You are what you eat. How many times have you heard that saying? Probably enough to the point it’s become a complete buzzkill. Traditionally, the adage has referred to physical appearance — your weight, your skin, your hair — but research shows there’s something else that food can have a major impact on: mental health.
The whole “food is fuel” concept transfers to your brain, and the field of nutritional psychology, which studies this concept, is growing rapidly. "Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel,” writes Eva Selhub MD in a blog post for Harvard Medical School. "If substances from 'low-premium' fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them.”
There is also an entire body of research that suggests unhealthy diets are linked to impaired brain function and that eating too much refined sugar can worsen symptoms of depression and mood disorders. "The gut can often tell us whether or not our bodies are anxious or depressed,” explains Tania Elliott, MD, FAAAAI, chief medical officer of the nationwide preventative health company EHE. "When your stomach is upset, you have frequent bowel movements or not enough, it could be a sign of underlying anxiety or depression.” As it turns out, that feeling in the pit of your stomach is not joke. "New research is also pointing to the microbiome in the gut,” Dr. Elliott continues. "Having healthy bacteria in the gut can impact our digestion and absorption of key nutrients required to help stave off mental health issues.”
Of course, a healthy diet can only do so much, and isn’t a substitute for seeking professional help form mental health concerns. Still, as anyone who has ever regretted downing a Big Mac and fries at the end of a stressful day knows — eating crap makes you feel like crap. Read on for more info about how what you eat can mess with your mental health.
“Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain,” writes Dr. Selhub. "In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress.” According to Dr. Elliott, sugary foods can lead to blood pressure “spikes and dips,” which can worsen depressive symptoms. On the flip side, Omega-3s (which can be found in foods like salmon and walnuts) seem to be protective against depression.
Turns out, that boozey brunch may be to blame for your Sunday scaries. Alcohol affects the way the brain’s neurotransmitters function, which in turn can leave you feeling anxious. Some things you should think about loading up on instead? Foods rich in antioxidants (berries and vegetables), magnesium (almonds and dark chocolate), and vitamin B (salmon and yogurt), all of which will help you chill out.
While the cause of ADHD is largely unknown, new research suggests that people who eat more fast food, soft drinks, and sugary foods have a higher incidence of the disorder, Dr. Elliott explains. Protein-rich foods — like lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products — are said to be beneficial for kids with ADHD, and elimination diets are often used to help alleviate some of the associated symptoms.
Eating chips while watching Netflix in bed may seem like a relaxing activity, but it isn’t doing you any favors in terms of your mental health. “Eating carbs within two hours of bedtime can impact our sleep,” explains Dr. Elliott. "And we know that poor sleep can worsen mental health issues.” Steer clear of sugar and caffeine, too, which can have similar effects on your sleep patterns.