Updated: Aug 28, 2022
You are what you eat is one of the most literal things you will hear. From mental health to physical health; what you eat will either encourage healing and be the most powerful form of medicine or feed disease and be the slowest form of poison.
Many people fail to realize that proper nutrition affects everything, not just your physical health but your mental health too. If your diet isn't correct, you can't be the best possible version of yourself, which means your mental health may also be affected. Proper nutrition filled with antioxidants, protein, and even occasional carbohydrates is vital for mood-boosting and overall brain health.
The brain directly influences the gut and the intestines, associating anxiety with stomach problems and vice versa (1). When something transpires, inducing substantial mental or emotional pain, it's called a "gut-wrenching" experience for a reason.
Disguised in the walls of the digestive system, this "brain in your gut," also referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS), is revolutionizing medicine's interpretation of the links between digestion, mindset, health, and even the way you think. The ENS may activate substantial emotional changes overlooked by individuals struggling with irritable bowel syndrome and functional bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, stomach upset, and pain. The brain and the gastrointestinal system are informally connected, resulting in heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools (2).
The gastrointestinal tract is hypersensitive to emotions such as anger, anxiety, sorrow, and contentment — all of these feelings, amongst many others, can initiate symptoms in the gut. Therefore, an individual's stomach or intestinal distress can be the reason or the consequence of anxiety, stress, or even depression (3).
Mainstream medicine is catching onto the gut-brain connection. For this reason, it's becoming more common to see antidepressant medication prescribed to treat bowel disorders (4). To learn more about the gut-brain connection and how to heal your gut, check out Earthley's free Gut Health Support Guide, which I co-wrote, here. For now, let's discuss how diet directly correlates with mental health.
Foods To Add To Your Diet
Beta carotene is the pigment in a plant that gives it a vibrant red, orange, or yellow color. Beta carotene is considered a provitamin A carotenoid, which means that the body can convert it into vitamin A. Beta carotene is also a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants can help fight damage from harmful free radicals. The buildup of free radicals has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Beta carotene has been linked to better cognitive function (5), better skin health (6), protection against lung cancer (7), and protection against age-related macular degeneration (8).
Foods Rich In Beta Carotene
Red and yellow peppers
Romaine lettuce (9)
Herbs & Spices Rich in Beta Carotene
Vitamin C is the safest and most effective nutrient you can add to your diet. The benefits of vitamin C are quite surprising from protection against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, eye disease, and even skin conditions (11). Vitamin C is another powerful antioxidant, which means it can help fight damage from harmful free radicals, which have been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.
Foods Rich In Vitamin C
Herbs & Spices Rich In Vitamin C
Vitamin E is a vitamin that dissolves in fat and is usually found in animal products, but it's recommended to avoid animal products and to adapt a plant-based lifestyle if mental health is something you struggle with. Vitamin E is another antioxidant required for the proper functioning of many organs and slows down the process of damage from harmful free radicals, which has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease (14).
Foods Rich In Vitamin E
Herbs & Spices Rich In Vitamin E
Foods to Avoid in Your Diet
Avoid Refined Sugar
Refined sugars come from sugar cane or sugar beets, processed to extract the sugar. Not only does consuming sugary foods put at-risk individuals on the fast track to developing diabetes (17) but sugar has been directly linked to causing and contributing to already existing depression. In a 2017 study, researchers found that sweet foods and beverages' sugar was directly related to common mental disorders and depression (18).
Avoid Processed Foods
Aside from processed foods being loaded with sodium and phosphorus with studies demonstrating high intake potentially being harmful to the kidneys (19) it also increases the risk of depression. In a 2009 study, research suggested that eating a diet high in processed foods increases the risk of depression (20). Processed foods includes plant-based foods that are processed such as mock meats or cheeses.
Other Suggestions To Try
Heal Your Gut & Eat Fermented Foods
A 2015 study found a link between gut health, probiotics, and consuming fermented foods had an anxiolytic effect (21). If you need help healing your gut, I highly suggest Earthley's Gut Health Oil. I highly recommend MaryRuth's Probiotic Collection or Garden of Life's Probiotic Collection if you need a quality probiotic. Learn more regarding The Importance of Probiotics here.
Adapt A Plant-Based Lifestyle
An 18-month study done in 2013 consisted of a randomized controlled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk. During this study, researchers learned that a plant-based diet improves body weight, plasma lipids, and in those with diabetes, glycemic control. They also learned that the plant-based group experienced reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, and fatigue and boosted overall productivity and well-being (22). Keep in mind, there are several types of plant-based lifestyles, but not all of them are healthy. To learn the benefits of adapting a plant-based lifestyle, check out my article Why Adopt A Plant-Based Lifestyle, here.
Here’s a fantastic success story about Jane Green and her battle with depression and anxiety before proper nutrition:
When Jane Green was 14 years old, she was walking offstage from a tap dance competition when she collapsed.
She couldn’t feel her arms, her legs, or her feet. She was hysterically crying, and her whole body was hot. She was gasping for breath. She blacked out for 10 minutes and when she came to, her mom was holding her. It took 30 minutes for her heart rate to calm down enough so she could breathe.
Green was having a panic attack — her first one, but not her last. Her parents took her to the doctor, who diagnosed her with anxiety and depression, and handed her a prescription for a antidepressants.
“I’ve had good times, but I’ve also had really low points. Sometimes it got to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore,”
More doctors’ visits also revealed she had an irregular thyroid, which didn’t help with Jane’s anxiety. She started seeing a therapist at 20, which helped — but only so much.
At 23, after a particularly hard visit with her doctor who told her there was nothing that could be done about her symptoms, Jane had a meltdown in front of her friend Autumn Bates.
Bates was a nutritionist who had overcome her own anxiety issues by changing her diet. She convinced Jane to switch up her diet to see if it made her feel any better.
Green already ate a fairly healthy diet, but dinner was often unhealthy takeout. Sugar was a daily must-have, with candy throughout the day and ice cream at night.
Bates gave Green some new guidelines:
More healthy fats
Medium amounts of protein
Most importantly, lots of vegetables.
“For the first three days, I thought I was going to die,”
But after a few days, she started noticing her energy levels soaring.
“I wasn’t focusing on what I couldn’t eat — I was focusing on how great I felt physically, which made me feel better mentally and emotionally,”
“I stopped getting the crazy highs and lows from sugar. I actually have bowel movements now, which makes such an impact on my mood.”
As for those anxiety attacks?
“I haven’t had an anxiety attack in months,”
“I’m completely off my antidepressants, which I 100 percent attribute to my diet and lifestyle changes.”
Check out Jane Green's Full Story here.
⚠️ These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure anything.