Nutrition and Its Impact on Mood and Mental Health

Nutritional psychology is an emerging field of study looking at the relationship between our minds and food
March 19, 2020 Updated: March 19, 2020
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It’s National Nutrition Month, and here are some things about nutrition you may not have known.

When you think of nutrition, what comes to mind? The food pyramid many of us grew up with? Getting the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy through the food you eat? What about the impact food and nutrients have on mood and mental health

Food as medicine is not a new concept, but using it to treat mood and mental health issues is now beginning to take focus in allopathic medicine. Nutritional psychology is an emerging field of study looking specifically at the relationship between what people eat and how it affects mood and mental health. While nutritional psychology may be an emerging discipline, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are not and have long held the idea that what you eat affects the mind, body, and soul.

Both Ayurveda and TCM take the mood and mental health connection further than nutritional psychology, showing how a food affects you also depends on your own unique constitution. Since every person has a different constitution, every person requires something slightly different in order to stay healthy. I find this fascinating, as there are core nutrition principles that show the common nutrients every person needs each day, and there are also aspects to nutrition that are solely dependent on your own unique personal constitution.

Nutrition has a profound impact on mental health and emotional well-being. We experience the positive benefits of this through two primary mechanisms: neurotransmitter production, and consumption of prebiotics and probiotics. Two primary neurotransmitter pathways are for the creation of dopamine and serotonin.

Dopamine is essentially in charge of your reward pathway. When dopamine is firing it is essentially saying, ‘Hey, let’s do that again!’” said Dr. Teralyn Sell, psychotherapist and creator of Pro Recovery RX, a supplement line created to help people overcome addiction naturally.

Dopamine helps with a sense of drive, focus, and attention. It gives us a little boost of energy to keep things going.”

Whereas dopamine helps people feel motivated and energized, serotonin is a hormone that helps us feel good, calm, and relaxed. It’s also primarily created in the gut by eating foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, so if you’re not eating the right foods, you are much more prone to have a serotonin deficiency.

Chronic pain, fibromyalgia, IBS depression, and low libido are all connected to depleted levels of serotonin in the body.

Prebiotics and probiotics also play a major role in the gut-brain connection, affecting our mood and mental health. They can impact performance, cognitive function, energy levels, and how well you perform your daily responsibilities. Probiotics are the microbes themselves, and prebiotics are the fiber-containing foods they feed on. A primary source of probiotics comes from fermented foods.

Julia Skinner, food fermenter and founder of Root Kitchens, said that “many traditional ferments combine prebiotics, fiber-rich foods that feed the gut microbiome, and probiotics, living foods that support our beneficial gut bacteria. Sauerkraut and kimchi are two of my favorites because they are easy to make and widely available to purchase, just make sure you are getting one with living cultures from the refrigerated section rather than the canned stuff.” 

You can also get probiotics from a wide range of foods including sparkling probiotic beverages like kombucha, kvass, and tepache, yogurt and milk kefir, unpasteurized cheeses and cultured butter, unpasteurized miso, and natto, advises Skinner. Traditionally prepared South-Indian dosa also has probiotics.

Using nutrition to promote better mental and emotional health, and cultivate mind-body balance, is a great way people can fine-tune lifestyle habits based on their own unique needs.

Having a stressful day? Eat something that will help alleviate nerves and tension, perhaps something with ginger or nutmeg. Did you get in a fight with a loved one? Add on some dopamine-producing foods like cacao or omega-3 rich foods like flax or salmon. If you’re having trouble unwinding at the end of the day, try something to produce serotonin, like a glass of warm milk, some tofu, or turkey.

Focusing on how foods and nutrition impact more than just the physical body is food for thought, quite literally, and adds new meaning to the saying, “You are what you eat.” 

Jaya Jaya Myra is a wellness lifestyle expert and go-to media expert on mind-body wellness, stress management, mindfulness, food for mood, and natural, healthy living. She’s a best-selling author, TEDx and motivational speaker, and creator of The WELL Method for purpose-filled healthy living. Visit www.JayaJayaMyra.com