Mind-Body Nourishment

Break the cycle of eating to soothe, and eat to heal.
Build your resilience against free radicals with a diet chock-full of leafy greens. Photograph by Heather Barnes

By Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson

Of all the lifestyle changes that can improve health, what you eat is one of the most powerful and foundational. When people ask me what one thing they should do first to start living a healthier and more vibrant life, I always suggest starting with food. It’s something you have quite a lot of control over, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Only you can decide what foods you will choose to eat. Recognizing and acting on this is an empowering way to start taking care of your health.

But what about mental health? The interesting thing about mental health is that it is influenced by both your psychology and your physiology. What you eat can influence how well your brain works, and that impacts your mood and mental health. But mental health issues like depression and anxiety can also make it more difficult to eat well. When you’re feeling down or anxious, you may have a harder time making smart nutritional choices.

People who struggle with depression, anxiety, brain fog, memory concerns, concentration problems, attention issues or panic disorders may gravitate toward comfort foods to self-soothe or as a distraction, or may think that quick-fix “remedies” like alcohol, caffeine, energy drinks, sugar or junk food make them feel better. But these foods are exactly the foods that can exacerbate brain problems and mental health issues over time. The calm or energized feeling from these foods is short-lived, and ultimately makes things worse. In fact, alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fried foods have all been shown to worsen stress, depression, and anxiety. These are my “avoid” foods, especially for people working on shoring up their mental health!

So what can you eat to support your own mental health? Most importantly, load up on fresh vegetables and fruits—a diet rich in produce has been shown to improve mental health.

Here are a few more of my favorite brain-supportive foods:

Fatty fish and seafood: The omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish, with their brain-boosting EPA and DHA, help to grow more brain cells, improve brain cell communication and reduce brain inflammation. Studies have shown that people who are deficient in omega-3s are more prone to depression, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder.

Leafy greens: Romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, arugula and even broccoli are among the most nutritious of vegetables, and some research suggests that the chlorophyll they contain can improve the body’s resistance to inflammation-producing oxidative stress. Their vitamin K, vitamin E, vitamin C, folate, beta-carotene, magnesium and lutein may also help to boost brain health and could help calm anxiety, as well as potentially help to prevent cognitive decline later in life.

Blueberries and raspberries: The vitamins and antioxidants in these fruits are proven brain boosters, improving cognitive function, reducing inflammation and enhancing neuroplasticity, which could make your brain more resilient and better able to handle stressors.

Legumes: Lentils, black beans, split peas, white beans and edamame contain microbiome-soothing fiber as well as folate, which is necessary for the body to produce mood-regulating hormones like serotonin and dopamine.

Of course, you can’t completely fix complex health issues, including mental health issues, with food alone. However, understanding the influence of food on your mental health can help you break the cycle of habitually eating to soothe so you can start eating to heal. Foods that improve brain health and ease stress can support your other mental efforts by giving you the energy and nutrients your body needs to function properly, so you might have an easier time doing other supportive things like exercising, getting outside, connecting with caring friends or getting to a therapy session. vibrantdoc.com