What to Eat for Improved Mental Health
- Written By:Alexandra Malmed
Many of us, whether or not we speak openly about it, struggle with anxiety and its related disorders on a regular basis—and it’s ok. We’re living in a time of political catastrophe, much of our lives are spent interfacing with screens, we’re constantly being exposed to harmful environmental toxins, and, perhaps most of all, we’re human beings. Being affected by the immensity and overwhelm caused by fear, anxiety, and panic is nothing to be ashamed of.
I struggle with severe anxiety and Pure O, a very intense and acute form of OCD, and have learned—slowly and with much research and experimentation—that there are numerous lifestyle changes that can be made to lessen and de-intensify the horror that is anxiety. For me, it includes meditation (which I swear by and do every single day), taking herbal supplements (ashwagandha, tulsi, reishi, L-theanine, etc), going to therapy, getting light exercise (I walk and do one-song-long dance parties for breaks), getting deep sleep, spending time away from my phone and computer, faithfully and happily adhering to a certain diet that works for me, and spending good amounts of time both alone and with those who I truly love.
It goes without saying that everybody is different and as such we require different treatments, different forms of exercise and different food, but there are certain diets, minerals, and vitamins that have been scientifically proven to help anxiety. I find it useful to take a multivitamin and a few other supplements, but it’s best to get these nutrients from actual foods. Consuming vitamins helps enzymes that enable reactions such as the synthesis of serotonin to function, which leads to less anxiety and increased happiness. Eat as many colors as you can, and never limit the number of vegetables that you consume — you cannot go overboard. Here are a few foods that are excellent for mental health:
Protein helps the brain stimulate the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, which, like serotonin, are neurotransmitters that carry impulses between nerve cells, which improve alertness, mental energy, and reaction time. I can’t stress this enough — if you suffer from anxiety, protein is absolutely crucial. The more that I incorporate it into my diet, the better that I feel and the more energy I have. Up the protein! You will feel less hungry between meals, have more energy, and feel stabilized and happier.
Studies have found that those suffering from anxiety often have a folate deficiency. Asparagus is an excellent source of folate, as well as fiber, which is great for the gut, digestive system, and just about everything else.
The amino acid tryptophan helps the body to produce serotonin, which again is crucial to mental health and clarity, so it’s important to consume it on a regular basis. Turkey is famously rich in tryptophan, and other sources include eggs, tofu, chicken, peanut butter, nuts and seeds, and salmon.
Foods rich in leptin including eggs, matcha, cabbage, fermented foods, protein, broccoli, and spinach, are very calming and satisfying.
The B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, also positively affect the nervous system. Vitamin B deficiencies have been linked to increased anxiety in some people. I take a complex B vitamin, and it really helps. Avocado is a great source of the B vitamins and of healthy fats, so if you like it, incorporate it into your vegetable bowls. Other great sources include chicken and leafy greens.
Studies have also shown that vitamin C is helpful for preventing and lessening anxiety. Squeeze some lemon into your water, have a bell pepper with your afternoon protein snack, or enjoy some blueberries or grapefruit before breakfast (before being the crucial word, as food combining is essential to maintaining optimal gut health).
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for mental clarity and health, and they’re natural mood enhancers. Studies have shown that subjects who consumed omega-3 fatty acids alongside their prescription antidepressants felt enhanced results, compared to those who solely took the medications. I take fish oil almost every single day and eat salmon, cod, tuna, and other fatty fish several times a week.
Gut health is also an essential thing to pay attention to (for a zillion reasons, mental health being one of the major ones), so I take probiotics every day and try to eat lots of fermented foods. (I love and spend too much money on the sauerkraut and fermented red hot sauce by Wildbrine, but almost all sauerkraut, including the Trader Joe’s rendition, is delicious and health-enhancing). Kombucha is great for gut health too, and kefir and fermented yogurt and cottage cheese can be good sources if you eat dairy.
Research shows that magnesium can help anxiety-related symptoms, as inadequate magnesium reduces the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. I take Natural Calm powder and Nuun tablets, as well as a calcium magnesium supplement every day. Foods that are rich in magnesium include almonds, dark chocolate (consume via cocoa powder with stevia or stevia-sweetened dark chocolate like Lily’s), nuts, seeds, tofu, and leafy greens.
Finally, zinc has been proven to be excellent in lessening anxiety. Oysters are my favorite source of zinc (what’s better than a really good oyster doused in lemon and horseradish at happy hour?). Pumpkin seeds, cashews, liver, beef, egg yolks, and shellfish (including crab and shrimp) are other great sources.
This post is not intended for use as medical advice. Please consult your doctor or a mental health professional before taking any supplements or making drastic changes to your diet.