In the first part of this blog, we looked at how food can improve mental health, but mainly from a scientific perspective, particularly focusing on the close relationship between the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) and the brain, the importance of “good” bacteria, and how a nutritious and healthy diet contributes to proper bodily and brain functioning, and overall physical and mental wellbeing.
Our mood and mental health are greatly influenced by the lifestyle and diet we choose to lead. In this blog, we will be delving further into which diets and foods are beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing.
Foods which are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients are essential for mental health. As the Atlas Biomed Team (2020) and Selhub (2020) explain, these nutrients can be found in the Mediterranean diet, which is free from processed, refined, high-sugar and high-fat foods, which are primary to Western diets. The Mediterranean diet is considered to be one of the best diets in improving mental health and in battling anxiety and depression. Studies have found that this diet not only lowers the risk of depression by 25% – 35% when comparing to the Western diet, but it also improves symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves cognitive and brain functioning. Additionally, it supports and enhances neurotransmitter production, especially serotonin, i.e. the “feel-good hormone”, thus boosting our general wellbeing.
The following are some essential foods and components which promote and enhance mental health and wellbeing.
- Healthy Fats
These are essential to mental health as they are rich in anti-inflammatory properties which may prevent symptoms of depression and boost mood. Sources include olive oil, oily fish, avocado and chia seeds. Extra-virgin olive oil helps combat oxidative stress and enhances memory and cognition, and it also supports reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms through modifying the serotonin and dopamine pathways in the brain (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020). Oily fish and chia seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which support the development, functioning and aging of the brain (Lange, 2020). Docosahexaenoic (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA), are two important omega-3 fatty acids which boost mood, alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms, and improve short-term and long-term memory (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020). Furthermore, deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids has been linked with increased mental health issues and psychiatric disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism (Lange, 2020).
- Whole Grains
Whole grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats are whole, unrefined carbs which are beneficial to health. They are rich in fibre, which prevents depression and dementia (Aetna, n.d.), and in tryptophan, an amino acid which enhances serotonin production (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020). Serotonin is known as the “feel-good” hormone for a valid reason, as this supports calming the mind, improving mood, and maintaning steady sleep patterns.
- Plant-based foods
Plant-based foods are rich and vary in fibre, magnesium, potassium, iron, folate, vitamin B-12, tryptophan which converts to serotonin (Nest and Glow, 2018), and polyphenols which act as anti-oxidants and are rich in anti-inflammatory properties, and which have been found to improve memory, concentration and attention span (Australian & New Zealand Mental Health Association – ANZMHA, 2018). Eating a selection of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds can improve mood and stress, protect you from dementia and depression, improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and support overall physical and mental health (Nest and Glow, 2018; Atlas Biomed Team, 2020). Some foods such as artichokes, asparagus, garlic, apples and bananas contain prebiotics, which promote the growth of “good” bacteria, and they have been shown to alter emotional bias towards positive stimuli in attention tasks (Schmidt, et. al, 2014; as cited in Willner, 2021).
Foods like berries, walnuts, beans, leafy vegetables, turmeric, dark chocolate, and omega-3 fatty acids are antioxidants which contain anti-inflammatory properties and help in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms (Aetna, n.d.). For instance, berries have low sugar but high fiber, Vitamin C, and polyphenol levels which all further support mental health and cognitive functioning (ANZMHA, 2018; Atlas Biomed Team, 2020). Beans are also rich in thiamine, a vitamin which is necessary for acetylcholine production, an essential neurotransmitter for memory functioning (ibid.).
- Fermented Foods
Fermented foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut, and pickles are filled with probiotics which encourage the growth of “good” gut bacteria. These bacteria influence our mood and emotions, and they not only improve digestive health, but they also improve heart health, depression, anxiety and skin health too (Palsdottir, 2018).
In conclusion, “you are what you eat”, and what you eat matters. Undoubtedly, good nutrition and a healthy balanced diet positively affects physical and mental health in a number of ways. If you are someone who is looking to improve your overall health, start paying attention to what you eat, incorporate new healthy foods to your diet, and notice how different foods make you feel.
Michela Aquilina is a trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist who is currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute Malta (GPTIM) and is working as a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist with Willingness Team. Michela offers therapy to young adults and adults who are experiencing various challenges and issues relating to mental health and psychosocial, emotional wellbeing.
Aetna, (n.d.). How certain foods can improve mental health. https://www.aetnainternational.com/en/about-us/explore/workplace-mental-health-support-resource/food-for-thought.html
Atlas Biomed Team. (2020, October 1). Diet and mental health: The best diets and foods for mood. Atlas Blog. https://atlasbiomed.com/blog/diet-and-mental-health/
Australian & News Zealand Mental Health Association (ANZMHA), ( 2018, April 19). 7 foods to improve your mental health and wellness. https://anzmh.asn.au/blog/mental-health/foods-mental-health-wellness
Lange, K. W. (2020). Omega-3 fatty acids and mental health. Global Health Journal, 4(1), 18-30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.glohj.2020.01.004
Nest and Glow, (2018, May 17). 9 plant-based foods to improve mental health. https://www.nestandglow.com/healthy-food/improve-mental-health-plant-based-food
Palsdottir, H. (2018, August 28). 11 probiotic foods that are super healthy. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-super-healthy-probiotic-foods#TOC_TITLE_HDR_1
Selhub, E. (2020, March 26). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
Willner, T. (2021, April). Gut and mental health: can we eat our way to happiness? Second Nature. https://www.secondnature.io/us/guides/nutrition/gut-and-mental-health