Written by: Allison Bunyan | Emerson Fellow
Did you know that mental health and nutrition are connected? At Common Threads, we acknowledge this fact by focusing our work on nutrition AND overall wellness. We include mental health in our definition of overall wellness and encourage everyone to incorporate mental health into their daily routines. To support you in your wellness journey, we want to share how making nutritious food choices and caring for your mental health are connected. After reading this article, you’ll understand why taking care of your body supports your mind, and vice versa. We hope you will gain some insight into how to better care for your overall well-being.
Explaining the Connection
One way to care for your mental health is through nutrition. According to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Blog, “what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.” This connection between mood and food is influenced by the fuel that you put in your body. What you eat may correlate with how you feel, which can impact how you ultimately behave, and what kind of bacteria lives in your gut. The field of study that looks closely at these correlations is called nutritional psychiatry. These professionals support patients in improving their mood and mental health using nutrition.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a leading voice in nutritional psychiatry, explains that understanding the gut-brain connection is essential to improving mental health through nutrition. She explains the following:
“The human microbiome, also known as the gut environment, is a community of bacteria that is healthy for the body. Food affects this gut environment and, in turn, the function of the brain and mood. When good microbes are introduced into this environment through healthy foods, they are broken down into positive substances that feed the body and brain. However, when unhealthy foods are introduced, they break down into negative substances that overcome the good bacteria and create inflammation in the gut—which, in research, has been shown to be the basis of several mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.”
To summarize, good bacteria – which you introduce to your gut by eating healthy foods – play an important role in your health. Among other positive effects, it can impact your mood and energy levels. For example, the Harvard Heath explains that about 95% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, the balance of bacteria in your gut influences serotonin production in your body. Disrupting this balance would not be good for your mental or physical health.
Dr. Naidoo suggests incorporating some of the following foods into your diet to enhance your brain and gut health:
- Fermented Foods
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- Vitamin D
*Read more about each food here.
Taking care of your mental health involves more than incorporating healthy foods into your diet. This can help, but it is only one aspect of caring for your mental health. She acknowledges that one should seek help when experiencing a decline in mental health and that it can be helpful to pair a healthy diet with therapy or medication. Other ways to care for your mental health include staying physically active, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, getting sleep, and spending time in nature. Northwestern Medicine, one of Common Thread’s academic research partners, offers the following resources for developing healthy habits for your mental health.
- Supporting Children’s Mental Health
- Make Time for Mental Health
- 12 Articles for a Healthier State of Mind
Summing it Up
The food that you eat matters. As Dr. Naidoo and Harvard Health explain, caring for your gut health by incorporating healthy food into your diet can also support your mental health. However, nutrition is just one of many aspects to focus on when caring for your mental health. Common Threads recognizes this and understands that there is a connection between mental health, nutrition, and additional factors in achieving overall wellness. We will continue to champion this idea by encouraging healthy habits that contribute to overall wellness.
But don’t just listen to us. On September 28, 2022 the White House introduced its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. The Strategy outlines a plan for ending hunger, improving nutrition and physical activity, and reducing diet-related diseases and disparities by 2030. This focus on overall health includes mental health. From the beginning, the Strategy lists poor mental health as a cost of food insecurity and diet-related diseases, citing research articles looking at the associations between diet and mental health & food insecurity and mental health. Pillar 2, which focuses on integrating nutrition and health, includes strategies that integrate mental health, nutrition, and other factors to support overall health. We are excited to see how the Strategy will advance national programs that not only provide access to healthy food, but also promote equitable nutrition education and healthy living resources. Check out the Strategy yourself to learn more about the nation’s focus on hunger, nutrition, and health.