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Foods to Support Mental Health

Updated: May 20, 2023

What does our brain need to be balanced? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate appetite, mood and sleep. Serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. The production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters is influenced by the good food and bacteria in your digestive tract. Good bacteria can block toxins, improve how you absorb nutrients and improve communication with your brain. But we don’t seem to be getting much good bacteria because the SAD diet or Standard American diet is linked to higher rates of depression than Mediterranean diets.

So what are we eating that can increase depressive symptoms? The answer is processed foods. According to the Department of Agriculture, processed foods are any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged... anything done to them that alters their natural state. This may include adding preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives, or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, artificial coloring and artificial sugars.

Read on for some examples of what and what not to eat.


What to Eat

  • Whole Grain: the brain needs glucose which comes from carbohydrates. Complex carbs are best like whole wheat, oats, brown rice, beans and soy.

  • Leafy Greens: spinach, kale, broccoli, romaine and mustard greens. All are high in folic acid which can help counter depression and fatigue.

  • Omega-Rich: salmon, sardines, flax seed and walnuts are high in omega-3s which help in the production of neurotransmitters.

  • Probiotics: friendly bacteria, similar to the ones that occur naturally in our digestive tracts, are found in foods with active cultures, like yogurt, kefir, tempeh and pickled vegetables. They can help reduce anxiety and stress.

What to Avoid

  • Simple Carbohydrates: think cereal, crackers, bagels and white bread. The glucose in them spike your blood sugar and create fatigue.

  • Processed: Food items that are ready-made, like meals in the frozen food aisle, deli meat or fast-food, can contain more artificial ingredients, nitrates, sodium and trans and saturated fats. Sugary Foods & Drinks: soda, candy, coffee drinks and sweets. They may make you feel a mood boost, but a big crash follows which can make you feel low, tired and empty.

  • Fried: most fried food is high in saturated fat which is difficult for your body to digest and can weaken the good bacteria.

  • Seed oils: Canola oil, rape seed oil, vegetable oils, etc…all cause inflamation in the body, including the brain. When the brain can’t send proper signals due to inflammation it can manifest into depressive symptoms and neurological dysfunction. Instead stick to cooking with butter, ghee, or olive oil.

It's also best to buy Organic and Non-GMO produce when possible. That’s because conventional crops are sprayed with round up which has been proven to cause health issues, such as cancer. Organic produce can get pricey so follow the ‘dirty dozen’ which will be your guide to which conventionally grown fruits and veggies are ok to eat. All other Organic foods will ensure chemicals like high fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings are omitted.

The best part of healthy eating is… better mood, improved heart health, lower risk of diabetes, decrease in blood pressure and better sleep. The hard part of eating well is breaking the habits of mind. Most of us turn to food when we are feeling a certain way or want to feel a certain way. Reaching past the tempting foods for the healthy ones takes willpower and commitment. But when we do choose healthy foods, we can feel a whole lot better in our bodies and brains.

Educate yourself on what to look for and talk with your health care professional or nutrition expert to discuss a food plan that works best for you.




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