If you’ve been following me on Instagram or Facebook at all lately, you’ve noticed that I’ve started talking more about the connection between nutrition and mental health- and there are a couple of reasons for this that I’ll get to. But when you think about the gut-brain connection even on a common sense level, it makes sense that…
What you eat fuels your body.
Your brain is an organ in sync with your body.
Therefore, what you eat fuels your brain.
This past year I was able to choose a biological topic for a research review assignment and found myself sparked by the idea of pursuing how nutrition affects mental health and emotional well-being (I was torn between this idea and physical fitness). I wanted to better understand the chemical level of how what we eat translates in the brain and if there were tested and proven results that showed a difference in mental and emotional well-being based on the food choices people made. Since the brain is an organ that also undergoes a biochemical process, it brings into question how the quality of the food we put into our bodies could affect our brains and mental well-being. I deeply believe in following your questions and there was no better way to find out than taking the journey myself.
Now I’ll be the first to mention upfront that I’m not a licensed nutritionist or neurologist- but I can say personally that the combination of research articles I’ve reviewed, books and articles I’ve read and applications I’ve made to my own life have provided enough overwhelming evidence to convince me that nutrition and mental health are immensely connected and it’s something we should take seriously if we want to see a change in our lives (I’ll be sure to link some of those resources throughout this article).
Another reason I believe I was passionate about this topic is because frankly, the mental health conversation can get depressing really fast. I think it’s important to make people aware of understanding what living with depression, anxiety and other mental diagnoses is like. I think it’s important to hold conversations that usher in empathy for the struggles we face through these experiences. But I also think it’s important to talk about what helps. The things we can actually do to make our mental health journey a bit more fluid to navigate and find ourselves swimming downstream with the awareness of our bodies instead of battling the upstream current against our bodies.
Now everyones journey, genetics and biological make-up is different, so nothing is ever a one size fits all when it comes to things like mental health or nutrition. And what I’m not saying is eating differently is a sure enough replacement for medication or a cure for all things. However, I want to take the time to highlight 5 key reasons why nutrition should be a major focus area when aiming to better yourself mentally and emotionally.
1. You can impact your mental health at the biological level.
There are many things in life that we can’t and won’t have control over.
The trauma’s that come unexpectedly.
Genes and heredity.
The unpredicted loss of a relationship.
Being given a diagnosis.
We can’t control some of the most painful and life-altering events that we find ourselves thrown into. And half of what makes this battle so discouraging for many is feeling stuck and run so rampantly by spiraling thoughts. Feeling victim to our own minds.
Yet, we can gain some ground on how we manage to think and move through life in spite of our present reality. We can talk about what helps us become more resilient. And most of all we can start putting those things into practice. What we eat is one of those things.
Nutrition is the changeable, biological factor that can either put you in a frustrated battle against your brain or in partnership with your brain directly toward an improved mental well-being. Let’s talk about how…
2. What you put in your body makes up the building blocks of your brain chemistry.
Keep in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions occurring in the brain every second. There is communication between neurons through electrical and chemical signals. There are neurotransmitters, which are the chemical substances released in our brain- many are responsible for mood and reaction. We’ve made the mind solely an existential place for so long and have underestimated how much this orchestra of neurochemistry plays a direct role on mood and behavior.
What we eat can either help power, protect or disrupt our cells when digested to the molecular level. Not only that but the types of food we eat carry nutrients that can help produce certain neurochemicals. For example, bananas are a source of B6 and B6 helps synthesize serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter well-known for mood balance. Berries in dark blues, reds and purples, such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are anthocyanins which have antioxidant effects that help protect the brain from cell damage. Does that mean that if you start eating nothing but bananas you’ll never have a mood swing again? Of course not. However, there are certain foods that we can eat like fruits, veggies and leafy greens, and fatty fish which carry the nutrients that help our brain and body produce the good stuff that only benefits our present and long-term mental well-being.
We also account for the gut-brain axis. In fact, many refer to the gut as “the second brain”. This is because research has found that there is a line of communication transmitting directly between the intestines and the brain called the ENS (or Enteric Nervous System)  . There are hundreds of millions of neurons located within this digestive tract which are connected to the brain through the nervous system. So yes, what you digest is directly interacting with your brain.
One of the fascinating studies I reviewed included an experiment held in the UK where participants went through a 4 week gut-treatment program by altering their diet to help with weight loss. What they unexpectedly found by the end of their study was that those who went through “The Gut Makeover” saw an increase in their energy, concentration levels and mood compared to before their diet experience. They report that there was a significant change of their emotional well-being being three times higher. This meant more specifically that symptoms of anxiety and depression had declined for these participants. The researchers, Lawrence and Hyde, imply that diets designed to help improve the culture of bacteria in the gut could also be a solution for helping to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety.
For years we’ve heard talk about food and diet in relationship to heart health and high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes. But even more immediately, what about your current mental health? What about the changes you can begin to make right now to have more energy, clearer thinking and an improved mood? This is the direction of thinking that inspired me.
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3. Many mental health issues like anxiety and depression can be traced to a nutrient deficiency.
Without going too much into detail I think it’s important to highlight that the general US food processing system has been sketch for a while and we know this (one major reason I absolutely go organic and aim for farm-raised meats and produce). Animals are being injected with all kinds of steroids and hormones and antibiotics while being fed an unnatural diet of corn to help with the mass production of meat to the general population. Crops are being doused in chemical pesticides. Our food is processed in a way that is being stripped of its naturally-sourced, nutritional properties. Not to mention we have no idea what all the dynamics are of how this is affecting our bodies. It’s popularly referred to as MAD or the Modern American Diet.
As doctors Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey mention in their awesome book The Happiness Diet, “MAD foods are also devoid of many vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrient compounds found in plants that were once the staple of the American dinner table. Instead we’re eating new foods grown and harvested in factories”. They go on to share about a large study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry which found that “eating processed foods, such as refined carbohydrates, sweets and processed meats, increased the risk of depression by about 60 percent”.
But it’s not all about the food that’s being mass-produced. It also narrows down to our personal meal choices. Being malnourished in key nutrients such as most common deficiencies of Vitamin A, D, Iron, Iodine, and B12 along a host of others, can very well produce the symptoms of anxiety and depression because these are the nutrients that help fuel energy, mood and cognition. Even while vitamin supplements are supportive, we get the highest concentration and unique benefits of these nutrients through our food- the fruits, the veggies, the beans and lentils, the nuts, the quality meats. So yes, consider checking with your physician or meeting with a holistic doctor about your nutrient levels or getting on a nutrient-rich eating plan that best suits you. Many have even shared with me personally that when they improved these areas they saw a total change in their mental well-being.
4. Because this is your temple.
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I’ve never been legalistic about my diet and I won’t pretend that I eat perfectly all the time! However I have noticed a major difference in my level of brain functioning, clarity, energy, mood, motivation and focus since I changed the way that I eat- which has been vital to fuel the life that I believe I’ve been called to live 😬. Many mental health issues like anxiety and depression are linked to nutrient deficiencies- especially when you look at the modern American diet (aka MAD) and food processing system. _ Some personal general rules of thumb to live by have been: • Organic all the way 👩🌾 • More veggies & leafy greens 🥬 (ideally 50% of the plate) • More fruits & berries • Don’t skip the Omega 3’s- essential brain fats (mostly found in fish but I also supplement through vitamins) • Go for the grass-fed, free-range, farm raised meats & eggs (goodbye factory-processed foods, added hormones & antibiotics) • Lots & lots of water- 20% of the body’s water occupies the brain. Water is a basic life source for optimal functioning 💦 • Skip the sugars as much as possible 🙅🏽♀️ Studies have shown countries with the highest intake of sugar also have the highest rates of depression. We now eat as many sugars weekly as we used to annually. It used to be a rare treat, now it’s a lifestyle 🙊 _ I’m so looking forward to talking more about the connection between diet and mental health along with my personal journey- because I believe there’s too much evidence to ignore it! (Also check out my 🧠 wellness tips in the highlights for more). Till then #HappySunday! 😆❤️
The way I see it, we only have one body on this earth to carry out our purpose in. Your body is the vehicle you are given to carry out God’s purposes for you. The better we take care of it, the more we have the potential to do. While some of you may be simply just trying to survive right now, consider that you can begin to have an upper-hand on your mental state.
5. Better Mood, Clearer Thinking, Sustainable Energy
Lately, I’ve really come to cherish the harmony of being aware of what my body needs and acting in partnership with myself. Many of you know that I work from home doing work that involves creative strategy, while powering through school, and working with recovery support groups in my city all while raising my son as a single mother (along with the tremendous support of my family). I absolutely love everything that I do and that’s why I think I feel mostly fueled by it all. But the truth is, my mental state used to power down midday. Around 3 PM, I just didn’t have the optimal energy to give and I’d find myself trying to simply survive the rest of the day. I was losing motivation and caught up in the current of simply flowing through my demands on autopilot.
For me, that’s never been the way to live. I take deep pride in being fully present and engaging my whole heart and mind in what I’m doing. But it was like someone unplugged and powered me down and I was too apathetic to do anything about it.
Ever since more deeply discovering the direct connection between food and my energy and mental state- and making changes to my eating habits- I can honestly say that I’ve had the fuel and clarity to go all day (I’m typing this elaborate post at 10PM as we speak). Partnered with regular exercise and implementing things like a morning and nightly routine, I’ve noticed a drastic change in focus, motivation and the upside of my emotional health. That doesn’t mean that every day is perfect or I never struggle with my thoughts. But I have seen a change and I want to believe that some level of change is possible for anyone- including you.
I know that this post mostly aimed to cover the overarching idea of the connection of diet and mental health- and you’re probably thinking, “This is all great Brittney, so what do I actually eat?”. Three things:
- I’m going to try to start integrating more of these nutritional aspects and tips into future articles so stay tuned. I also have shared a number of these tips on my Instagram stories, highlights and posts.
- Always, consult your doctor or nutritionist to find a nutritional plan that works best for you.
- I highly recommend the book The Happiness Diet, which I linked earlier as it does give a deeper breakdown of what types of foods to eat and even some recipes to try.
In the meantime, I hope that this has given you some food for thought (…see what I did there). Many of you have requested that I expound more on this subject. Let’s chat about it! Be sure to leave a comment below.