We've all heard the classic "you are what you eat" – but most assume that only pertains to our physical health. There has been plenty of research, however, that proves our diet and nutrition plays a huge role in our mental health as well. Research from Harvard Medical School found that traditional diets, such as in the Mediterranean, have a 25 to 35 percent lower risk of depression than those eating a modern day western diet (like us in the United States).
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But how, and why? Well, there's a handful of different things going on within our bodies when it comes to the interaction between nutrition and mental health. Here are 4 ways that diet and nutrition can affect our brain function and mood:
Our diet shapes our gut health
If you've never heard of the "gut-brain connection", this might sound weird – but our gut health plays a significant role in our brain's function. The gut has a microbiome, full of necessary bacteria to support digestion and nutrient absorption. Research from Johns Hopkins found that "irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes." That's a fancy way of saying: If you're eating an unhealthy diet that disrupts your gut microbiome, it could be making you moody.
The foods we eat affect our blood sugar
Our blood sugar levels are dependent on what we eat. When our blood sugar is balanced, we experience stable moods and energy. When it's unbalanced – it's much harder to maintain that stability. Foods with a high glycemic index (think sugary snacks and refined grains) can cause spikes in our blood sugar, in turn leading to irritability and fatigue. So what's good for our blood sugar? The best foods to incorporate into your regular diet for stability are complex carbohydrates (whole grains, brown rice, quinoa to name a few), fruits, and vegetables.
The food we eat can either cause or fight against inflammation
Research has proven that inflammation in the body can both trigger and make depression symptoms worse. Chronic inflammation can be caused by a poor diet – including foods such as refined grains (white bread, rice, pasta), soda, fried foods, and sugary candy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also foods that actively fight inflammation in the body, promoting mental wellness. This includes the following: Healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil; deep-colored fruits such as cherries, blueberries, and grapes; vegetables such as broccoli, kale, bell peppers, brussels sprouts; and roots such as turmeric.
Micronutrients affect the inner workings of our brains
When we say micronutrients, we're talking about all the vitamins and minerals that our brain needs to function at its top condition. Deficiencies in vitamins D and B12 can cause mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, according to research. The best way to ensure you're getting enough vitamins and minerals is to include a variety of nutrient-dense foods – think leafy greens, lean protein, nuts, seeds – in your diet.
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