It was Hippocrates who proclaimed, “Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food.” Indeed, food does have the power to change your physiology. We know that eating a healthy diet lowers the risk of a number of physical health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. It’s likely that diet also plays a role in most health problems that befall humans. What’s also apparent is that diet affects our mental health as well. Hardly surprising since what you eat affects the production of brain chemicals that impact how you feel. The foods you take in provide energy but also influence your mood and your outlook on life.
There’s growing evidence that minerals and micronutrients are closely linked to brain function and activity. For example, magnesium, a mineral your body uses in more than 300 chemical reactions impacts your body’s response to stress. Research shows that low magnesium is linked with depression. In fact, some antidepressants increase the level of magnesium in red blood cells. Plus, there are studies showing quick resolution of depressive symptoms with magnesium supplementation.
Magnesium may be beneficial for treating stress and anxiety as well. This important mineral blocks a particular receptor in the nervous system called N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA). NMDA has an excitatory effect on the nervous system. Unfortunately, magnesium deficiency may be more common than previously thought. Stress itself and a diet of processed foods can deplete the body of magnesium and contribute to deficiency symptoms. Plus, the soil that food is grown in is increasingly depleted of magnesium, so we have to eat more of these foods to meet our body’s magnesium needs. The best food sources of magnesium are dark chocolate, nuts, whole grains, avocados, seeds, and green, leafy vegetables.
Another mineral that supports the body’s response to stress is zinc. Zinc’s role in regulating mood is increasingly being recognized and some studies shows depressive symptoms are correlated with the degree to which a person is deficient in zinc. Zinc also regulates the immune response and inflammation. That’s important since recent research links depression with inflammation. Are you getting enough? Since many zinc-rich foods are animal based, you may not be getting enough if you’re vegan or vegetarian, although with a little effort you can increase your intake. Good plant-based sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. In addition, there’s some evidence that people over the age of 65 have higher zinc needs than younger people.
Fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon and sardines, is an abundant source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are a dietary component that has potential mood-enhancing benefits. Studies show that supplementing with omega-3s reduces symptoms of depression in people who have elevated markers of inflammation in their blood. We know that omega-3s have anti-inflammatory benefits and inflammation is linked with depression, so these results aren’t surprising. Some studies also show that a diet rich in omega-3s helps tame anxiety as well. Although you can get omega-3s from plant-based sources, like flaxseed and chia seeds, it’s in a short-chain form that may not have the same benefits as the longer chain omega-3s from fish. Your body can convert short-chain omega-3s to long-chain but the conversion is low, as low as 5%.
Can Improving Your Mood Be as Simple as Eating More Fruits & Veggies?
When you eat a whole food diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, you supply your body with the micronutrients it needs to make the brain chemicals you need for mood stability and to fight stress. When scientists studied the eating habits of 80,000 men and women in Great Britain, they found a correlation between the number of servings of fruits and vegetables the residents ate daily and their mental health. Those who ate more, 7 servings +, had a healthier outlook on life.
A more recent study found that providing young, healthy adults with fruits and vegetables was linked with improvements in a variety of markers of well-being, including motivation and vitality. Why would eating more fruits and vegetables be a mood enhancer? Plant-based foods contain micronutrients that support healthy metabolism and production of mood-regulating chemicals. Plus, there are thousands of phytochemicals in plants that have other potential health benefits. Many of these natural chemicals have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Since inflammation seems to play a role in some mood disorders, the inflammation-reducing power of produce may have physical AND mental health benefits.
One eating plan, in particular, the Mediterranean diet, emphasizes whole foods and lots of fruits and vegetables. Studies have linked this diet with reduced stress and better quality of life. The Mediterranean diet includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, extra-virgin olive oil and fish but limits red meat and dairy. Some researchers believe the long-chain omega-3s in the Mediterranean diet account for the stress-reducing aspects of the Mediterranean diet but you can’t underestimate the impact of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, all of which have anti-inflammatory activity.
The Bottom Line
Eating a healthy diet doesn’t mean you’ll never feel stress or have a “bad day,” but consuming a whole food diet, rich in fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of fish, fights inflammation, a driving force behind many diseases, including depression. Plus, eating a range of foods as part of the Mediterranean diet increases the likelihood that you’re getting all the micronutrients your body needs to keep you healthy and happy. Don’t forget to add some fermented foods to your diet. Fermented foods help keep your gut healthy, the site where 70% of your immune system lies.
In contrast, a diet rich in junk food and high in sugar, fuels inflammation and depletes essential minerals like magnesium. So, if you’re not dealing with stress as effectively as you should, take a closer look at your diet and make sure it’s nutrient dense and contains the minerals and micronutrients your body needs in adequate quantities. Eat not just for physical health but for your mental well-being as well.
Medscape.com “Whole Diet May Ward Off Depression and Anxiety”
Psychiatry Adviser. “Omega-3 May Treat Depression in Patients With Inflammation”
Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov; 25(8): 1725–1734.Published online 2011 Jul 19. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229.
PLOS One. “Let them eat fruit! The effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological well-being in young adults: A randomized controlled trial”
Am J Public Health. 2016 August; 106(8): 1504–1510. Published online 2016 August. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303260
Psychiatry Advisor. “Magnesium: An Essential Supplement for Psychiatric Patients”
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