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Discover the Link Between Diet and Mental Health

It is no secret that diet and mental health are linked. However, many people may not understand the full depth of how the two relate to one another.

In a world where health and nutrition are trending, it is imperative to understand how intricately connected what we eat and how we feel are to one another. Diet influences a variety of factors in our health. If you are looking to optimize your health, knowing what you consume and how it directly affects your mood and mental well-being is paramount.

Here is everything you need to know about the link between diet and mental health…

Mental Health Diet

What is Considered a Healthy Diet?

With all the fads and trends surrounding health in the modern world, it can be difficult to navigate what is actually healthy and what is simply a marketing scheme. A healthy diet consists of the following:

  • Protein
  • Vitamins, antioxidants, minerals
  • Carbohydrates – including fiber and starches
  • Healthy fats
  • Water

Five food groups exist that are deemed the healthiest and optimal diet for humans. These food groups include:

  • Protein foods/meats
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Dairy

Each food group plays a significant role in the proper functioning of the body, mind, and organs. These groups reflect a healthy eating pattern and relationship with food. Missing any of the food groups can negatively impact your health now and in the future.

Most Common Mental Health Disorders

Before embarking on how food and mental health are interconnected, it is vital to understand mental health conditions and disorders. The most common mental health disorders include but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Feeding and eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • OCD – Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Substance-related/Addictive disorders
  • And more

Although these mental health issues are common, food intake and diet must be examined to understand how one affects the other. Studies have now associated food and diet with mental health wellness—or unwellness.

An initial study showed those who consume a Mediterranean diet—comprised of healthy fats, lean proteins, vegetables, and legumes—as being linked with a 32% chance of reduced depression risks. Conversely, a Western diet—comprised of red and processed meats, sweets, and high-fat foods—showed an increased risk of depression. This is the power of food and the mind.

How does diet affect mental health

How Does Food Affect Mental Health?

If essential nutrients and food groups are lacking in a person’s diet, it not only affects their body and function, but it also affects the brain and mental health.

Here are the facts about the diet and mental health connection:

“The second brain”

In short, what we put into our mouths directly impacts our overall health. Our food choices directly affect our brains due to our gastrointestinal systems. Scientists refer to the enteric nervous system (ENS) as “the brain in your gut”—or the second brain.

There are over 100 million nerve cells in the lining of this tract—from the esophagus to the rectum. When food enters your digestive tract, it immediately communicates with the brain. And unlike the brain inside your skull, the ENS can only regulate digestion. This system helps release enzymes to break down food and control blood flow. This regulation assists nutrient absorption and the release of waste.

The ENS system is also responsible for triggering emotional responses in terms of coping with problematic digestive symptoms. These symptoms can include but are not limited to:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Pain
  • And upset stomach
Gut Brain Connection

Brain/gut connection

These unpleasant gut symptoms can take a toll on emotional health. If you have an underlying mental health disorder, the wrong food and its digestion into the body can greatly affect and increase uncomfortable symptoms.

Researchers have revealed that depression and anxiety can be either a result of this or those preexisting mental health disorders can be greatly impacted and worsened. Doctors and researchers have found direct evidence that irritation to the gastrointestinal lining and system may send signals to the central nervous system. These signals can trigger mood changes and emotional shifts.

The food we eat directly influences our mental health and well-being. The gut harbors trillions of living microbes. These microbes all have their individual purpose for proper body functioning such as regulating sleep, mood, pain, emotions, appetites, and more. The microbes communicate and synthesize neurotransmitters to send chemical messages to the brain.

A Deeper Look at the Role of Gut-brain Connection

The gut-brain connection—or gut-brain axis—refers to how the gut and brain communicate with one another. The brain and gut link biochemically and physically to one another in several ways.

Vagus Nerve

Nervous system and vagus nerve

The 100 billion cells found in the brain and central nervous system—or CNS—communicate with your body how to behave and respond. The gut harbors 500 million neurons which have a direct connection to the brain through the nervous throughout the body’s nervous system. The largest nerve is called the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve connects the brain and the gut, sending signals between both. Many studies show that when the vagus nerve is not functioning properly due to stressors, the gastrointestinal tract experiences distress. The same can occur with eating unhealthy foods, which sends messages of distress to the brain.


Another way diet and mental health link to one another is through neurotransmitters. The gut and brain are intricately connected through chemicals referred to as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters created in the brain control emotions and feelings.

As serotonin creates feelings of happiness, any disruption to or lack of serotonin can cause the opposite—sadness or depression. The gut’s cells and microbes additionally produce a neurotransmitter. A large amount of serotonin is produced in the gut. This gut cell production is referred to as gamma-aminobutyric acid—or GABA. This gut neurotransmitter assists with controlling feelings of anxiety and fear. This shows the direct relationship between what happens in the gut to our feelings, emotions, and overall mental health.

Gut Microbes

Gut microbes create other brain-affecting chemicals

The trillions of microbes in your gut not only affect the brain directly, but they also create additional chemicals that also affect the brain. For example, the short-chain fatty acids—or SCFA—help digest fiber. SCFA affects the brain such as appetite reduction. A study conducted revealed eating a high-sodium diet can reduce food intake. It additionally causes a reduction in the activity of the brain in relation to reward from high-energy food.

The blood-brain barrier can also be significantly impacted by SCFA, microbes, and butyrate production. Consequently, these gut microbes also metabolize amino and bile acids. These chemicals all affect the brain and its functioning. A study found that social and stress disorders reduce the production of bile by gut bacteria. This was found to alter the genes that are included in their production.

Gut microbes and inflammation

Scientists have shown gut microbes and inflammation can go hand-in-hand. Therefore, your gut-brain axis is interconnected with the immune system. Inflammation can greatly increase uncomfortable symptoms and even cause disease in the future.

If your immune system is on high alert for an extended period of time, it increases the likelihood of inflammation in the body. This is associated with a variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression. If your diet consists of fatty, processed, and unhealthy foods, it puts a strain on your digestive system. If this occurs too often, inflammation in the body increases, thus leading to future health conditions and complications.

Good Diet - Happy Mind

How You Can Improve Your Diet and Mental Health

If you are looking to get healthier, now is a great time to start. Since the link between diet, food consumption, and mental health has been corroborated, you now know you can lead a healthier lifestyle that can help your mental wellness.

By altering your lifestyle and including healthy proteins, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and more, you can take control of healing not only your physical but also your mental health and wellness.

Here are the most practical tips you can implement in your daily lives to take charge of your diet and mental health:

  • Get plenty of sleep—between 7 and 8 hours every night
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Do physical activity every day
  • Avoid junk, processed, foods high in sugar and salt
  • Drink plenty of fluid as dehydration quickly impacts mental health and well-being
  • Avoid alcohol and binge drinking
  • Eat at regular intervals

Bottom Line

If you have been feeling sluggish or mentally unwell, start with the food you eat. If you are eating a diet high in sugar, fats, salt, and overly processed, chances are you are experiencing mental distress. By making key changes in your diet, you can greatly improve your mood and decrease uncomfortable symptoms.

By learning more about the body, mind, and brain-gut connection, you can take charge of your health and live a healthier, happier lifestyle. Many studies have shown the direct connection between diet and mental health, which creates a wonderful opportunity to choose to be happier all based on the food you consume.

Happy, healthy eating leads to a happy, healthy mind!

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