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Food for Thought: How Diet Affects Your Mental Health

They say you are what you eat and that couldn’t be more true when it comes to mental health. We all know the importance of eating a nutritious diet for maintaining physical health and preventing disease but people are now realizing how certain foods can actually alter brain chemistry and affect our mood. During the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have drastically increased so if there was ever a time to start taking our mental health more seriously, now would be the time.

Quick Brain Anatomy Lesson…

Our brains are made up of billions of tiny nerve cells that communicate with each other – we call them neurons. They send signals back and forth to each other and these signals are carried out by neurotransmitters (aka brain chemicals). They tell us when to feel happy, sad, stressed, sleepy...the list goes on. So how does food have anything to do with this you ask? Well, nutrients are the building blocks needed to create these brain chemicals. The foods we eat can determine how effectively our nervous system operates to cope with stress. Our overall diet is now thought to be as important to mental health as it is to heart health and preventing obesity (via CAMH). If we’re constantly neglecting our bodies and feeding them junk, of course, it’ll start to take a toll on how we feel.

Below are a few common neurotransmitters and the different roles they play in the body:

  • Dopamine: The feel-good hormone. Not only is this neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, but it also supports attention, alertness, & motivation

  • Serotonin: The happy chemical. Low levels of serotonin and linked with depression. This brain chemical is also linked to sleep, calmness & relaxation.

  • GABA: regulates anxiety & stress, calmness, sleep

  • Nor-epinephrine: A stress hormone; involved in a “fight or flight” response. Aids in attention & focus.

  • Endorphins: Another happy chemical. Endorphins are linked to comfort, well-being, pleasure & euphoria.

5 Easy Ways to Support Your Mental Health With Food:

1. Probiotics and gut health

Did you know that almost 90% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine is made in our gut? It’s no wonder why our gut is so often referred to as our “second brain.” A healthy gut helps to support a healthy mental outlook so it’s important that we consume enough of those key nutrients that support us when life gets stressful—and take us to our happy place, naturally. Probiotics are the good bacteria that our gut needs to thrive. They can be found in yogurt and other fermented foods like kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. This Coconut Papaya Refresher made with kefir is the perfect breakfast, dessert, or midday pick-me-up.

2. B Vitamins

The B-Vitamins include B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate) and B12 (cyanocobalamin). Why are they so vital to good mental health? They play a large role in making neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. There’s a direct link between B vitamin deficiency and symptoms of depression like irritability, apathy, and reduced cognition (thinking/memory). So how do we make sure we’re getting enough? Luckily B vitamins are found in so many different food sources like whole grains, nuts and seeds, citrus fruits, leafy greens, and lean meats. Try to have a variety of these foods daily so you’re getting enough of each of the different types of B vitamins. These Mixed Berry Oatmeal Muffins are the perfect grab-and-go breakfast that is also high in B Vitamins.

3. Protein-rich foods

Protein plays so many key roles in our body including being a building block for neurotransmitters. Foods like lean meats (chicken, turkey), dairy (yogurt, eggs, cheese), almonds, nuts, seeds, lentils, and chickpeas have high levels of tryptophan used to make our happy hormone – serotonin :) Try to include a source of protein at each meal and snack and you’ll be good to go. These Blueberry Almond Protein Pancakes are a Sunday brunch must!

4. Omega-3’s

In order to maintain efficient neuron communication in the brain, we need to get enough healthy fats. Omega- 3 fats help to reduce inflammation and prevent brain damage. Good sources of omega-3 rich foods include fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), chia seeds, and flax seeds. Try making a Chocolate Peanut Butter Chia Bowl for breakfast or this mouthwatering Balsamic Guava Glazed Salmon for dinner!

5. Maintain a Regular Eating Schedule

This one seems like a no-brainer, but trust’s so easy to forget to stop and eat when we’re on the go, stressed, busy with work, and so on. The last thing we want to do when we’re already stressed out is to go too long without eating. Chances are you’ll become more irritable and find it harder to cope with everyday stressors. Having a small snack or meal every 4-6hrs can prevent you from getting hangry, make better food choices and help you manage your emotions.

Mental health is complex and it’s influenced by so many other important factors. Our environment, upbringing, financial status, education, all play a huge role – food is only one piece of the puzzle. Simply changing up your diet doesn’t cure mental illnesses or replace medication but we can certainly consider it one of our best means of self-care. You may be amazed at how you feel when you start to make more mindful food choices and prioritize proper nutrition.

More and more people are experiencing signs of clinical anxiety or depression. The pandemic isn't over, and neither is the stress, worry, and loneliness that many feel because of it. If there was ever a time to start talking about #MentalHealth, it's now. So, tell me – What has your pandemic experience been like? Has it affected your eating habits? What has helped you stay on top of your mental health? Leave me a comment below!

This article was written by Gabi Abreu, BSc (Nutrition). Gabi is a certified health coach, aspiring dietitian, and founder of the Working Woman’s Health Collection. WWHC was created with the purpose of inspiring women to achieve a healthy relationship with food while taking into consideration the busy lifestyles that we live in today.

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