How diet greatly impacts physical health is well-known. However, much less known is that diet affects mental health.
Interestingly, research also shows women's mental health is impacted by diet to a greater extent than men's. Certain dietary factors bolster women's mental and emotional health while others tarnish it.
Discover exactly how diet affects mental health and the foods that help and hurt mental health, too.
Within the previous decade, a growing amount of research has linked nutrition to mental health and illness. Studies have linked certain dietary factors to specific conditions, such as probiotics and decreased anxiety, poor diet and depression and high sugar consumption, and ADHD in children. Yet, even more noteworthy, the research shows the connection between diet and mental health is stronger in women than men.
Researchers at two colleges in New York found that poor diet and especially high fast food consumption are associated with worse mental health in men. However, women require a more well-balanced diet more regularly to maintain or achieve the same levels of mental stability as men.
Why is this so? Most likely it has to do with the fact that there are critical differences in brain morphology and connectivity between men and women (3). Men appear to have larger brain volumes in the areas that control emotions, while women have more dense brain connectivity. Not only does brain volume take longer to morph, but brain connectivity is more impacted by day-to-day diet variations.
As evidence, participants' dietary patterns were qualitatively designated unhealthy, partially healthy, or healthy in the study just mentioned. Men that fell into the partially healthy and healthy categories tended to report good mental health. Women in the healthy/healthiest categories, on the other hand, reported good to fair mental health. Not only this, but it took men longer to experience mental distress in each of the designated categories compared to women.
All in all, it may be slightly more important for women to pay attention to their diet and practice healthy lifestyle habits to promote solid mental health than it is for men. Nonetheless, whether men or women, it is always beneficial to focus on including plenty of whole foods. Likewise, minimize processed and packaged foods to support sound health.
Nutrition and Mental Health
Biologically and evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that the same foods that promote proper physical health and reduce the risk of nearly all chronic diseases also aid mental and emotional health. The wholesome nutrients that real food - like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, high-quality animal products, unrefined fats, and whole grains - provide promote a thriving internal environment.
Conversely, inflammatory foods like sugar, hydrogenated oils, poor quality saturated fat, fast food, and packaged and processed foods deter physical health. They may also worsen mood and mental health as well.
These kinds of foods harm cellular health, disrupt neurotransmitter communication, and may displace nutrient-dense, healthy foods. Prolonged eating patterns of this nature can then lead to nutrient deficiencies. In turn, this can affect hormone and neurotransmitter levels which directly dictate mood and mental conditions.
In fact, several nutrients are critical for brain structure and function, so deficiencies can elicit a profound effect on mental health. This correlation is so strong that several clinical studies support consuming specific nutrients as medicinal supplements for the treatment and management of numerous neurochemical activities and mental health disorders like major depression and anxiety.
Clinical research reveals specific nutrients and one group of nutrients that most impact mental health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
This type of polyunsaturated fat plays a vital role in preserving neuronal structure and function as well as modulating inflammation. Some studies show a reduction in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.
These powerful fats are highest in fatty fish like salmon and sardines. They can also be consumed from anchovies, edamame, algae, and mushrooms.
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, of which brain circuitry and chemicals are then formed. Furthermore, some specific amino acids are precursors of mood-modulating chemicals, which have implications for mental health.
N-acetyl cysteine is a specific amino acid that is converted into glutathione – the most potent antioxidant of all. Studies show supplementation of this amino acid is helpful in bipolar depression, schizophrenia, and other compulsive, addictive behaviors.
S-adenosyl Methionine (SAMe)
Similarly, SAMe is also known to have antidepressant qualities, although the mechanism is not completely understood. Amino acids are found in protein sources, so to obtain SAMe and NAC from above, consume plenty of:
• Lean red meat
• Fish and seafood
• Plant-based sources like beans, legumes, tofu, seitan, and tempeh
• Nuts and seeds to some extent
Likewise, aim to consume higher-quality meats and protein sources from reputable manufacturers.
The group of B vitamins - thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, folate, and cobalamin - are required for a range of cellular and metabolic processes. These include the production of neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals.
Folate, especially, is necessary for proper spinal cord development in fetuses as well. Additionally, folate and B12 deficiencies are associated with increased reports of depression.
The richest sources of B vitamins are meats, eggs, cheese, milk, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
Magnesium is necessary for nearly every chemical reaction within the body, yet nearly half or more Americans are deficient in it. Deficiency of magnesium is highly correlated with depression and anxiety as well as various developmental problems.
Obtain sufficient magnesium from leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, cashews, seeds, and halibut.
Known to be important for bone development, vitamin D is also vital for brain development. Low maternal levels of vitamin D are associated with increased schizophrenia risk and overt deficiencies are linked to depressive symptoms.
Unfortunately, up to 90% of Americans are deficient in this vitamin. The best way to obtain enough vitamin D is through 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
However, there are also small amounts of vitamin D in fortified dairy, mushrooms, and sardines.
Zinc is an abundant trace mineral that is involved in numerous brain chemistry reactions as well as immune function. Deficiency of zinc is closely linked to increased depression.
Newer evidence suggests that supplementing with zinc alongside antidepressants is more effective than an antidepressant alone.
Increase zinc consumption through grass-fed meats, poultry, wild-caught fish, oysters, seafood, fortified cereals, beans, and nuts.
In terms of dietary measures, the best ways to promote positive mental health, especially in women include:
1. Eat a mostly whole foods diet.
2. Reduce consumption of processed and packaged foods.
3. Include plenty of vibrant colors from fruits and vegetables (5-9 servings/day).
4. Prioritize the discussed specific nutrients - omega-3, NAC, SAMe, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, and B vitamins.
5. Use supplementation of nutrients and/or antioxidants, adaptogens, or mushroom complexes to maintain sufficiency and promote hormonal balance.
6. Consider working with a health professional to determine an individualized, optimal, healthy diet
While diet certainly can help, it is important to still seek out professional mental health care as needed. Common mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and others should be addressed and managed alongside the help of a healthcare team.
Begdache L, Kianmehr H, Sabounchi N, Chaar M, Marhaba J. Principal component analysis identifies differential gender-specific dietary patterns that may be linked to mental distress in human adults. Nutr Neurosci. 2020 Apr;23(4):295-308. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2018.1500198. Epub 2018 Jul 20. PMID: 30028276.
Campbell L. Diet Affects Mood of Women More. Healthline. Written November 5, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/diet-may-affect-mood-of-women-more-than-men.
Drake K. Study Reveals Dietary Factors Associated with Mental Health. Medical News Today. Written March 5, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/study-reveals-dietary-factors-associated-with-mental-health#Customizing-diets.
Sarris J. Health Check: Seven Nutrients Important for Mental Health – and Where to Find Them. The Conversation. Published October 11, 2015. https://theconversation.com/health-check-seven-nutrients-important-for-mental-health-and-where-to-find-them-37170.