Research from the last ten years has shown that your gut health and nutritional habits impact your mental and emotional health. Gut health can be an important factor in anxiety, depression, stress, and sleeplessness. If your gut health is off-balance, you might not be able to produce enough serotonin to regulate your mood, for example, since gut bacteria produce 95% of the serotonin in your body. Your gut microbiome also communicates directly with the enteric nervous system — the neurons in your gut — which some have called the “second brain” because of the important way that it participates in mood regulation and communicates with your primary brain. The full role of these gut neurons is still being understood, but we know they are influential in the connection between digestive issues and mental health. Here are five ways to leverage nutritional habits to optimize your mental health.
Yes, there are many diets such as paleo and keto that reduce or attempt to eliminate carbs. However, key neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin require carbohydrates to be manufactured in the amounts you need for proper mental health. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger between neurons, and serotonin helps regulate mood, sleep, digestion and other social functions. Carbs help boost and regulate your mood because they are important for regulating your blood sugar which is linked to your mood, and play an important role in tryptophan absorption. Eating tryptophan-rich foods can give you a mood boost, but you need the carbs to make those tryptophan more available. So, when you reduce carbs significantly, you reduce your blood sugar and serotonin levels, predisposing you to moodiness and depression.
It’s good to keep in mind that tryptophan-rich foods such as eggs, nuts and seeds, seaweed, and turkey can boost mood, but need to be paired with carbs to make the tryptophan more available to the brain. By mixing high-tryptophan foods with carbs, you get a serotonin boost. This is because carbs cause the body to release more insulin, which promotes the absorption of proteins in the blood except for tryptophan, giving it a clearer path to the brain. What’s more, complex carbohydrates rich in fiber helps slow your digestion of sugar, allowing for a gradual release into the bloodstream. That stability of release helps you to maintain your energy level, and guard against mood swings and irritability. If you’re feeling blue or in a tough spot in life, make sure you’re getting an adequate, low-glycemic carb intake in order to uplift your mood and to support your emotional health.
Eating is a parasympathetic nervous system activity. The parasympathetic aspect of our nervous system is what helps us relax, unwind, and increases the absorption of nutrients while eating. Our body wants to slow down when we eat in order to fully absorb the nutrients and engage in proper digestion, plus there is a side benefit of calming some of the stress we might be feeling. You can harness this slowing down effect by being intentional about how you eat, giving yourself time to calm down and connect with your body. Ingesting food is a great way to connect more deeply with how you feel, so your mind is not spinning as much throughout the day.
Eating with others is a popular activity because you get to slow down, which enhances bonding and connection. If you eat fast, it not only limits making good use of this slow down effect to relax and bond with others, but it can also harm digestion and produce acid reflux. Taking time to consume your meals in a calm manner while connecting with yourself and with others, enhances digestion, mood regulation, reduces stress, and creates valuable social bonds, all enhancing your mental health.
If you have anxiety or gastrointestinal (GI) issues, talk to your physician, and learn how to engage in relaxing activities throughout the day. There is a link between anxiety and GI problems. The brain and gut are connected through an important nerve called the vagus. Chronic anxiety can disrupt the natural alternating calming and excitatory functions of the autonomic nervous system, largely housed in the gut, and can lead to disease processes such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In the same way that gut health can impact mental health, anxiety and stress tend to impact the gut. So it’s important to take steps that address chronic anxiety.
If your anxiety is high, you should see a psychotherapist to learn tools to regulate your nervous system, explore sources of stress, and give yourself an outlet to explore and express your emotions. Anxiety also benefits from exercise, yoga and meditation practice. When you learn how to calm your brain, you also calm the GI system, leading to both mental and physical health benefits.
Recent research has shed light on a mutation on the methyl-tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene that prevents the metabolization of the important nutrient, folate (vitamin B9). Improper folate metabolization can lead to a condition called hyperhomocysteinemia (elevated homocysteine in the blood), which can have mental health implications. Hyperhomocysteinemia has been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as impaired functioning of several key neurotransmitters. In one European study, as many as 70% of individuals experiencing depression had this genetic variant, causing low folate levels. Low folate may also negatively impact the efficacy of antidepressant medications.
Because folate is not generated by the body, it’s crucial that we’re able to absorb it from food and supplements. Some individuals with MTHFR mutations benefit from supplementing with the more bioavailable form of folate, l-methylfolate, as bioavailable folate in food may be insufficient. If you struggle with depressive cycles, or just want to optimize your health, testing for this variant may be helpful. Talk to your physician before deciding to supplement.
Many have long been conditioned to avoid dietary fat, but valuable information about the benefits of healthy fats on the brain are changing that narrative. Fat helps build the lining around neurotransmitters (myelin sheath) that protects and insulates them so they are more effectively transmitted throughout the body. Additionally, cellular membranes in brain tissue are made up of omega-3 fatty acids. Nourishing the brain with supplements and foods high in this nutrient may help prevent and treat some mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and ADHD. A diet low in healthy fats can also cause decreased hormone regulation, leading to mood swings and a higher risk for depression.
Incorporating nutrition tips such as the ones mentioned above can help your mental and emotional health, but is not a replacement for professional attention. If you are dealing with significant stress, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, or any other mental and emotional health issue, we recommend you reach out to discuss things with a licensed psychotherapist. A clinic that integrates nutrition with counseling and physical health may be ideal to connect the dots between those domains of health and take the most effective path to resolving issues.
Regarding the role of food, Adrien Paczosa, R.D., of iLiveWell Nutrition, a local dietician group practice specializing in mental health says, “Don’t overthink it or get too involved in niche fancy diets if you’re wanting to support your mental health, just eat a wide variety of healthy foods and pursue a balanced diet, so that your body can properly take care of your brain.” Sound advice, considering all the important mental and emotional health functions that depend on adequate nutrition and a balanced diet.
John Howard and Amber Crable are psychotherapists at PRESENCE, an integrative wellness center supporting your mental, physical and relationship health so you can heal, grow, and thrive in life through science-based psychotherapy and medicine. Amber completed her Ph.D. in the role of nutrition in mental health.