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  • Writer's pictureHilary Hofstetter, M.S.

Nutrition & Mental Health

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

There is more and more research being done to show how nutrition impacts our mental health. Studies show that what we eat can play a vital role in regulating our mental and emotional health. 

Missing key vitamins and minerals can lead to raised levels of stress and anxiety. Research shows that nutritional deficiencies may even add to cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Just like our body, the brain needs healthy fuel to work best. It needs healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and plenty of vitamins and minerals. Eating too little of these foods fires up the growth of toxins in the body. So does eating too much sugar and processed foods that can lead to inflammation. In the brain, that can mean a build-up plaque, which may harm cognitive function.

When it comes to mental issues like depression, anxiety and dementia, studies have found that many people with these problems lack some of these key vitamins and minerals:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids (help cut inflammation and are vital to brain health); 

  • B-vitamins (make brain chemicals that change mood and other brain functions);

  • Vitamin D (impacts mood, sleep, hunger and digestion);

  • Amino Acids (needed for healthy brain functioning; a lack of these can lead to depression, brain fog, lack of focus and sluggishness);

  • Folate (supports the chemical Serotonin that produces good feelings; a lack of this has been linked to depression and Alzheimer’s);

  • Magnesium (vital to stress response, recovery and repair);

  • Zinc (also helps manage the brain’s response to stress; a lack of this has been linked to anxiety, Schizophrenia and eating disorders);

  • Iron (vital for managing emotions; a lack of this can contribute to low mood, irritability and feeling tired).

So what should you eat to support your mental health? No one has the exact same dietary needs. But the foods below are known to have the needed vitamins and minerals listed above:

  • Oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies and sardines

  • Leafy greens like kale, spinach and romaine lettuce

  • Walnuts

  • Sunflower seeds

  • Chia and flax seeds

  • Berries and dark-skinned fruit

  • Legumes like lentils, chickpeas and beans

  • Whole grains like rice, quinoa and oats

  • Avocados

  • Liver and other organ meats

  • Olive oil

  • Eggs

  • Mushrooms

  • Dark Chocolate

  • Shellfish

  • Broccoli

Before making any major changes, it is always best to speak with your doctor or someone who specializes in nutrition, like a registered dietitian, about your plans. 

Sources: Association of Western and Traditional Diets With Depression and Anxiety in Women,  The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2010; Fitness 4Mind4Body: Diet and Nutrition,  Mental Health America; Iron and Mechanisms of Emotional Behavior,  National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2014; Nutrition and Dementia: Foods That May Induce Memory Loss & Increase Alzheimer's,, 2014; BCBS of IL

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