has been shown to positively influence pain management, arthritis and heart disease.
        Fatty fish: Fatty fish like salmon, herring, cod and albacore tuna are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are essential fats that you must obtain through your diet because your body can’t produce them on its own. The two types of omega-3s, DHA and EPA, are linked to lower levels of depression.
        Fermented foods: Fermented foods include kimchi, yogurt, kefir and kombucha and may improve gut health and mood. Our “gut” is the “brains of our digestion” so again when we feed the “brain” well it responds in kind with improving our health.
        The fermentation process encourages live bacteria to thrive in foods and during this process, probiotics are created. Probiotics are “healthy bacteria” for our gut, so digestion is improved, and “regularity” is often restored. There is some research that states that improving “gut bacteria” increases serotonin levels, which is a neurotransmitter that affects our mood, stress response, appetite and sexual drive. Upwards of 90% of your body’s serotonin is produced by the collection of healthy bacteria in your gut.
        Oats: Oats are an excellent source of fiber. Fiber helps slow your digestion of carbohydrates, allowing for a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream to keep your energy levels stable. Oats are also a significant source of iron, which helps to prevent iron deficiency anemia, one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Iron deficiency anemia’s symptoms include fatigue, sluggishness and mood disorders.
        Berries: Consuming “balanced meals” that include more fruits and vegetables have been linked to lower rates of depression. A meal plan that includes a variety of foods rich in antioxidants (as fruits and vegetables are) may help to manage inflammation which, as we discussed above, can be associated with higher rates of mood disorders.
        Beans and lentils: In addition to being high in fiber and plant-based protein, they are an excellent source of B vitamins, which helps to improve mood by increasing levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), all of which are important for regulating mood. 
        B vitamins play a key role in nerve signaling, which allows proper communication between nerve cells. Low levels of B12 and folate have been shown to increase mood disorders, such as depression. Beans and lentils are also a good source of zinc, magnesium, selenium, and non-heme iron, which may also improve your spirits.
        As you can see, there are several foods that may assist with improving your mood. With a little practice and some “increased awareness” of how foods make you feel, I’m sure there are many more that you will find helpful to leading you along a path of more mental clarity and increased joy!
        Jennifer Gilliland is an outpatient dietitian with ProMedica and a professional clinical counselor. She enjoys talking with people about the behavioral side of eating as well as educating people on the healthiest food choices.
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