Learning the top 10 foods for mental health helped me to finally find the motivation I needed to change my diet as a lifestyle.
I have been addicted to sugar and junk food ever since I turned 16 and had my own money and transportation. Growing up, we never had any unhealthy food in the house.
My mom wouldn’t buy fruit snacks, candy, chips or snack cakes. If we did have sweets in the house it was because we had just gone trick-or-treating or had Easter. And, fast food was a once a year kind of occurrence.
She was terrified of getting fat and always made my sisters and I stay mindful of our weight. There wasn’t a diet that my mom hadn’t tried. Every new gimmick or “silver bullet” for fat loss was in our kitchen cupboard.
Growing up being hyper-aware of my weight, it only made sense that when I was old enough to have a job, buy my first car and rebel against all the things, I stopped at every drive-thru and gas station convenience store in my path.
I quickly learned that I could eat garbage and still maintain a steady weight. I’m 6 foot tall, so I can pack on a few pounds and hide it fairly well. I was raised to fear bad food for what it would do to my size and it turned out that wasn’t really a problem.
But, what I didn’t know, was how all of my emotional eating was actually contributing to my anxiety.
What does having an unhealthy gut mean?
Decades ago, when I was a teenager, no one really talked about ‘gut health’. During those formative years when I was learning how to set rules and boundaries for myself, my only concern was ‘getting fat’.
And, since that wasn’t a real problem for my body type, I didn’t think anything about the impact that my junk food and sugar-laden diet was having on my mental health and wellness.
It wasn’t until years later, when I started working in health care, that I learned I had caused myself to have an unhealthy gut biome.
If you’ve been following the blog, you have read my post about how to trust your gut instinct. This post is a little bit different in using the term “gut”.
In medicine, the term gut biome refers specifically to the microorganisms living in your intestines.
There are a few considerations for determining the overall health of your gut microbiome:
- How many organisms there are
- What level of diversity a population there are of them
- How many “good” bacteria vs “bad” bacteria you have
- What level of activity the microorganisms you have are
Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique to them. In fact, you receive your first dose of microbes on the day you are born as you’re passing through the birth canal.
Over the next few years of life, things like antibiotics, food, and breast milk influence your microbiome. When you are three years old, your gut microbiome stabilizes and the overall health of your gut is set … for the rest of your life.
There have been tons of studies that have concluded that there is a strong connection between your gut microbiome and various ailments. In fact, it’s pretty hard to NOT find a connection between any condition and the gut.
How does gut bacteria affect the brain?
The surface area of your intestinal tract that comprises the gut is 344 square feet. That’s a lot of real estate. And, every single molecule that you ingest, interacts with your gut is some way, shape or form.
As we’ve talked about, the inside of your gut is full of a wide variety of fungi, viruses, and bacteria. When molecules are ingested, the critters in the microbiome assess each one to see how it can be used to feed and protect its host … you.
The trouble happens when those molecules aren’t organic materials and the interaction goes haywire. Things like depression, anxiety, epilepsy, and other neuropsychiatric disorders have been linked to unhealthy gut microbiomes.
Some symptoms of an unhealthy gut include:
- Sensitivities or allergies to certain foods
- Gas and bloating after you eat
- Changes in weight
- Skin issues like eczema or psoriasis
- Mood swings
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog or difficulting focusing
These symptoms will feel better in the morning and get progressively worse as the day wears on. In other words, the more you have eaten the worse your symptoms will become.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the saying “you are what you eat”. That saying rings true more when it comes to your gut than any other part of your body.
The more chemicals in the foods that you eat, the more impact those foods have on your gut microbiome.
For instance, those chemicals can cause your gut critters to create by-products that can affect your brain. Also, chemicals from food can create a dramatic change in your gut microbiome that has lasting effects on your brain.
In fact, in a study done in 2011, a scientist named John Cryan, found that feeding mice a specific strain of probiotic helped to soothe their microbiome and calm their anxious behavior.
Some of the worst foods for gut health include;
If you are on a diet high in animal protein, but you are not considerate about the source of that protein, you could be inadvertently damaging your gut. Animal protein that comes from sources that are not organic or not sustainably raised could be filled with chemicals that are damaging to your own gut health.
These are foods that contain ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, sorbitol (or other chemical sweeteners), and condiments with ingredients that are difficult to pronounce.
Foods that contain antibiotics
These are typically sourced from farms that need to produce foods on a large volume. These foods are readily served up out the side of small buildings all over the country … aka fast food restaurants. The farmers give the animals on their farms antibiotics to reduce the risk of infections because there are so many animals to care for it’s impossible to make sure each of them is in good health.
Saturated and trans fats are very difficult for your gut to break down. Cooking foods in high volumes of grease and oils essentially coats them in a layer of poison that not only damages your gut health, but can cause harmful gut bacteria to thrive.
Eating these foods that are damaging to your gut health can have a direct impact on your mental health. Every system inside of your body is constantly working towards homeostasis or balance. Your gut is no different.
When you eat foods that are damaging to your gut health, it throws off the balance of the biome. That imbalance wreaks havoc on pretty much every part of your body and, most concerningly, on your brain.
Can your diet affect your mood?
So, we’ve established that there is a clear link between the food that you put in your mouth and your gut.
We talked about some of the nasty side effects you can feel when your gut is filled with garbage food. Things like indigestion and difficulty concentrating.
But, what does any of that have to do with your mood.
In other words, how does having a hard time concentrating after lunch create anxiety?
It’s all about hormones.
There are a few key hormones that are involved when it comes to you anxiety;
This is the hormone that regulates your metabolism and immune response. It is also known as “the stress hormone” and is released when you have high levels of stress. If you’re eating poorly, not getting enough sleep, and not practicing good self-care for your anxiety then your cortisol levels might be off the charts.
We all know testosterone as the male hormone. But, women produce testosterone also, just not at the same levels as men. When cortisol increases in response to stress, your body’s ability to produce testosterone is impeded. Some studies have found that an increased amount of cortisol and a lower level of testosterone can actually create feelings of anxiety
This is the hormone most widely associated with being female. During your cycle, your levels of estrogen change from luteal to follicular phases and can create all kinds of different symptoms. In addition to being integral in the female cycle, estrogen also carries serotonin around the body and helps to prevent it from being broken down. Serotonin in the “feel good” hormone, so estrogen is an important partner to have. When you’re stressed, and you release high levels of cortisol, those high levels can diminish the production of estrogen. And, with low estrogen, comes low serotonin. Thus, causing anxiety and depression.
As you can see, each of these hormones is thrown off balance in response to high levels of stress.
We use the term “stress” to refer to external events or situations that cause us to have a noticeable reaction.
There is a big meeting coming up at work where you have to give a presentation and you have diarrhea and panic attacks for the three days before the meeting.
The stress of the meeting has caused a physical response.
But, did you know that stress also occurs inside of the body?
In the medical field it’s called inflammation. When there is a prolonged level of inflammation in the body, this can also cause a noticeable reaction.
Inflammation is essentially just a general term the same way that stress is a general term. But, it does describe a very real scenario that goes on inside of the body.
As we mentioned before, your body is always in pursuit of homeostasis, a state of balance. When there is a situation that throws things out of balance, the body does a full court press to get things back on track.
That situation could be anything from the flu to cancer.
But, 9 times out of 10, that situation isn’t something as obvious.
It’s something subtle like soybean oil in the mayonnaise that you had on your sandwich at lunch. Or, the french fries soaked in trans fats and ketchup filled with sugar that you had on the side.
Every day, several times per day, we expose our bodies to molecules that are unnatural and throw it out of balance. And, each time we do that, we set off a chain reaction that is meant to bring the body back to balance.
The more times that chain reaction is set off, the more by-products are created and less gut health is available to establish balance next time.
This scenario is where inflammation is bred from.
A constant tug of war between the body trying desperately to establish balance, and the body systems being so fatigued and inflamed that a new set of challenges are being created.
When your body is inflamed, your immune system and your endocrine system can’t be in homeostasis.
Instead, they are in constant activation trying to find a “new normal”.
Your endocrine system is where hormones are created and regulated. When your endocrine system is inflamed and out of balance, you have what is called a hormonal imbalance. And, that can most definitely lead to chronic anxiety.
What is the first thing that a therapist will tell you to work on when you go to seek treatment for anxiety?
Reduce your stress.
Well guess what sister?
That means external AND internal stress.
Your body is in a constant state of civil war and, while that german chocolate cake might make you feel happy in the moment you are eating it, you’re not doing yourself any favors as far as getting a handle on your anxiety.
To truly embrace your anxiety, and use that power for good instead of evil, you MUST reduce your external stress as well as your internal stress.
Top 10 foods for mental health and overall wellness
All fish is actually a good choice but, salmon in particular. The reason that fish is so good for mental health is because it is full of Omega fatty acids. Salmon is considered a “fatty” fish, which means it has higher levels of omegas than other fish. It is also a great, natural source of vitamin d.
Providing you don’t have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, yogurt is a terrific source of probiotics. Remember we talked about good and bad bacteria in your gut biome? Well, probiotics are a good bacteria and can help to heal many different ailments. Eating yogurt is a great way to naturally get probiotics into your system. If you do have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, then I highly recommend eating goat milk yogurt.
If you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity then you’ll want to stick with whole grains that do not contain gluten like quinoa, oatmeal and buckwheat. But, if you’re not sensitive to gluten, then there are a ton of other whole grains you can fold into your diet. Your brain uses carbs for energy. But, you want to choose those carbs from the sources that don’t spike your blood sugar.
I’m sure you’ve heard the word tryptophan … in relationship to Thanksgiving, right? Well, outside of the “wear your stretchy pants” holiday, tryptophan is also a naturally occurring ingredient in chicken and turkey that helps your body produce serotonin, the feel good hormone. Also, chicken is a great source of protein without many calories.
Spinach is high in folic acid, which has been linked to help protect against depression. It is also a cruciferous vegetable, which blocks the production of estrogen. If you are estrogen-dominant then eating more cruciferous vegetables will help with that and spinach is a great choice!
Avocados are basically just brain food. They’re full of lutein, folate, and vitamin K. They’re also a great source of good fats, similar to Omegas. Your brain loves fatty acids and eats it up for better focus, concentration, and mental calmness
Using olive oil in your cooking is a great way to get polyphenols into your diet, which help with improving memory and learning. It also helps your body to release dopamine and serotonin. Olive oil is also a great antioxidant for overall wellness.
Nuts are similar to fish in that they contain omega fatty acids, which are great for keeping your brain healthy and high-functioning. On top of that, certain nuts have additional brain-boosting benefits. Cashews provide your brain magnesium and help to carry oxygen. While almonds contain phenylalanine, a neuro-protectant.
Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which are in the antioxidant family. This category of brain food has been shown to boost memory, attention, and help to boost mood.
The reason that tomatoes are red is because of the high concentrate of lycopene they contain. This phytonutrient has been linked to the prevention of brain decay and dementia.
Sticking with large servings of green leafy vegetables, moderate servings of quality fats, and small servings of quality lean meats is the perfect way to support your brain and endocrine system to embrace anxiety.