CALS Wellness Committee tip: Nutrition to support mental health

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One of the overlooked factors that can play a role in our mental health is nutrition.

A healthy diet promotes physical well-being and decreases our risk of developing chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. This in turn allows us to be more independent, mobile, and increases our quality of life. When your quality of life is higher, you are less likely to be depressed.

Research has shown that you’re more likely to be depressed if your diet is high in processed foods that are high in fat and sugar. In addition, certain nutrients can help boost the hormone serotonin, which has been linked with mood, learning, memory, appetite, and sleep.  Studies suggest that people with healthy diets have larger hippocampal volume (the area in your brain linked to learning and mental health) than those with unhealthy diets.

What can you do to help improve your mind-body connection other than watching the fried fats and sweets?

  • Consume foods with Omega-3 fats. Think oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and trout, or foods like walnuts, chia and flax seeds. Omega-3 Fats help decrease inflammation and promote brain health.
  • Catch some rays. Our bodies use sunshine to make Vitamin D. Vitamin D can increase serotonin levels among other benefits. Aim for 35 minutes in the sun at least twice a week.
  • Eat leafy greens, beans and whole grains for B group vitamins, which are touted to help provide energy, regulate neurotransmitters, and support immunity. Ask your doctor about taking a B-complex supplement which some suggest acts as an energy booster.
  • Consider adding probiotics to your diet, whether in a supplement form or via fermented foods. Probiotics improve gut health-where over 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced. Examples of fermented foods that contain probiotics are: kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi (traditional Korean dish made with cabbage), miso and tempeh (fermented soybean products), kombucha (fermented black tea and sugar), and apple-cider vinegar.

Food is your brain’s fuel, help “feed” it smart choices.

Taiya Bach is a teaching faculty II and a registered dietitian nutritionist with the UW-Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a member of the CALS Wellness Committee.