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Diet and Mental Health: Fueling a Better Mood


May is mental health awareness month, so we thought it would be an appropriate time to discuss how diet affects your mental health. Diet and wellness go hand-in-hand, something that surprisingly was not acknowledged until more recently. But with further studies in nutritional psychiatry, we are now very aware of how food and mood are connected. So let’s take a look at our diet, and answer questions like: how does nutrition reduce stress, anxiety, and depression?

Have you ever heard the phrase “fuel your brain?” It’s an appropriate little turn of phrase because food quite literally fuels your body and your brain. The brain is constantly working, even when you are sleeping, so it’s important to supply it with healthy foods to keep things running smoothly. And since diet directly influences the brain, it will by extension influence your mood. For example, if you only provide your body with refined sugars and junk food, you are basically denying your brain what it needs to function correctly. Very specifically, there is direct proof that ingredients like refined sugar will impair your brain function. So symptoms of mood disorders like depression and anxiety will worsen.

Most of us have heard of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, appetite, and mood. Interestingly, serotonin is mainly produced in your gut, in the gastrointestinal tract. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are therefore influenced by the good bacteria in your gut microbiome. You want healthy bacteria in your gut because it keeps things regular. It is a barrier against toxins and bad bacteria, it reduces inflammation, and helps your body absorb nutrients. So let’s say you gobble down a bunch of processed foods. You are receiving very little – if any – nutrients, you are probably feeling bloated from gut inflammation, and there are toxins attacking your gut microbiome. This is not exactly the proper environment for thriving serotonin production. Now your mood has soured, and your blood sugar levels are all over the place – meaning your energy levels spiked, and then dropped drastically. This is clearly not ideal, especially for someone with a mood disorder.

And that isn’t even the end of it! In the last 5-10 years, even more research has surfaced regarding the gut-brain axis and the blood-brain barrier. The gut-brain axis reveals that the gut communicates with the brain through immune signaling, and immune signals from the gut can compromise the brain’s blood vessels, deteriorating brain health and impairing cognitive abilities. The implications from this research extend to autoimmune disorders, and by extension mood disorders. Whereas the blood-brain barrier is basically a group of cells that protects the brain from harmful components in the bloodstream. If gaps occur, then those harmful components can reach the brain, inflaming this complex organ. This can be referred to as a “leaky brain.” Your gut works in a very similar way, and causes of a leaky brain are similar to a leaky gut. This includes poor diet. Since we know the two are connected, this means a leaky gut is one of the main causes of a leaky brain. And the symptoms you are facing? We have: brain fog, sudden migraines, cognitive impairment – which can lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia, mood changes, chronic fatigue, and more.

Unfortunately for many of us, avoiding processed foods and refined sugars can be difficult since western civilization heavily relies upon them. We also tend to use many inflammatory ingredients that weigh us down. The average western diet, compared to a more traditional diet like Mediterranean or Japanese, is terrible for both your gut and your mood. In other countries, a typical diet consists of more vegetables and fruits, seafood, leaner meats, unprocessed grains, and many are completely lacking in refined sugars. They receive more natural probiotics, and many health benefits. Sadly, studies have found that a western diet will actually increase your risk of depression by 25-35%.

So what can we do? Basically, you need to start paying attention to how different foods make you feel. Both the day you eat them, and throughout the following days. Trust me, this is something I discovered about myself. As soon as I cut out refined sugars, heavily processed grains, and seed oils, I found myself feeling better physically and emotionally. Try eating clean for a couple weeks, and you will be amazed at the transformation in your mood! This is how I came up with the idea for Plantiful Kitchen. I wanted others to experience the food renaissance that transformed my own gut. We provide grain-free bread, clean and ethically sourced ingredients in all our baked goods, and products that will fit vegan and paleo diets. It is our gift to you, to give you access to bakes that do not negatively impact your brain or mess with your gut.

You will also want to focus on regulation. If your diet is balanced, your life is balanced. Try eating regularly to avoid drops in your blood sugar level – which, as we have covered, will cause you to feel tired and irritable. Definitely stay hydrated. Mild dehydration is enough to affect your energy levels and mood. And then there are the things you hear all the time: keep to healthy fats, no trans fats; avoid processed grain, or opt for true whole grain (not all whole grains are created equal); get lots of protein, which has amino acids that help control your mood; incorporate far more vegetables and fruits for nutrients such as fiber; and get some foods with probiotics for healthy gut bacteria. Bottom line, sometimes we do not put much thought into our meals and meal planning. But if we want our brain to run efficiently, making a concentrated effort to supply better fuel greatly enhances our cognitive abilities. You will find yourself more alert, and in a significantly better mood.

Important note: If you or a loved one struggle with your mental health and/or have a mood disorder, always remember that you are not alone! There are many resources out there for you to get information and support. Stay well everyone!