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Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Brain Food: How Your Diet Affects Your Mental Health

Posted By: Advancing Care

As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” But how much truth is behind that statement? More than you might expect. Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract does much more than digest food — it can also guide your emotions. The link between diet and your mental health is so strong that many people refer to the GI tract as your “second brain.”

Why Does Food Affect Mental Health?

Stephen Ferrando, MD
Stephen Ferrando, MD

“Your GI tract houses billions of bacteria that can influence the production of the chemical substances that carry messages to your brain, called neurotransmitters,” says Stephen Ferrando, MD, Director and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Westchester Medical Center. “In fact, about 95 percent of your body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate your sleep, appetite, moods and pain, is produced in your GI tract.”

Eating plenty of nutritious foods promotes “good” bacteria growth in your GI tract, which in turn increases the production of these chemicals and clearly communicates positive messages to the brain. This bacteria also protects the lining of your intestine, provides a barrier against “bad” bacteria and toxins, limits inflammation in the body, improves how well you absorb nutrients and activates neural pathways between the gut and the brain.

But what happens if you eat an excess of less nutritious foods—those that are highly processed or high in sugar? “Ingredients like sugar can feed the ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut and lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain,” says Dr. Ferrando. “In addition, excess sugar can lead to a spike in dopamine and serotonin, causing what’s commonly known as a sugar high and subsequent crash.” All of these factors can contribute to your risk of developing mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

How to Eat Well for Your Mental Health

The key to eating for your brain is to focus on minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods. Studies have shown that eating a diet that consists of mainly whole foods can help lessen your symptoms of depression and anxiety. And nutrient-dense foods help you avoid mood swings and improve your ability to focus.

Some nutrients that you should be sure to include in your brain-healthy diet include:

  • Fiber, which can help you absorb glucose slowly and avoid sugar rushes, and is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans
  • Antioxidants, which fight inflammation and are found in berries, leafy greens, turmeric, salmon and black chia seeds
  • Folate, a type of B vitamin that produces dopamine and is found in leafy greens, lentils and cantaloupes
  • Vitamin D, which helps produce serotonin and is found in mushrooms, as well as our exposure to sunlight
  • Magnesium, which helps with many functions in the body and can be found in almonds, cashews, spinach, bananas and beans
  • Probiotics, which are live bacteria that are good for your GI tract and can be found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and kombucha
  • Fatty acids, which support your brain function and can be found in olive oil, avocados, fish, eggs, nuts and flaxseeds

“In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid too many processed foods—the fewer ingredients on a package the better,” says Dr. Ferrando. “And when you’re craving a snack, try to eat something high in protein like nuts, hard-boiled eggs or sweet potatoes — these foods will give you more energy and will keep your body satiated for longer.”

When to Seek Help

If you’re feeling symptoms of depression, anxiety or another mental health condition, it’s important to talk with your primary care provider. Diet can have a big effect on the brain, but holistic wellness is all about treating the whole person — which means there are other treatment methods that may help your mental health.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to adjust your diet for your brain health or are looking for treatment for a mental health condition, reach out to WMCHealth Physicians.