So much attention has been placed on the link between nutrition and physical health that we tend to forget about the impacts (both positive and negative!) that our diet has on our mental health. Our brain – which controls our physical actions, cognition, and emotional state – is fueled by the same thing that fuels the muscles, organs, and systems of our bodies: food. Just as we need essential nutrients for good physical functioning and bodily wellness, we need essential nutrients for cognitive functioning and emotional wellness.
The study of nutrition and mental health is a really exciting space because there is still so much to learn in both fields and in how exactly they interact. But that also means we don’t know everything there is to know. However, the growing bodies of research tell us is that the better we eat, the better our mental health status – pretty easy to guess that, right? Researchers have found that certain dietary patterns may contribute to depression, while other dietary choices can play an effective role in the treatment of depression. Not surprisingly, the food that is good for your physical health and functioning is also good for your mental health and functioning. So while you’re making conscious choices to eat cleaner, unprocessed, whole foods – know that you’re benefiting your body and your mind.
The above links offer some good reads on the basics of nutrition and how it impacts our mental health but we want to give you a quick recap on how the essential nutrients (that we talk about constantly during pregnancy and early motherhood!) affect your mental health and wellbeing.
Calcium. We all know that calcium is critical for strong and healthy bones, but did you know that low levels of this nutrient can play a role in PMS-related depression?
- Where to get your calcium fix: Tofu, sesame seeds, yogurt, collard greens, spinach, cheese, beet greens.
Chromium. This trace mineral works directly with the brain’s mood regulators (serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin), combating mood swings and depression.
- Where to get your chromium fix: Broccoli, barley, oats, green beans, tomatoes, romaine lettuce.
Folic acid (also called folate, which is the natural form found in food) is so important in the early stages of pregnancy for healthy fetal development. But deficiency in this B-vitamin can lead to fatigue, and low levels are linked to higher rates of depression.
- Where to get your folate fix: Lentils, pinto beans, asparagus, spinach, black beans, kidney beans, turnip greens, broccoli.
Iron deficiency is more common in women of childbearing age, and if you don’t get enough iron you could be hit with fatigue, apathy, and mood swings.
- Where to get your iron fix: Lentils, spinach, garbanzo beans, lima beans, olives.
If you’re not getting enough of this essential mineral in your diet, you could be more prone to stress – as a mom or mom-to-be, getting help in the stress-reduction space is always welcome.
- Where to get your magnesium fix: Pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard, sesame seeds, quinoa, black beans, cashews.
This essential fatty acid makes up to 18% of the brain’s weight and is believed to be critical in combatting postpartum depression and boosting brain function.
- Where to get your Omega-3 fix: Flaxseeds, walnuts, salmon, beef, soybeans, tofu, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower.
Along with magnesium, Vitamin B6 is thought to reduce nausea and vomiting during early pregnancy, and it’s really important for the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system. On top of that, it’s essential for regulating brain function (influencing our emotions) and can effectively treat premenstrual depression.
- Where to get your Vitamin B6 fix: Tuna, turkey, chicken, salmon, sweet potato, sunflower seeds, banana.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in the winter months when there is less sun exposure and it’s directly linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is characterized by depressive symptoms.
- Where to get your Vitamin D fix: It isn’t naturally found in fruit and vegetables, so look out for things fortified with vitamin-D (some juices and whole-grain cereals), and make sure to spend as much time outside as possible. Good excuse to book that sunny holiday, don’t you think? It’s for your health and your happiness!
Want to know the best way to boost your mental health through nutrition? Go on a clean cleanse for 3 weeks and see how you feel. This isn’t a radical cleanse that shocks your body by cutting out primary food groups or restricting caloric intake. Here’s what to do:
- Week 1: Go sugar-free (this includes refined white sugar added to foods or sugary snacks).
- Week 2: Stay sugar-free and cut out processed foods (anything that’s boxed or premade with preservatives) – opt for whole food, natural picks instead!
- Week 3: Stay sugar-free and processed food-free and cut out either dairy or gluten. There’s a good chance that neither dairy nor gluten affects you negatively, but it’s good to see how your body reacts to not consuming them regularly. Start by eliminating one or the other so you can pinpoint what affects you more. You know your body best and how it already reacts to the food in your diet, so make a choice that feels right to you and your habits.
Journal how your 3 week cleanse goes and take note of how you’re feeling; physically, mentally, and emotionally. Remember that cutting out sugar may not make you feel great at the start if you’re used to having sugar in your diet, but see how you feel over time – we’ll bet your sugary snack cravings will be a thing of the past and your mind will feel clearer, your energy more lifted, and your moods brighter overall.