By Lea Collins
I had daily struggles in dealing with anxiety and depression, and many people face a spectrum of lasting issues in their lives with mental health. These issues can involve loved ones or partners, children, disabilities, illnesses or disorders, and with work or school. Ongoing mental health challenges affect our ability to balance life and health. The biggest challenge for me was taking responsibility for mental health.
After 20 years of living through the hardships of addiction and experiencing some homelessness, I successfully completed and graduated from an outpatient treatment program. This is where I first learned about mental health and its connection to addiction.
Unexpectedly, my counselor spoke about how nutrition is important to brain function and moods. They said, “Nutrition is key to long-term recovery.” That statement changed my perspective and changed my life. I came to realize that there was a way out of the vicious cycle of addiction, out of the difficulties of hiding from anxiety and depression. I could take care of my mental health through counseling and nutrition. Counseling was a way for me to talk through distorted thoughts and understand the behaviors as a response to the mental afflictions. I was able to re-write my narrative by educating myself on my unique issues of anxiety and depression and I learned how it affected me on a daily basis. My remedy was to incorporate healthy nutrition, along with education, to replenish my body with the natural nutrients and vitamins it needed to function at its natural potential.
I have learned that there is up-and-coming research on using food to supplement or complement treatment and self-care. For example, there is an Australian study that found women who ate primarily vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, and whole grains are less likely to experience anxiety and depressive symptoms than women who ate more refined and processed foods. Another study reported that individuals who experienced depression and ate a Mediterranean-style diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats felt less panicky and more eager. It’s good to see scientific support for healthy diets to improve mental health and moods.
Now, what kinds of foods are best to improve mental health and moods? I am glad you asked! To some extent, mental health is impacted by the processes of firing of nerve cells and the release of neurochemicals. However, this cannot occur efficiently without vital nutrients to fuel the body. Unfortunately, most Americans do not get these nutrients in their daily diet. So if the brain is deprived of these nutrients, it makes sense that the mental functions would be affected.
So, what nutrients help?
- Omega-3 fatty acids (effective brain cell communications)
- Magnesium (healthy brain operations and sending signals from the brain to the body)
- Potassium (mineral and an electrolyte)
- Selenium (a mineral)
- Thiamine (uses carbohydrates as energy)
- Vitamins A, B6, B12, and C
- Zinc (a mineral)
So, what foods can help? (These have high concentrations of the nutrients mentioned above.)
- Seafood (tuna, crab, mussels, clams, and oysters)
- Broccoli and cauliflower (cruciferous vegetables)
- Colorful peppers (green, red, yellow, orange)
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard, collard and turnip greens)
- Fermented foods – kimchi, sauerkraut, and unsweetened yogurt (helps to balance mood)
- Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries (cell-repairing antioxidants)
- Beans – black, navy, baked, lima (mood-stabilizing)
Since 2010, my life and total health has been restored with the holistic approach of counseling, nutrition, along with self-care and my faith in God. I greatly contribute my long-term recovery and improved mental health to eating these superfoods/foods in conjunction with ingesting vitamins and nutrients. So, if you are attempting to find alternative methods or additions to improving your mental health, try eating superfoods/foods along with taking vitamins and nutrients to raise the optimal level of your total health (mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually). Note: As always, each individual’s mental health needs are unique; please consult with your physician and mental health professional for the best course of treatment for your individual needs.
Most importantly, if you are looking for someone to talk to about mental health and all that it encompasses, there is help. Our CalHOPE warm line is here to help normalize the negative feelings resulting from the pandemic, and direct individuals to other available CalHOPE resources where they will have the opportunity to connect with counselors who have lived experience and can help navigate through the challenges. CalHOPE crisis counselors are here to connect with you! You can also find help from our support groups and classes.
More on the subject:
Harvard Health Publishing: Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food
Family Doctor @familydoctor.org
How Diet Affects Mental Health (Nutritionist Resource)
Good Gut Health and Mental Health (Nutritionist Resource)
Gut Health Info (Nutritionist Resource)
Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian journal of psychiatry, 50(2), 77–82. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.42391
Mental Health Foundation. (2021). Diet and Mental Health. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/d/diet-and-mental-health
Clay, R. A. (2017). The link between food and mental health. Monitor on Psychology, 48(8). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/09/food-mental-health
O’Connor, A. (2021). How food may improve your mood. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/06/well/eat/mental-health-food.html