You may already know about the many benefits of a well-balanced diet for your heart, bones and muscles — but did you know you can also eat for your mind?
Given the known links between mental and physical health, food can have a sizable impact on both physical and emotional feelings and functions. While nutrition isn’t a fix-all solution for all mental health problems, everyday choices about what we eat can affect our mood.
In particular, choosing nutrient-packed foods that help fight depression and bolster positive mental wellness is an excellent way to boost your mood naturally while also supporting other aspects of your health and well-being.
“Minimizing processed foods has been shown to decrease inflammation in the body,” says Dr. Frank Drummond, HCA Healthcare national medical director of Behavioral Health. “Inflammation can be a source of anxiety and depression.” He adds that when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, the more colorful the diet, the better, to ensure an array of nutrients and vitamins.
While it’s best to mix in a variety of healthful choices from all five food groups, a diet rich in fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy oils and lean proteins has been shown to stabilize mood. If you’re looking for specific items to add to your shopping list, consider these five picks.
Cold-water fish such as salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical to include in your diet, as low levels of omega-3s have been associated with depression. Omega-3 fatty acids can have other positive benefits as well, such as reducing the likelihood of developing certain heart problems and cancers. While salmon and other seafoods are a rich source of omega-3s, you can also get them from vegetarian sources, including nuts and plant oils.
Every day, scientists are learning more about how the ecosystem of living organisms in the gut — called the gut microbiome — affects our mental state. Evidence suggests that inflammation in the gut can lead to depressive symptoms in some patients. Improving living conditions for good gut bacteria can help, and because these bacteria need fiber to thrive, eating fiber-rich foods is an important part of ensuring a healthy balance of microbes in the gut.
Most people don’t get enough fiber in their diets, even though fiber-rich options are almost everywhere you look — from grains to veggies to nuts, beans and more. With up to 8 grams of fiber per serving, berries such as raspberries, blackberries and wild blueberries are a delicious way to get some extra fiber.
Known as a major source of the beneficial compound curcumin, turmeric has been at the forefront of both mainstream media and academic journals for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This pantry spice is great for gut health because it’s easily metabolized by bacteria in the gut, and a healthy gut microbiome may contribute to better mood. Early research also suggests that turmeric may have antidepressant qualities, as it appears to increase production of the mood-boosters serotonin and dopamine.
Yogurt containing live cultures of the bacteria Lactobacillus may have some antidepressant effects thanks, once again, to gut health. In a study of mice, scientists learned that when levels of Lactobacillus were low, a certain metabolite called kynurenine, which contributes to depression, went up. Researchers are still determining how these animal studies hold up in human patients, but based on what we already know about yogurt’s beneficial impacts on digestive health, it’s worth stocking up.
Not only does broccoli contain a variety of minerals and vitamins, but the superfood also has the potential to reduce depressive symptoms. In a study among mice, researchers found that a broccoli-derived compound fought off depression caused by inflammation. In particular, consuming the compound during childhood may help ward off inflammation-linked depression in adulthood.
Feel your best, inside and out
Research from nutritional science can tell us a lot about natural mood-boosting approaches, but it’s important to remember that food can’t solve all of life’s problems. However, dietary and lifestyle changes in combination with techniques like psychotherapy can help make the most of treatment plans.
If you have a concern about your mental health, talk with your doctor. They can go over your medical history and risk factors to identify the best path forward and help you feel your best, inside and out. Food may not be the only thing that works, but science proves it can certainly help.