Yes, it’s possible to affect our brain and moods with the foods we eat. In fact, this is a new area of research called “nutritional psychiatry“.
So, what do we know already?
We know that a healthy diet is linked with a lower risk of mental health issues.
Several recent high-quality studies suggest that what we eat is a “modifiable risk factor” for depression and anxiety. This means that what we eat affects our risk of mental health issues, and we can control (modify) what we eat.
We know that the amounts and types of vitamins and minerals we consume, digest and absorb affects our brain, cognition and mood. This is the area of focus of “orthomolecular psychiatry“.
The newer information focuses on how essential components to a healthy diet include not just a lot of nutritious foods, however, but a lot of fibre-dense foods. This is very interesting because for a long time we did not realize that fibre had much purpose other than adding bulk and motility to our stool!
In fact, what we eat is the main thing that influences our gut microbes, and remember, our microbes like to eat fibre! They love to digest the stuff that we cannot digest.
A now-famous recent randomized clinical study shows that what we eat can help improve symptoms of people who already experience depression!
Components of a healthy diet include:
- Fruits and vegetables, especially colourful and leafy vegetables;
- Wild and pastured fowl and meat, clean wild fish and seafood, eggs;
- Herbs, spices, sea greens, micro-greens and algae;
- Moderate amounts of whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds;
- Flax oil, olive oil, coconut oil, clean rendered animal fats (butter, tallow)
Some people tolerate grains and legumes better than others, and for many people that means not at all. However these foods offer an important source of resistant starch, which we know feed our friendly gut bacteria.
If you do not tolerate grains, getting your resistant starch from grasses such as rice might work better, and if not, potatoes. In both cases, it is best to cook then cool the rice or potatoes, and then to eat cold or reheat on a low temperature. If even potatoes are out, because you follow a paleo diet, you can try plantains.
Some foods highlighted in Dr. Susan Kleiner’s Good Mood Diet, developed after 25 years of providing nutrition counselling to a range of clients, include bananas, berries, eggs, flaxseed, ginger, garlic, turkey, whole greens, dark green and orange vegetables, soy and tofu.
Perhaps not surprisingly, foods associated with poorer mental health, by most researchers, include alcohol (depression), caffeine (anxiety), processed, sugary, salty, fried, fast, and high-fat foods, as well as sugary drinks.
A randomized clinical study shows that nutrition can help improve depression.
The SMILES trial took 67 people who already had depression and ate poor quality foods. This means they ate a lot of sweets, processed meats, and salty snacks; and not very many fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and dietary fibre.
They split the participants into two groups.
One group was given seven nutrition counselling sessions and were asked to eat more higher quality foods and fewer poor quality foods.
The other group was given “social support” only – they paired up with someone to discuss the news, sports, or even play cards or board games.
After 12-weeks the people who improved their diet had improvements in some of their symptoms of depression!
The researchers concluded that improving dietary quality is a “useful and accessible strategy for addressing depression in both the general population and in clinical settings.”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
[It is also helpful to have a helping hand as we change our habits! That’s why I run the Healthy Habits facebook group! Studies show people succeed best with witnesses!]
While this was the first study of its kind, and had positive results, it will be great to have additional studies to confirm and expand on these results.
In the meantime, we can improve our diets to eat more healthful nutrient-dense foods, and fewer low quality foods to improve both our mental and physical health.
What about probiotics?
There is research specifically looking at probiotics and mental health.
“Probiotics” are health-promoting microbes that “confer a health benefit” to the host.
While they could mean the germs in the forest air or lake water outside, we usually mean “supplemental probiotics”, as in things we can eat, drink, or supplement with. They’re found in things like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, miso, and kimchi.
What you may not know is that there are many many probiotics IN plant foods.
Like, right in the leaves! There can be millions in one leaf of spinach! This is one reason why eating a wide variety of farm-fresh, organic, unprocessed plant foods is incredibly beneficial. It gives more variety to your microbiome!
The closer you can get them to the soil the better, and the more rich the soil, the better the microbial life, and therefore, the greater potential health benefit can be conferred. There are no studies on the effect of probiotics directly from dirt, though there are a few studies have looked at the mood effects of people who take probiotic supplements.
One review of 10 studies found that there are some mood benefits from probiotic supplementation.
Another review looked at seven studies that compared probiotic supplements to placebo in healthy volunteers. The researchers concluded that there was a statistically significant improvement in psychological symptoms and perceived stress in people who took the probiotics.
This research is promising, but still preliminary.
PRO TIP: If you have any health conditions, or are on medications, please check with your healthcare professional before taking any supplements. Also, everyone should read the labels before purchasing a supplement to ensure that none of the cautions or warnings apply to them, and to ensure they’re taking it as per the directions for use on the label. Also, check for allergens, the top major ones must be listed.
Now that we’ve looked at foods to put in our gut to help our mental health, the trick is to put these changes into action!
The best way is to try to add one fibre rich vegetable at every meal. Try to include sources of resistant starch, and colourful fruits and veggies.
I hope that was helpful.
If you have more questions, please reach out!
I will be writing more on the microbiome and the gut-brain connection in future, it is too big a topic not to!