How Nutrition Plays a Role in Mental Health Issues

If you find yourself struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses (or know someone who is), it’s time to learn how nutrition can play a role positively or negatively.

Research has found proper nutrition and lifestyle changes can help repair our mind, just like our body. Just like one should seek professional help for physical issues, like a broken arm, one may consider seeking professional help for mental health.

Mental health plays a large part in our physical health. A consistent healthy state of mind increases life expectancy for those living healthy lives and those living with disease--this fact is consistent through seventy different studies on mortality (1).

In fact, research has found certain food components can positively affect brain chemistry AND certain food components can increase the risk for depression.

Let’s Talk About the Research

One study had some individuals eat plant-based diet and others a omnivorous diet (which include meat). The result? Those who ate the plant-based diet significantly had reduced negative emotions and experienced better health and felt physically stronger. (2)

The scientists conducting the study thought there were two possible explanations why the plant-based individuals felt that way: (2)

  1. Those who eat healthier diets are happier simply because they are physically healthier.

    • I know physically feeling good makes me happier!

  2. Those eating a plant-based diet were not exposed to a compound called arachidonic acid, which is pro-inflammatory.

Why Do We Care About Arachidonic Acid?

Our bodies naturally make arachidonic acid. Why?

Remember when we discussed inflammation and how some inflammation is good for us? [If not, check out this blog post] We need arachidonic acid because it creates an inflammatory response to help us fight infections.

So, yes. Some arachidonic acid is necessary in our bodies. But the important thing to remember is that our bodies make the amount we need. Just like our body creates all the cholesterol we need [sometimes more for certain individuals].

The kicker is that the acid is also found in high amounts in animal products. So, when we eat animal products we are increasing the amount of arachidonic acid in our bodies. That increase is known to have an “adverse impact on mental health via a cascade of neuroinflammation”. Or more simply put, arachidonic acid increases inflammation of nervous tissue affecting our bodies and minds.

Animal Products Increase Arachidonic Acid | Wholesome LLC

Remember, chronic inflammation has been identified as the root cause of numerous diseases.

You might ask, “What foods have this acid?”

Here are the top five sources in the American diet (3):

  1. Chicken*

  2. Eggs*

  3. Beef

  4. Pork

  5. Fish

*Chicken and eggs have been found to contribute more arachidonic acid than the other top sources combined! (3)

Putting the Theory to the Test

To test the theory of arachidonic acid increasing depression, researchers started working with men and women who ate meat at least one time per day. During the course of the study, the test subjects were instructed to eliminate animal products from their diet in a randomized control trial.

Within just two weeks of eliminating animal products (thus, lowering the consumption of the acid), the subjects experienced significant improvement in their mood. (4)

So, what food(s) was found to decrease the risk for depression by as much as 62%? Higher consumption of vegetables. (5)

Goodness, I love plants. <3

Chemical Imbalance & Mental Illness

Many are familiar with the theory that depression is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. The science of the brain is complicated and I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but the following may help simplify it.

The nerves in our brain communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters. One class of neurotransmitters is called monoamines. Well known monoamines are serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin: Known to contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness.

Dopamine: Helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

 There is nothing wrong with taking medication for medical illness. Her is Lauren with her short list of medications to manage Lupus and her anxiety.

There is nothing wrong with taking medication for medical illness. Her is Lauren with her short list of medications to manage Lupus and her anxiety.

These two neurotransmitters are controlled by the enzyme MAO, or monoamine oxidase. The job of MAO is to breakdown excess monoamines.

Those who suffer with depression typically have high levels of MAO in their brains (15). Meaning, their brains are breaking down serotonin and dopamine resulting in reduced feelings of happiness, well-being, and pleasure.

To prevent the breakdown of our “happy” chemicals, some anti-depression drugs seek to boost levels of these neurotransmitters (serotonin & dopamine) to make up for the excessive breakdown of them. Other medications have been developed to block the enzyme (MAO) responsible for the breakdown. But there can be serious side effects when you introduce these medications, which we won’t go into.

So, how can we naturally dampen the effects of MAO? Eat plants!

To be more specific, here are some foods and spices found to naturally inhibit MAO which may also explain why plant-based diets have a lower rates of depression (16, 17):

Foods: Apples, Berries, Grapes, Onions, and Green Tea

Spices: Cloves, Oregano, Cinnamon, Nutmeg

3 Things to Help Improve Your Mood

If you made it this far in the blog post you realize, more than ever, what we put into our bodies makes a huge difference in our mental health. Here are 3 things to help you reduce the risk of depression, anxiety, and/or other mental health disorders.

Coffee

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Yay! Coffee lovers, stand up and shout!

Coffee consumption, ranging from 1-6 cups per day was found to reduce the risk of suicide up to 80% (6). However, greater than 8 cups per day was found to have the opposite effect (7).

Note: 1 cup = 8 ounces. Your standard, 12 oz coffee is 1.5 cups.

CAUTION:

What goes hand-in-hand with coffee (for some)? Added cream, sugar, and artificial sweeteners.

Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) and saccharine (Sweet n’ Low) are associated with increase risk of depression (8). When studying brain function of individuals consuming 8 days worth of “high” dose aspartame [which was actually only ½ the accepted daily amount set forth by the FDA (9)] experienced more depression and irritability (10).

I recommend black coffee, my friends. Or, with small amounts of cream and real sugar.

Exercise Improves Mood | Wholesome LLC

Exercise

Research shows just one single workout can positively impact mood. (11)

In fact, working out at least 3 times per week worked as well as the anti-depression medication sertraline (Zolfot), when put to the test. (12)

Need I say more?

Antioxidants Dampens Oxidative Stress | Wholesome LLC

Antioxidant Rich Foods

Eating antioxidant-rich plant foods may “dampen the detrimental effects of oxidative stress on mental health” (13).

What foods contain antioxidants? Plants.

It’s also important to note only natural food sources, not supplements, appear to be protective for depression. (14)

To learn more about antioxidant foods, read this blog post.


The research regarding nutrition and mental health continues to grow. Especially the connection between diet, the gut microbiome, and mental health. With this being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help through a therapist and/or medication but I wanted to give you is a glimpse of how nutrition can positively or negatively impact our mental well-being.

If you struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concern, take a step back and look at your diet. It may be contributing to the issue or may help improve your mental state.

Proper nutrition and lifestyle changes can help repair our mind, just like our body.

Join Lauren and I tonight on Instagram Live at 7:30 p.m. CT where we will continue the conversation in recognition of World Mental Health Day. See you then!

Please tell us below, have you ever noticed how food impacts your mental well being? Do you have any tips for the Wholesome community? Comment below!


If you are dealing with anxiety, depression, or another mental health concern, please know you are not alone. If need to talk to someone, reach out to someone you feel comfortable with. If you need an additional resource, you please visit Crisis Text Line to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor for free.


References:

(1) Chida Y, Steptoe A. Positive psychological well-being and mortality: a quantitative review of prospective observational studies. Psychosom Med. 2008;70(7):741-56.

(2) Beezhold BL, Johnston CS, Daigle DR. Vegetarian diets are associated with healthy mood states: a cross-sectional study in Seventh Day Adventist adults. Nutr J. 2010;9:26.

(3) National Cancer Institute. Table 4: Food Sources of Arachidonic Acid. http://appliedresearch.cancer.gov/diet/foodsources/fatty_acids/table4.html. Modified April 20, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018.

(4) Beezhold BL, Johnston CS. Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutr. J. 2012:11-9.

(5) Tsai AC, Chang T-L, Chi S-H. Frequent consumption of vegetables predicts lower risk of depression in older Taiwanese--results of a prospective population-based study. Public Health Nutr. 2012;15(6):1087-92.

(6) Klatsky AL, Armstrong MA, Friedman GD. Coffee, tea, and mortality. Ann Epidemiol. 1993;3(4):375-81.

(7) Tanskanen A, Tuomilehto J, Viinamen H, Vartiainen E, Lehtonen J, Puska P. Heavy coffee drinking and the risk of suicide. Eur J Epidemiol. 2000;16(9):789-91.

(8) Guo X, Park Y, Freedman ND, et al. Sweetened beverages, coffee, and tea and depression risk among older US adults. PLoS One. 2014:9(4):e94715.

(9) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Aspartame: Commissioner’s final decision. Fed Reg. 1981;46:38285-308.

(10) Lindseth GN, Coolahan SE, Petros TV, Lindseth PD. Neurobehavioral effects of aspartame consumption. Res Nurs Health. 2014;37(3):185-93.

(11) Yeung RR. The acute effects of exercise on mood state. J Psychosom Res. 1996;40(2):123-41.

(12) Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Moore KA, et al. Effects of exercise in older patients with major depression. Arch Intern Med. 1999;159(19):2349-56.

(13) McMartin SE, Jacka FN, Colman I. The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: evidence from five waves of national survey of Canadians. Prev Med. 2013;56(3-4):225-30.

(14) Payne ME, Steck SE, George RR, Steffens DC. Fruit, vegetable, and antioxidant intakes are lower in older adults with depression. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(12):2022-7.

(15) Meyer JH, Ginovart N, Boovariwala A, et al. Elevated monoamine oxidase A levels in the brain: an explanation for the monoamine imbalance of major depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006; 63(11):1209-16.

(16) Dixon Clarke SE, Ramsay RR. Dietary inhibitors of monoamine oxidase A. J Neural Trasm. 2011;118(7);1031-41.

(17) Lai JS, Hiles S, Bisquera A, Hure AJ, McEvoy M, Attia J. A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;99(1);181-97.