A few years back I found myself unusually anxious and depressed. I was lethargic, weepy, and unshakably overwhelmed with feelings of dread and shame. Given there were no obvious triggers, I decided to get some blood work done to rule out anything physiological. As a therapist and executive coach, I knew that no amount of therapy would remediate the psychological effects of physiological imbalance.
When my results came back, I was relieved to clearly see the potential problem: I was deficient in Vitamin D, a micronutrient integral to mental health. I began supplementing, and within a couple of weeks the chronic shame and dread were reduced (to my everyday New Yorker neuroses).
Unfortunately, most mental health professionals (including physicians) aren’t taught to screen for nutrient deficiencies or hormonal imbalances as possible reasons for mental health challenges. The system tends to support support prescribing side-effect heavy psychotropic drugs without requesting lab work or exploring supplementation first.
As someone who helps clients optimize their mental health from all angles, the remainder of this article will focus on the powerful role our diet plays in mental health—and how you can be confident you’re eating in a way that sets you up for optimal mood, focus, and sleep. Specifically, we’ll cover the importance of: mood-boosting nutrients; a balanced microbiome (gut); stable blood sugar; and an anti-inflammatory diet.
Experts agree: how and what we eat matters for mental healthNathan Cowley
1. Supplement these mood-boosting nutrients
The supplement industry exceeds $71.8b and most health professionals agree that you don’t need to start your morning choking back several dozen herbal capsules. However, even those of us who follow our favorite biohacking podcaster’s diet could be susceptible deficiencies that could lead to mental health challenges. In some cases, this could be due to eating a restrictive or imbalanced diet; however, repeated studies actually show our food is significantly less nutritious than it was for our parents. This phenomenon is largely due to a decline in soil quality and pressure to farm “bigger crops, faster.” Fruits, vegetables, grains—and the animals that eat them that meat eaters eat—thus have less of the essential nutrients humans depend on for (mental) health.
So, in addition to a diverse diet, you might want to consider supplementing the following:
Vitamin D deficiency affects approximately forty-two percent of the US population. Knowing deficiency affects mental health, one could imagine that same demographic is also navigating the effects of less-than-optimal mental health. To get a better sense of the pervasive issue, I consulted Dr. Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, and Vice President of Scientific Affairs for Mindbodygreen’s supplements:
“Our nation has a vitamin D deficiency epidemic, and the implications for our mental wellness are significant,” she confirmed. “Involved in neurotransmitter synthesis pathways, vitamin D regulates serotonin production, clearly linking the nutrient to mood, emotional health, and mental well-being.”
While vitamin D can be be produced by spending time in sunlight— and is found naturally in fatty fish, mushrooms, and egg yolks—it’s very challenging to get enough without supplementation.
Dr. Raghu Appasani, the in-house psychiatrist at PYM, weighed in on the importance of several mood-boosting nutrients. PYM, founded by Zak Williams (son of the late Robin Williams), produces supplements that “prepare your mind” to handle everyday stressors and life events that take a toll on mental health.PYM wants you to “prepare your mind” to handle everyday stressorsPYM
“Taking a methylated B complex (vitamins) has been shown in multiple research studies to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Appasani explained. “Many of the B vitamins work together with other enzymes in your body to help produce vital neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is key in regulating mood and mental wellness.”
Some places B vitamins can be found naturally are meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, seeds, leafy greens, and fortified cereal.
“The body actually depends on magnesium to convert vitamin D into its active form within the body,” functional nutrition guide Aleksandra Chojnacka clarified. “In other words, oftentimes when blood tests reveal vitamin D deficiency, it’s because we’re deficient in magnesium.”
She emphasized the importance of the mineral for the absorption of other essential nutrients as well, such as B vitamins and potassium.
In addition to a supplement, get more magnesium in your diet by including leafy greens, bananas, avocados, nuts, seeds, legumes, and tofu.
“Omega fatty acids have been shown to be most effective supplement in mood disorders within the mental health spectrum,” explains Appasani. “Multiple studies have shown that they may prevent or moderate both depression or bipolar disorder and may be effective in stabilizing mood and enhancing the effectiveness of conventional antidepressants as adjunctive supplements.”
He went on to share omega fatty acids “have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, improving not only mental health, but overall health, which in turn allows for improved mood.”
You can get more omega 3’s in your diet by eating fatty cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies), oysters, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
Countless studies have linked zinc deficiency to anxiety and depression. Experts have determined the mineral improves the areas of our brain that control emotions by increasing their level of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Low levels of BDNF are associated with low mood, with the mitigating factor being zinc.
Get more zinc to your diet naturally by including oysters, poultry, meat, and fortified cereals.
2. Feed your gut microbiome
For decades we’ve known anxiety and depression can cause digestive upset, but only in recent years have we come to understand digestive upset can cause anxiety and depression. “Ninety-five percent of the neurotransmitter receptors responsible for our mood are actually in our gut [versus our brain],” explains psychologist and anxiety expert Becky Beaton-York. In other words, if our gut isn’t healthy and balanced, our mind won’t be healthy and balanced.Mindbodygreen offers a line of supplements to support mental healthMindbodygreen
Mindbodygreen’s Ferira explains the microbiome and mental health link further: “The gut-brain connection acts as a metaphorical highway that delivers critical data between the gastrointestinal tract and our brains. The microbes that live in our guts directly communicate with the brain and produce neurotransmitters that influence everything from sleep quality, to mood and more.”
I recommend that clients take a probiotic supplement daily, and include probiotic-rich foods in your diet (probiotic yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, and tempeh are some examples).
3. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
Inflammation has been linked to most chronic diseases—everything from cancer to heart disease to diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis. And mental illness is no different: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder are all associated with increased levels of inflammation. Studies show our diet contributes to inflammation, and following an anti-inflammatory diet can help with both disease prevention and management.
Experts advise following a whole foods diet with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, nutrient-dense fish, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Processed foods, sugar, alcohol, and unhealthy fats should be moderated or avoided.
Finally, there’s a misconception that gluten and dairy cause inflammation. However, this is only true for those who are intolerant to gluten or dairy. So, despite what the nearly $6b gluten-free industry wants your to think, there’s no need for you to avoid the bread basket (or the cheese plate) unless you have a sensitivity or allergy.
4. Eat for balanced blood sugar
At some point or another, most of us have experienced “hanger”—irritability and low mood brought on by a dip in blood sugar.
Blood glucose monitoring has become a popular practice within the wellness space, as compelling research emerges showing a link between blood sugar trends and health. Aspect is a company that offers continuous glucose monitoring in combination with health coaching to help customers better understand how their eating patterns affect their mood, sleep, energy levels, and more. I spoke to with their resident neuroscience and nutrition expert, Dr. Nicole Avena, about the link between blood sugar and mental health:
“When you eat a lot of highly-processed foods with added sugars, this can cause spikes in dips in your blood sugar levels,” Avena explained. “Along with these spikes and dips in blood sugar one can see feelings of anxiousness, feelings of depression and mood dysregulation in general.”
She went on to clarify that the cause of this link is unknown: “Low blood sugar and anxiety are interrelated, but it is unclear on the exact direction of the relationship. However, we do know the symptoms of low blood sugar mirror the symptoms of anxiety, due to a similar biochemical process that occurs in the body. Thus, by having a balanced level of blood sugars, you may be able to set the stage for a more balanced mood, as well.”
By becoming familiar with the Glycemic Index (GI) of foods you consume regularly, eating every 2-3 hours, and considering a continuous glucose monitor, you can get a better sense of how tailor your diet for balanced blood sugar.
Diet is certainly not the only factor to attend to when it comes to mental health. Sleep, social connection, exercise, self-care, self-compassion, trauma healing, spirituality, career satisfaction, and physical and emotional safety and security are just some of many other important determinants of our psychological wellbeing. However, what was once dismissed as pseudoscience is now considered factual: what we eat influences what we feel, and everyone ought to be empowered to improve their mental health with this information.