How do you feel after eating a fresh-baked cookie? What about a big, colorful salad? Both of these food choices can affect your mood in the short term and in the long term. Food connects to our memories, culture, and traditions, but it also affects us on a cellular level. These are just some of the reasons that nutrition and mental health are so closely related.
Your mood can affect the foods you choose. Symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy diet.
Food can also affect your mood more directly, due to chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. If you’re curious about how that works, read along.
Keep in mind, diet changes are a supplementary way to improve your mood. They are not a replacement for quality mental health care.
The food/mood link is complex, but some of the main factors involved include:
Your intestines are home to bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. These are collectively referred to as the gut microbiome. The makeup of your gut microbiome is as unique to you as a fingerprint. Stress, illness, your environment, and your diet affect the types and amounts of bacteria in your gut.
Your gut bacteria help your body produce neurotransmitters, which send signals to your brain and affect things like your mood. Having a low amount and diversity of gut bacteria has been connected to depression.
Gut bacteria also produce about 90% of your body’s feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. They also produce short-chain fatty acids that fight inflammation.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to damage. Inflammation in the gut can cause issues with the protective layer of bacteria and mucus that keeps us healthy.
High levels of inflammation have been linked to mood disorders. Anti-inflammatory diets, like the Mediterranean-style diet, have been linked to lower depression risk.
There are many types of neurotransmitters. The main ones involved in the food/mood connection are dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
Dopamine is often associated with pleasure and reward. When you do things that you enjoy, like exercise or eat a good meal, dopamine is released. This encourages you to repeat the behavior. The same process can occur in harmful behaviors, though, like drinking alcohol or scrolling too much on your phone.
Specific foods can affect your dopamine levels too.
Boost dopamine. Protein-rich foods. Foods like eggs, almonds, chicken, and fish are involved in dopamine production.
This “happy” neurotransmitter is important for many functions, including mood regulation and appetite. Medications for depression called SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin levels also increase with vigorous exercise and bright light.
Boost serotonin. Since your gut bacteria produce so much serotonin, keep them healthy! Your gut bacteria love high-fiber foods and probiotics.
These “feel good” neurotransmitters increase feelings of pleasure and relieve pain.
Eating a variety of high-fiber foods gives your gut bacteria a diverse diet. This keeps them happy and boosts serotonin production. Fiber also keeps you full, which decreases irritability and anxiety related to hunger.
Probiotic foods introduce new healthy bacteria into the gut. More research is needed to determine the amount and type needed to affect mood, but early research is promising.
Antioxidants fight damaging inflammation, which has been linked to mood disorders.
Omega-3’s are a specific type of fatty acid that have anti-inflammatory properties.
We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for the body, but they can also boost overall happiness.
Folate is a B vitamin that helps your body make serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine. Many people with depression also have a folate deficiency.
This nutrient helps with mood and healthy brain functioning. Improved magnesium levels have been shown to help with anxiety.
Your body needs protein to produce neurotransmitters like dopamine. Eating a protein-rich meal in the morning is especially helpful for this. Protein also promotes feelings of fullness and stabilizes blood sugar levels, which can improve your mood.
Are you interested in learning more about what nutrition means for your mental health? Cerebral offers nutrition management services in select states. Try taking our nutrition assessment today.