How to improve mental health through your food

“Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric disorder in the United States.”
(Photo sourced from: UnSplash)
“Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric disorder in the United States.” (Photo sourced from: UnSplash)

Written by: Kiana Oliver

Editor’s note: The following article is written in partnership with Counseling Services and the Southern Accent.

Congratulations! It’s post-spring break, and you’ve made it through your first week. Whatever your spring break adventures were, returning to your busy college life can feel impossible. To add to the stress, maybe you’re going through a bad relationship, the loss of a loved one, emotional turmoil, etc., and you don’t know how to cope. With summer break feeling so far away, how can you improve your mental health during this chaotic time? 

Food. We eat it, plan our days around it, socialize with it, and it can positively or negatively influence our lives. But here’s something you might not know: There is a relationship between nutrition and mental health. Uma Naidoo is an expert on gut-brain connection. She is a board-certified psychiatrist, nutrition specialist and professionally trained chef. If those credentials don’t sound impressive enough, she’s also the director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Food. (2020)

Naidoo describes the brain and gut as having a long-distance but lifelong relationship. This can seem like a very complicated topic, but remember: Gut bacteria have a profound effect on mental health because they are responsible for making many of the brain’s chemicals, i.e., glutamate, GABA, serotonin and dopamine)

As noted by Naidoo, anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric disorder in the United States. If you’ve felt that nauseated, knotted feeling in your stomach before a big test, you’ve already experienced the connection between anxious feelings and your gut. Before exploring foods that can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and other mental health disorders, Naidoo advises avoiding the Western or standard American diet. Although it’s tempting to skip cooking and pick up some fast food, the Western diet is filled with bad fats, high-GI carbs (i.e., fried food and sweetened drinks) and plenty of red meat. As a result, you could be feeding your symptoms. 

Instead, Naidoo recommends eating the following: high-fiber foods (beans, brown rice and bananas), fermented foods (yogurt, kombucha, miso and pickled vegetables), tryptophan (turkey and chickpeas), herbs (lavender, passionflower and chamomile) and turmeric spice. 

On a related note, what do you eat if you’re experiencing depression? According to Naidoo, you can fight depression by embracing foods rich in probiotics (yogurt, tempeh, kimchi and certain cheeses), prebiotics (bananas, garlic and onions), healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, nut butters and avocados), herbs (oregano) and saffron and turmeric spices. These are only a few examples of beneficial gut-brain-boosting foods, so if you want to learn more, pick up a copy of Naidoo’s “This Is Your Brain on Food. 

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