Exactly How Nutrition Impacts Your Mental Health (For Better + Worse!)


We can’t escape the mind-body connection. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I see firsthand how much our physical health affects our mental health. Everything from hormone imbalances and poor gut health can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.

The question is - how did we end up there? Typically, it’s a build up over time from the choices we make on a daily basis. But nothing plays a bigger role in our physical and mental health than our diets. What we eat each day ends up contributing to these underlying physical dysfunctions that end up implicating our mental health. Read on to learn more about how nutrition affects your mental health.


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The Gut-Brain Connection

In order to understand how nutrition plays a role in our mental health, we first need to understand the gut-brain connection.

Science often refers to your gut as your “second brain.” Your gut and brain are actually formed from the same fetal tissue when you were growing in your mother’s womb, and continue their special bond throughout your whole life through what is known as the gut-brain axis. So, in order to heal the brain we need to look at the other end of this axis for clues.

For anyone in the wellness world, leaky gut syndrome is not a foreign health problem. Leaky gut happens when your gut lining is damaged and can lead to a whole slew of digestive and other health issues. 

Occludin and Zonulin are two proteins that govern gut permeability as well as the permeability of your blood-brain barrier. Elevated antibodies to these proteins can indicate that there has been damage to your gut and your brain. The gut-brain connection becomes all too real here by turning a leaky gut into a “leaky brain.” 

To make matters worse, with increased permeability comes increased inflammation. Inflammation is a necessary part of a healthy body to fight off infections or when you get a cut. However, chronic inflammation wreaks havoc on your health. So much so that a whole area of medical research known as “the cytokine model of cognitive function” is dedicated to researching how inflammation, specifically inflammation of the brain, is correlated with brain problems.

This is your brain on inflammation

When it comes to mental health, inflammation has the potential to trigger depression and anxiety, exacerbate it, and even be the root cause. 

In fact, studies have linked depression with increased levels of inflammation in the periphery and central nervous systems. (1) Which explains why antidepressants can work well at alleviating depression as they have also been shown to decrease levels of inflammation. 

While depression was the first mental health condition to be related to inflammation, due to the similarities between anxiety and depression — and the fact that they often occur together — anxiety was not far behind.

Research has shown that anxiety symptoms are correlated with increased levels of inflammatory cytokines, with higher levels of inflammation being observed in patients with PTSD, panic disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder. 

The Food-Mental Health Connection

Now that we understand the gut-brain axis, the question becomes what leads to poor gut health and inflammation? Even though a lot of other lifestyle choices can play a role, our daily diets ultimately fuel dysfunction or facilitate health.

Foods That Support Mental Health

When eating for mental health, instead of asking what foods are best for mental health, you’ll want to be asking what nutrients are best for mental health. By focusing on the specific nutrients and how they work at alleviating depression and anxiety, you’ll be able to expand the variety of foods you can enjoy.

These are just a few of my favorite foods and what makes them so great at supporting mental health.

     1. Healthy Fats

Since 60% of your brain is made of fat and 25% of your body’s total cholesterol is found in the brain, it makes sense that fueling your brain with fat can help it function well and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, the popular ketogenic diet which is high fat and low carb, has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants. (2) 

     2. Oysters

Anxiety has often been correlated with an imbalanced ratio of zinc to copper in the body. (3) Zinc is responsible for helping you adapt to stress and proper neurotransmitter function, so loading up on zinc-rich food sources like oysters are going to be beneficial at combatting anxiety.

Other foods high in zinc include grass-fed beef, legumes, pine nuts, hemp seeds, and grass-fed dairy products.

     3. Tea

Certain herbal teas are loaded with compounds that help promote a sense of calm. Rooibos - also known as African red bush tea - works by balancing cortisol levels, your body’s main stress hormone. (4) Chamomile is also a great choice as it has been proven to lower anxiety after just a few weeks of consistent use. (5)

     4. Turkey

Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps you to feel calm and reduce the prevalence of anxiety. (6) It is found abundantly in turkey and can contribute to the post-Thanksgiving nap many of us take after dinner! 

     5. Dark leafy greens

Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard contain high levels of “nature’s chill pill”, magnesium. As the fourth most abundant mineral in your body it helps regulate your brain-adrenal axis and calm down your excitatory NMDA receptor. (7) Without it, calcium and glutamate activate NMDA, which can lead to depression and anxiety. (8)

     6. Turmeric

This delicious spice does way more than just season your food. Curcuminoids - anti-inflammatory antioxidant compounds found in turmeric - actually have a neuroprotective quality and are powerful enough to be used as treatment for major depressive disorder. (9)

     7. Brussels sprouts

Low levels of folic acid are linked to neurotransmitter impairment that can lead to anxiety. (10) Foods like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and asparagus are rich in folic acid as well as sulfur and other B vitamins that help support methylation - an important process involved in healthy neurotransmitter production.

     8. Organ meats

Liver may be the last thing you want to eat, but there’s no denying its place as a superfood against anxiety and depression. Not only does it contain high amounts of zinc, it’s also loaded with B vitamins and choline needed for healthy neurotransmitter synthesis.

     9. Eggs

Like organ meats, eggs tend to get overlooked as a superfood. They are also high in choline and play a role in optimal neurotransmitter health.

     10. Grass-fed beef

Iron is necessary because it plays a role in neurological development and helps carry oxygen to our cells. Fatigue is a symptom of iron deficiency and can lead you to not feel like yourself. Grass-fed beef is one of the highest sources of iron but it can also be found in dark leafy greens and cashews.

Foods You Should Avoid

If certain nutrients can support your mental health, it would only make sense that certain foods could trigger mental health symptoms. You probably won’t be too surprised by many of these foods.

     1. Caffeine

Not everyone necessarily needs to avoid caffeine. It all depends on your genetics, specifically your caffeine gene, CYP1A2. This gene determines how well you handle tea, coffee, or any other form of caffeine. If you have the fast metabolizer version of this gene, you’ll actually get a lot of cool health benefits from coffee and tea, but people who have the slow metabolizer gene can be feeding anxiety with each sip of coffee.

     2. Sugar

The quickest way to anxiety? Go all-out on a sugar binge. Studies have shown (11) that the more sugar you eat - specifically refined, processed sugar - the worse your anxiety tends to be. (12) There are a few reasons for that.

First, sugar fuels bacterial imbalances in your microbiome. This can lead to lower levels of the beneficial bacteria Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus helveticus. Lower levels of these two strains of bacteria in particular have been found in individuals struggling with anxiety. (13) Secondly, sugar intake spikes your blood sugar, throwing off your HPA-axis, raising cortisol levels, and sounding the alarm bells for your “fight or flight” response to be constantly on.

But here’s the good news, research shows that switching to a diet low in sugar can improve anxiety symptoms after just one month! (14)

     3. Alcohol

If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, it may be wise to take a step back from alcohol since studies show that drinking alcohol can increase feelings of anxiety by rewiring the brain. (15) 

     4. Low-fat foods

As we discussed above, your brain needs healthy fats to function. So ditch the low- and fat-free food products and stick to organic, grass-fed dairy and meat products as well as plant-based sources of healthy fats including avocados, coconuts, olives, and nuts and seeds. Plus, most foods that are advertised as fat free are extremely processed and filled with other inflammatory ingredients and fillers to make up for the lack of fat - and flavor!

Other considerations

Nutrition and mental health is a complex subject. While it does have a lot to do with the specifics of what you do and don’t eat, if you’ve changed your diet and are still experiencing symptoms you may need to dive a little deeper into food as medicine and look at these other considerations.

     1. Food sensitivities

When it comes to nutrition and mental health, you can’t always narrow it down to one specific food or food group. Food sensitivities can both trigger and exhausterbate anxiety and depression by messing with the health of your gut-brain axis. Since your particular food sensitivities are going to be different from someone else’s, consulting a qualified practitioner can help you determine which foods you should avoid through lab work.

     2. Nutrient deficiencies

While it’s important to eat a well-rounded, nutrient dense diet - including the foods listed above - you may be deficient in specific nutrients that are contributing to your symptoms. Instead of stressing out and only eating the foods listed, a practitioner can run labs to determine exactly what nutrients you are deficient in. By understanding the root cause behind your mental health struggles, you’ll be able to come up with a plan to address your symptoms full-force.

If you are struggling with your mental health, there’s something going on beneath the surface that should be addressed. Functional medicine practitioners look at labwork, lifestyle factors, and diet to put together a plan of action to alleviate symptoms as naturally as possible.

If you are ready to address your mental health, check out our consultation to learn how we can work together to cultivate a way of eating that facilitates mental and physical wellbeing.

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.

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  2. Murphy, Patricia et al. “The antidepressant properties of the ketogenic diet.” Biological psychiatry vol. 56,12 (2004): 981-3. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2004.09.019
  3. Russo, A J. “Decreased zinc and increased copper in individuals with anxiety.” Nutrition and metabolic insights vol. 4 1-5. 7 Feb. 2011, doi:10.4137/NMI.S6349
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  6. Hudson, Craig et al. “Protein-source tryptophan as an efficacious treatment for social anxiety disorder: a pilot study.” Canadian journal of physiology and pharmacology vol. 85,9 (2007): 928-32. doi:10.1139/Y07-082
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  8. Felice N. Jacka, Simon Overland, Robert Stewart, Grethe S. Tell, Ingvar Bjelland & Arnstein Mykletun (2009) Association between magnesium intake and depression and anxiety in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health Study, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43:1, 45-52, DOI: 10.1080/00048670802534408
  9. Sanmukhani, Jayesh et al. “Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial.” Phytotherapy research : PTR vol. 28,4 (2014): 579-85. doi:10.1002/ptr.5025
  10. Bjelland I, Tell GS, Vollset SE, Refsum H, Ueland PM. Folate, Vitamin B12, Homocysteine, and the MTHFR 677C→T Polymorphism in Anxiety and Depression: The Hordaland Homocysteine Study. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60(6):618–626. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.60.6.618
  11. Avena, Nicole M et al. “After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance.” Physiology & behavior vol. 94,3 (2008): 309-15. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.01.008
  12. Chepulis, Lynne M et al. “The effects of long-term honey, sucrose or sugar-free diets on memory and anxiety in rats.” Physiology & behavior vol. 97,3-4 (2009): 359-68. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.03.001K64178/
  13. Messaoudi, Michaël et al. “Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects.” The British journal of nutrition vol. 105,5 (2011): 755-64. doi:10.1017/S0007114510004319
  14. Aucoin, Monique, and Sukriti Bhardwaj. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification.” Case reports in psychiatry vol. 2016 (2016): 7165425. doi:10.1155/2016/7165425
  15. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment for Persons With Co-Occurring Disorders. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2005. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 42.) 9 Substance-Induced Disorders. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64178/

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.