With 25 percent of adults and 10 percent of children experiencing mental illness each year and major depression burgeoning into a leading cause of disability around the world, it’s easy to feel stressed about the state of stress. However, recent research is revealing a new line of defense against mood disorders that’s a little bit different from the traditional approach of medication and therapy: the diet.
A growing body of data suggests our gut health directly influences brain development and mental health. It’s believed that the microorganisms residing in human guts, known as the microbiome, impact the generation and metabolization of neurotransmitters like mood-boosting serotonin and dopamine, along with other neuroactive chemicals.
Unfortunately, when people are experiencing mental illness or otherwise feeling down, they’re far more likely to reach for comfort foods that are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates than health food. But it turns out that comfort foods aren’t so comforting after all: Simple carbohydrates and processed foods have been shown to increase the risk of depression, while a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods seem to protect the brain.
So if you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mood problems, and want to stop them before larger problems occur (or, if you just want to help prevent these issues from starting in the first place), how can you tailor your diet for a healthy brain?
- Limit alcohol consumption. While it’s tempting to reach for a glass of wine after a tough day, heavy alcohol consumption can lead to addiction and actually exacerbate mood disorders by interfering with the body’s metabolization of tryptophan, an amino acid that’s critical in the production of serotonin.
- Stick to complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates like sugar, corn syrup, and refined grains cause blood sugar fluctuations that can lead to mood swings and brain fog. And while simple carbohydrates can provide a short-term serotonin boost, complex carbs like legumes, whole grains, and fibrous vegetables are much more effective at providing your brain lasting, stable serotonin.
- Eat tryptophan. In order for carbohydrates to effectively boost serotonin, they need to be consumed alongside tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that gets converted into serotonin, and you’ll find it in proteins like turkey, duck, eggs, and beef.
- Get your vitamins. Deficiencies of B12, folate, selenium, and vitamin D have all been linked to higher rates of mood disorders like depression. To make sure you’re getting enough of these important nutrients, consume plenty of seafood, lean meats, dairy, and eggs (B12, selenium, and vitamin D), and legumes, nuts, and dark leafy greens (folate). And spend plenty of time outdoors, even in the winter months, because sunlight is one of the best sources of vitamin D. Supplements can be a great tool, especially for vegetarians and vegans, but too much selenium and vitamin D can be toxic, so consult with your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.
- Look for antioxidant-rich foods. Antioxidants have been connected to reduced cognitive decline and cancer risk, and evidence suggests that they can even help with moods. Deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables like berries, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and carrots are all great sources of antioxidants, as are nuts, whole grains, legumes, and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Consume probiotics. Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium have been shown to reduce anxiety-like behavior in mice, and scientists believe the mood-enhancing benefits of these probiotic bacteria extend to humans. And while these beneficial bacteria may be difficult to pronounce, they’re easy to find. Look for fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha that contain active cultures.
Eating well can go a long way toward promoting good mental health, whether you’re currently experiencing a mood disorder or just want to protect your cognition as you age. And while diet alone may not be enough to manage a mental illness, it’s an invaluable tool in the fight for a healthy, happy brain.
Image via Pixabay by Foundry
Kelly Coleman is a freelance writer and research specialist. She loves volunteering for Consumer Health Labs, which aims to help consumers make healthy choices.