Mental Health: The Foods You Choose Matter

Mental Health: The Foods You Choose Matter

Foods you choose to eat or not eat every day make a difference in your mental health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. That’s 40 million adults—18% of the population—who struggle with anxiety. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with about half of those with depression also experiencing anxiety. 

A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. Recent exciting research now clearly demonstrates that the gut-brain axis is also very important, since a large percentage (about 95%) of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. Research is looking at the potential of probiotics in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

Here is some data that links diet and effects on behavior.

Specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety

  • In mice, diets low in magnesium were found to increase anxiety-related behaviors. Foods naturally rich in magnesium may, therefore, help a person to feel calmer. Examples include leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety.
  • Other foods, including fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, contain omega-3 fatty acids. A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. (This study used supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids). Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only.
  • A study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms.
  • Asparagus, known widely to be a healthy vegetable. Based on research, the Chinese government approved the use of an asparagus extract as a natural functional food and beverage ingredient due to its anti-anxiety properties.
  • Foods rich in B vitamins, such as avocado and almonds
  • These “feel good” foods spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety.

Foods to eat to support nerve, brain and gut function 

High Fiber Foods: beans, brown rice, berries, bran, pears, apples, bananas, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, artichokes, almonds, walnuts, amaranth, oats, buckwheat, and pearl barley

Omega-3s: cold-water fatty fish like salmon mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines, grass-fed beef, edamame, walnuts, chia seeds

Aged, fermented, and cultured foods: yogurt, kombucha, miso, tempeh, apple-cider vinegar, and pickled vegetables

Tryptophan: turkey, other meats, and chickpeas, especially when combined with carbohydrates

Vitamin D: cod-liver oil, egg yolks, herring, sun-dried mushrooms, oysters, salmon, sardines, shrimp, canned light tuna, fortified milk

Vitamin B1 (thiamine): acorn squash, asparagus, barley, beef, black beans, cauliflower, eggs, kale, lentils, nuts, oatmeal, oranges, pork, salmon, sunflower seeds, tuna, whole grains

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, pork, poultry (chicken and turkey), whole-grain cereals (oatmeal and wheat germ)

Vitamin A: liver (beef, cod-liver oil, lamb), fish (bluefin tuna, mackerel, salmon, trout), cheeses (blue, camembert, cheddar, feta, goat, roquefort), caviar, hard-boiled egg

Vitamin C: black currants, broccoli, brussels sprouts, chili peppers, guavas, kale, kiwifruit, lemon, lychee fruit, oranges, papaya, parsley, persimmons, strawberries, sweet yellow peppers, thyme

Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol): almonds, avocado, beet greens, butternut squash, peanuts, spinach, sunflower seeds, Swiss chard, trout

Magnesium: almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, avocados, cooked black beans, edamame, peanut butter, and avocado

Potassium: bananas, pumpkin seeds, bananas, cucumbers, mushrooms, oranges, peas, sweet potatoes

Selenium: Brazil nuts

Turmeric: curcumin

Theanine: green tea

Herbs: lavender, passionflower, and chamomile

Foods to Avoid

Just as food can be supportive of your mental health, it can also detract from it. Start to become aware of the relationship that the following foods have on your anxiety symptoms. As you notice the connection between food and mood, you may consider reducing or eliminating the following food:

Components of the Western diet (high fat, high carb diet): foods high in unhealthy fats (fried foods, red meat) and high Glycemic Index carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta, foods made from refined flour)

Caffeine: start by ensuring that you keep caffeine under 400 mg/day and consider slowly decreasing daily caffeine intake further. Less than 100 mg of caffeine per day is the amount least likely to contribute to your anxiety.

Some of you may know how rapidly or slowly your body metabolizes caffeine. But what you might not realize is that genetic variants have an impact on the anxiety-provoking effect of caffeine and its contribution to insomnia.

Alcohol – avoid alcohol altogether if you have had problematic drinking in the past.

For men – stay well under 14 drinks per week and no more than 2 drinks in any single day

For women – stay well under 7 drinks per week and no more than 1 drink in any single day

Gluten: if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, avoid all wheat products including bread, pizza, pasta, and many alcoholic drinks

Artificial sweeteners: aspartame is particularly harmful and associated with anxiety but consider reducing all artificial sweeteners including erythritol.

‍Adapted from This is Your Brain on Food

‍Hungry for more knowledge on how food affects your mental health?

1.    This is Your Brain on Food by Dr. Uma Naidoo

2.    Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety by Dr. Drew Ramsey

3.    Eat to Beat Disease by Dr. William Li


Are you suffering from anxiety disorders? ShaMynds Healing Center in Sacramento, CA is here for you to heal your Mynd, Body & Soul. Call us now on: 916-538-6498 or book a free consultation to find out how can integrative medicine change your life.

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