Nutrition and mental health: Can your diet improve your mood?

April 18, 2022 - 16 min read

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Does nutrition affect mental health?

How is mental health related to nutrition?

Poor nutrition and mental health

Gut health, serotonin, and mental health

14 foods that support mental performance

8 healthy eating tips for mental health

When someone is feeling down, what’s the first question you ask? For most people, it’s “Are you okay?” or “What happened?” But with a growing body of research on the connections between nutrition and mental health, the better question might be, “What did you eat?”

This relationship between how we eat and how we feel is relatively new territory. As our understanding of the connection between good nutrition and good mental health grows, research provides more evidence that we can use our diets to support our mental well-being.

Let's take a closer look at how nutrition impacts mental health, and some foods to include in our diets to help support a healthy gut.

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Does nutrition affect mental health?

We’ve long understood that what we eat impacts our physical health. And there’s now strong evidence showing that nutrition and mental health are also closely linked. In fact, there is a clear correlation between our diet and our mood.

Several studies have made the connection between what we eat and how we feel.

A healthy diet has a positive effect on both your mental and physical health. Some of the most notable benefits are:

Reduced inflammation

High inflammation can result in several illnesses and chronic conditions. Eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet can relieve pain and reduce your risk of illnesses. These include auto-immune disorders, heart disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, and some cancers.

Improved energy

A balanced diet will help your body convert food into energy more readily. This will keep your energy levels — and mood — more stable throughout the day. Eating excessive amounts of processed and sugary foods provides a lot of calories but not much in the way of high-quality fuel.

Better sleep

Foods that are high in sugar or hard to digest can make it difficult for your body to rest. Your diet is also your best source of essential nutrients that help your body renew and repair itself overnight. Eating a healthy diet is key to getting a good night’s sleep and setting yourself up to feel your best when you wake up.

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How is mental health-related to nutrition?

If you’re familiar with the term “sugar crash,” you will likely understand how intertwined gut health and mental health are. After all, a sugar crash isn’t just characterized by a lack of energy. The anxious or irritable feeling you get when your blood sugar drops can be related to hypoglycemia. But since we generally associate diet with our physical wellness, we may not see these emotional and cognitive responses as relating to food.

Imagine now that you eat a sugar-filled breakfast every morning. That means you’re setting yourself up for a crash every afternoon. You may be blaming your bad mood or anxiety on your commute, job, or coworkers. But it could be that your morning donut and coffee beverage are actually to blame.

Poor nutrition and mental health

The relationship between nutrition and mental health is a strong one. As the example above shows, as a healthy diet can support your mental health, a poor diet can negatively impact your mental well-being. Studies show that a poor diet can worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. 

But how does a poor diet impact mental health?

As we mentioned, sugar and processed foods can cause inflammation. This inflammation in the brain, gut, and body can be a catalyst for anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. 

Additionally, poor mental health can lead to unhealthy food choices. Say, for instance, that you’re overwhelmed at work or have a stressful home life. You may struggle to find the time to prepare a healthy meal or may reach for fatty, processed comfort foods. Very few people go for the salad when they’re stressed.

You may skip meals because of your commute, work, or caregiving responsibilities. Or substitute meals with caffeine or sugar to get you through the day. Both are likely to cause inflammation and fatigue, leaving you feeling less than your best.

This can become a vicious cycle of poor nutrition and poor mental health. Find out more on how you can take care of your mental health, from nutrition to sleep to expert care. 

Gut health, serotonin, and mental health

So what’s the connection between sleep, nutrition, and mental health? The answer is most likely serotonin. If the term sounds familiar, it’s because it’s widely known as the brain chemical responsible for regulating mood. Some of the most common antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) work by managing this neurotransmitter.

While serotonin’s exact function in sleep is unknown, it’s believed that it helps maintain our sleep quality. In the evening, the body converts serotonin into melatonin to prepare us to go to bed. Because of this, having enough serotonin in the brain is necessary to fall — and stay — asleep. 

However, serotonin’s impact on the body isn’t just limited to brain function. Over 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, where it has a protective effect. So the health of our stomach and the balance of bacteria within it impacts our stress resilience and immunity. 

When we feel stressed, the body responds with the fight or flight response. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls this stress response. It also controls other involuntary functions, like digestion, heart rate, and respiration.

That’s why we tend to feel emotions like fear, anger, and disgust in our stomachs. Serotonin helps to regulate autonomic functions in the central nervous system. So when our stomachs are happy, we tend to be happier too.

In 2019, the Baylor College of Medicine conducted a study on gut permeability and depression. They found that increased gut leakiness was associated with increased depression and stress responses. They also found that gut leakiness triggered the immune response. The relationship between the stomach and the brain goes both ways — it’s bidirectional.

Brogan summarizes it by saying, “Not only can our brains affect how our guts feel, but our gut can relay its state of calm or alarm to the nervous system and send those immune reactions up the vagus nerve to the brain.”

With the growing interest in uncovering the link between gut health and mood disorders, a new field has emerged. This new area of science, called nutritional psychology, studies dietary patterns to determine if mental health problems can be managed holistically.

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14 foods that support mental performance

Eating a healthy diet can help you feel better, help you concentrate, and feel more alert. Your diet can also be a valuable source of serotonin. Although foods don’t typically contain serotonin, they do contain tryptophan, folate, and B12. These are necessary for the body to synthesize serotonin.

Typically, you’ll want to eat foods that contain the following:

  • Antioxidants: berries, spinach, broccoli, pecans, and carrots
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: mackerel, salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts
  • Folate: spinach, romaine lettuce, and other dark leafy greens, beans, and peanuts
  • Vitamin B12: beef, chicken, salmon, trout, shrimp, dairy, and eggs
  • Magnesium: spinach, dark chocolate, almonds, and bananas
  • Have been fermented: kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, and kombucha

Some foods contain high levels of or multiple nutrients listed above. Here are 14 foods that you may want to incorporate into a healthy, serotonin-friendly diet:

  • Soy, tofu, and edamame
  • Cheese
  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes
  • ​Whole grains
  • Fatty fish like salmon and anchovies
  • Spinach
  • Poultry
  • Pineapples
  • Bananas
  • Kiwis 
  • Tomatoes
  • Plums
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha

Vitamin supplements may support a healthy diet or make up for deficiencies in vitamin D or iron, for example. But the most nutritious and easily absorbed foods are whole foods. So try to get a range of nutrients from whole foods themselves, whenever possible.

Foods to avoid

Incorporating the right foods into your diet is important for your well-being, but so is avoiding the wrong foods. Evidence is starting to show that people prone to mental illness should be cautious about sugar consumption. SugarScience at the University of California San Francisco points to a long-term study published in 2017 that found clear links between excessive consumption of sugar and mood and increased likelihood of being diagnosed with depression. Holistic psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan cautions that ups and downs in your blood sugar levels “deprive the brain of important nutrients.” Sugar may also “create systemic inflammation,” dysregulate hormones, and trigger adrenal fatigue.

In addition to sugar, other foods to avoid or consume less frequently include:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Fried foods
  • Highly processed foods

8 healthy eating tips for mental health

If you want to keep your mood up and your blood sugar steady, you’ll want to begin incorporating healthy eating habits into your routine. While some are about what you eat (of course), there’s more to staying healthy than counting calories.

Here are 8 tips to improve your nutrition and your mental health:

  1. Avoid processed snacks 

Processed foods often have flavors or preservatives added to them to help them survive the freezing and shipping process. This often means higher amounts of fat, sodium, and added sugar. Swap out your processed snacks for nutrient-rich foods. Try a yogurt parfait or hummus and pita instead of candy and chips.

  1. Set a schedule

Plan your meals out in advance. While meal planning is a “thing,” you don’t have to go overboard. Simply glance at the day or week ahead and plan out your meals, plus a few stacks, for each day. When you have healthy food ready to go, you're more likely to practice intuitive eating.

  1. Drink enough water 

If food is the fuel that keeps you going, then water is the oil that keeps everything running smoothly. Like motor oil, water helps keep your temperature regulated, clean out your system, and improve your performance. Without water, your body has a much harder time extracting micronutrients from food. Mild dehydration also results in cognitive impairment, which leaves your brain less capable of regulating serotonin.

  1. Balance your macros

The big three macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbohydrates. All of them (yes, even fat) are necessary for optimal functioning. Balancing your intake with healthy amounts of each will help ensure that you have steady energy throughout the day. If you’re unsure how to find the right combination or need specific advice, reach out to a nutritionist.

  1. Get some bacteria in the mix

Your stomach is full of bacteria, and that’s a good thing. Probiotics can be helpful in regulating your digestive health by giving those bacteria a boost. When the bacteria in your gut is balanced and thriving, digestion is smoother and more serotonin is produced. Try taking a daily probiotic or adding fermented foods to your diet.

  1. Avoid inflammatory foods

Certain foods are more likely to cause an inflammatory response. Processed and high-sodium foods are obvious culprits, but even healthy foods can be triggering. Tracking your diet and mental health can help you determine if you have any underlying food sensitivities. You can also ask your doctor for an allergy test.

  1. Eat regularly

One benefit of a nutritious diet is consistent blood sugar levels. In order to keep your blood sugar steady, it’s important to eat at regular intervals.

  1. Don't be too strict

Eating healthy all the time might be a tall ask. Instead, aim to make good food choices roughly 80% of the time. What you do every day is more important than what you do once in a while.

Of course, if you think about what you eat as the fuel for your day, pay attention to how well your fuel is working. We all respond differently to what we put into our bodies. Keep a diary for a week to note what you eat and how you feel, both before and after. Noticing these patterns can help you identify which changes might have the most significant impact on you. 

There are scientific, social, and emotional factors that connect nutrition and brain health. Eating well helps you feel more clear-headed and energetic. Your body is better able to produce serotonin, you’ll sleep better, and you’ll have more energy for what matters the most to you.

If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association has a range of resources and treatment support available. You can contact their helpline via online chat, text, or phone call.


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Published April 18, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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