No doubt you’ve heard the expression “you are what you eat.” Indeed, your body works better — and you feel better — when you’re eating well. The same goes for your brain — the foods you eat day after day affect your mental health too.
Your brain is the most important organ in your body. It controls every aspect of your health, including your ability to learn and remember things and how you feel emotionally. Because it has to work well 24 hours a day, your brain needs a steady supply of high quality fuel.
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Nutrients for Brain Health
Neurons is another word for brain cells. Unlike other cells in your body, neurons don’t regenerate if they’re damaged or die. So it’s essential to take good care of them by eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods, while enjoying foods with a lower nutritional value in moderation.
Your brain cells rely on neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, to carry signals to other parts of your body. Some neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine, help balance your mood. You need certain compounds from your diet to create neurotransmitters and help them work.
Your brain cells and chemical messengers need a wide range of nutrients. Some that are especially important include:
- Omega-3s and other unsaturated fats
- Amino acids and proteins
- Vitamins, especially choline, folic acid, B6, B12, E, and C
- Minerals like zinc, calcium, and selenium
- Antioxidants to help protect brain cells from inflammation and damaging compounds
That might seem like a lot. But you can get all those nutrients by eating these key foods regularly:
- Nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados for unsaturated fats
- Oily fish like salmon or sardines for omega-3s
- Eggs for choline
- Beans, tofu, and whole grains like oats, whole wheat, and quinoa for protein, vitamins, and minerals
- Berries, leafy greens, and dried spices for antioxidants
These foods help with memory and brain function. They also may reduce your risk of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Choose Nutrient-Rich Foods
Enjoying some dessert, fries, or fast food in moderation is OK. But if ultra-processed foods (like frozen dinners or packaged snack foods) take the place of more nutrient-rich foods in your diet, it can impact your brain health.
That’s because some highly processed foods are low in the vitamins and minerals you need to make neurotransmitters. Some also are high in refined sugars or saturated fats and trans fats. Eating more of these nutrients is associated with multiple brain health concerns.
Researchers have noticed a diet high in sugar and fat may cause problems with thinking and memory as you age. They’ve also linked this dietary pattern with symptoms of depression and anxiety in adults. It also appears that children and teens who consume a diet largely comprised of fast food and sweets may have a higher risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
What you drink can also affect your mental health. Keep a close eye on how much alcohol you drink — it’s a neurotoxin that kills brain cells and prevents your brain from working right.
Diet and Lifestyle for Mental Health
Looking for one easy way to support better mental health? Try incorporating aspects of the Mediterranean diet. It’s less a traditional diet and more a healthy lifestyle and eating pattern.
There’s a growing body of research showing this way of eating (and living) may support better brain health. It is can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and help you feel better all around. The Mediterranean diet also can protect your brain and memory as you age.
The Mediterranean diet gives you the green light to eat healthy fats from fish, nuts, and olive oil. It’s also packed with vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains that help build neurotransmitters and protect your brain cells from damage. While no foods are off limits, wine, desserts, and meats are included only in moderation in this plan.
The connection between nutrition and mental health is still being studied. It is difficult to determine whether those with mental health concerns are more likely to consume a lower quality diet, whether a low quality diet contributes to the development of mental health concerns, or both. It is also possible that better nutrition simply provides more nutrients and anti-inflammatory activity for better brain function. Or it supports a more diverse gut microbiota which in turn communicates with the brain.
Besides what you eat, the Mediterranean diet stresses physical activity and social interaction with friends and family. It’s more likely the combination of diet, healthy lifestyle, and, for some, medical or therapeutic interventions, that makes you feel good from your brain to your toes.
American Psychological Association. The Link Between Food and Mental Health. LINK
Advances in Nutrition. Nutritional Factors Affecting Adult Neurogenesis and Cognitive Function. LINK
European Journal of Nutrition. Ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of depression in a Mediterranean cohort: the SUN Project. LINK
Pediatrics. The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents. LINK
Nutritional Neuroscience. Adherence to Mediterranean dietary pattern is inversely associated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress. LINK
Current Nutrition Reports. Diet and Inflammation in Cognitive Ageing and Alzheimer's Disease. LINK
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.