Eating your way to better mental health might sound too good to be true, but recent developments in science reveal that what you eat really can affect your mind, too. Research shows there’s a strong gut-brain connection; certain bacteria in the gut impacts how the brain works. Thus, keeping the gut happy can help improve mood levels. What’s more, certain nutrients improve brain function, which means less risk of common mental disorders like depression and anxiety.
If you’re looking to fuel both your body and your mind, nutrition pros share what nutrients to incorporate into your diet:
“Fiber-rich foods are crucial for proper gut health, which is a large determinant in mental health,” explains Kelly Jones, RD. The gut communicates with the brain to release certain hormones, which then impacts mental health and mood. “Certain fibers and carbohydrates called oligosaccharides are known as prebiotics, which essentially feed the bacteria in our digestive tract to promote a favorable balance of flora.”
How to get it: Onions, leeks, asparagus, jicama and beans are great sources of oligosaccharides. In general, you can sneak more fiber into your diet by eating more vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
“Oxidative free radicals play a role in mood disorders like depression,” notes Claire Virga, RD at Rooted Wellness. “Antioxidants work by counteracting free radicals, rendering them incapable of causing damage to all of our organ systems, including our brains.” Therefore, by reducing oxidative stress, you may improve mental health.
“Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables, so eating a diet rich in plant-based foods is an effective strategy for improving mental health,” Virga notes. A large Canadian study showed participants who consumed the most fruits and vegetables had lower rates of depression and self-reported mood disorders.
How to get them: “Including fruits and vegetables of varying colors is a great way to ensure you are taking in a variety of different antioxidants, because the colors of produce correspond to the type of antioxidants they contain,” says Virga.
This nutrient is traditionally thought of as a nutrient for bone health. “But based on the research over the past 15–20 years, we know that vitamin D can impact brain health, hormonal health and muscle function, among other things,” says Jones.
Probiotics are beneficial for creating and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, says Virga. “Our microbiome is influenced by the foods we eat, which is why you should consume probiotic-rich foods to boost the amount of healthy gut bacteria.”
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, meaning it sends signals to our brain, according to Whitney English and Alex Caspero, RDs and founders of Plant-Based Juniors. “The most well-known signals associated with serotonin are feelings of well-being and happiness. One way to increase serotonin levels is by consuming dietary tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid found in certain foods.” More research is needed, but some preliminary evidence shows tryptophan may work like an antidepressant in mild-to-moderate depression.
How to get it: Most people know there’s tryptophan in turkey, but eggs, salmon and chicken are also good sources. Plant-based foods that are high in tryptophan include sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, soybeans, oats, bananas and spirulina, which is a type of algae.
This mineral is involved in hundreds of biological processes. “It’s thought to be particularly important in regulating the brain’s response to stress,” says Danielle Schaub, RD and culinary and nutrition manager for Territory Foods. “A deficiency in zinc can also result in depression, altered cognition and a reduced ability to learn.”
How to get it: “The best way to get more zinc in your diet is by consuming poultry, oysters, red meat, beans, nuts and whole grains,” says Schaub.
“Low levels of folate have been associated with birth defects, so people may only think of it as a nutrient for pregnancy,” says Danielle Paciera, RD, medical affairs manager at Thorne Research. “But it is also very important for supporting cognitive function, and low levels are associated with both depression and anxiety. There is also evidence people with low folate may not respond as well to some common medications, like antidepressants.
How to get it: “Green leafy vegetables like spinach and turnip greens are some of the best sources of folate, but it is also found in legumes and other vegetables, including asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli and beets,” notes Paciera.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
“Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for the function of the entire nervous system, which makes sense since roughly 20% of the brain is made up of these essential fats,” says Paciera. “Low levels of omega-3’s have been tied to many conditions: cognitive decline, depression, anxiety and several other neuropsychiatric disorders.” One study done on medical students found that when they increased their omega-3 consumption, their anxiety was reduced by 20%.
How to get them: The best sources of omega-3’s are fatty, wild-caught, cold-water fish like salmon, barramundi, arctic char, sardines, cod, herring and mackerel. “They can also be found in nuts and seeds (or their oils) including hemp seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds. “Many people choose to supplement these fats (for example, as fish oil capsules) because they often don’t have adequate dietary sources,” adds Paceira.
“This mineral is thought to be especially important for brain functions that reduce stress and anxiety,” Schaub says.
How to get it: According to Schaub, the best dietary sources of magnesium are leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, nuts, legumes, avocado and potatoes.
“Many individuals I’ve worked with were deficient in several B vitamins, and the effects, even in the case of mild deficiency, can be drastic,” says Allison Filepp, RD. “Getting enough B vitamins can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
How to get them: The best food sources of B vitamins include whole grains such as millet, barley, brown rice and quinoa, eggs, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds and dark leafy vegetables like Swiss chard, collard greens, spinach and kale.