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Eat Yourself Happy

A diet for good mental health

You may have heard the expression “eat yourself sick.” But is it possible to “eat yourself happy”? The fact is, your state of mind is profoundly connected to your diet.

You’ve probably noticed that a breakfast of black coffee and a donut – or no breakfast at all – makes for an anxious and edgy start to the day, while a kale-and-egg scramble and a cup of green tea leaves you feeling calm and clearheaded.

The idea that food and mood are connected is not a new one. Holistic healers in the Middle Ages prescribed quince, dates, and elderberries to enhance mood and used lettuce, chicory, and purslane as tranquilizers.

How could eating pastries (or purslane) possibly affect your mood later in the day? It’s not so surprising when you consider that the foods you eat form the building blocks of your body, which includes your brain. Food is also the fuel for everything that goes on within your body and mind, including your thoughts and emotions.

Your meals are broken down into substances that the body uses make the brain’s chemical messengers: neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. They supply the amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters (glutamate, tryptophan, GABA, tyrosine, taurine, and others). Food is the raw material for stress hormones such as cortisol and natural opiates such as endorphins. The foods you eat are crucial to communication within the nervous system and the overall functioning of the brain.

A diet high in sugar, gluten, omega-6 fatty acids, and toxins can have detrimental effects on the brain and thus on our mental health. Unfortunately, this is the diet we modern Westerners tend to eat.

This typical diet causes inflammation, which triggers a stress response in the brain, causing the release of cytokines. These immune system messengers, when produced inappropriately or in excess, affect the brain’s ability to receive and process signals from other parts of the nervous system. Cytokines (inflammatory molecules) are produced in response to increased blood sugar levels, consumption of trans fats, and changes in the bacteria in the gut. Food allergies can also activate the immune system and affect cognition, learning, memory, and mood through this same mechanism.

Sugary foods and refined carbohydrates are a major culprit. When you eat them, the pancreas secretes insulin. High insulin levels promote inflammation, which has been associated not only with many chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer but also with mental health conditions, including depression. Sugar can affect the brain the same way an addictive drug does, causing cravings and withdrawal, and perhaps even depression and anxiety.

Gluten (found in wheat) and casein (in milk), when not digested completely, form morphine-like substances called gluteomorphins and casomorphins. These opiate protein fragments can cross the blood-brain barrier and have been implicated in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia.

The fats you eat matter, too. Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been used in the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder, while consumption of trans-fats and omega-6 fatty acids (from animal products) has been associated with negative brain effects.

The digestive system has a surprising influence on your mental state. The gut has its own nervous system, consisting of approximately 100 million nerve cells and using more than thirty neurotransmitters, just as your brain does. Ninety-five percent of the serotonin in the body is found in the gut. The gut’s nervous system is so important that it has been called “the second brain.” And the balance of bacteria in the gut – the microbiome, which is directly affected by our diet – plays a critical role in mood and behavior.

So what does a diet for mental health look like? Here’s how to eat yourself happy.

• Eat frequent small meals and snacks throughout the day to maintain adequate and steady blood sugar levels.
• Eat whole, nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
• Avoid foods that are highly processed, because of their high glycemic load and their contribution to increased inflammation in the body. EaA t whole grains rather than refined carbohydrates.
• Promote healthy gut function by eating foods containing prebiotics (such as asparagus, dandelion greens, bananas, and garlic) and using probiotic supplements.
• Eat more foods (such as fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and leafy green vegetables) that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Reduce your consumption of omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in corn, soybean, safflower, and canola oils.
• Eat organic foods whenever possible, to reduce your exposure to toxins and oxidative stress.
• Consider food allergy testing, and try eliminating common allergens such as casein and gluten if you suspect a reaction to these foods.

Around 400 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote “Let thy food be thy medicine.” This advice is just as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago. And since we know the body and the mind are intimately connected, it applies just as well to mental health as it does to physical health.

More from Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.
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More from Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.
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