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Why You Should be Eating for Your Mental Health

For many of us, we too frequently find ourselves worrying about what food will do for our waistlines and not about what it will do for our mental health.

Subtle changes to your diet can help to reduce symptoms like anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and general unhappiness. In this blog, we’ll explain how and why your diet impacts your mental health and tell you what brain-boosting foods you should be eating.

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Why food impacts your mental health:

We often think of the brain and the gut as being very far removed from each other. But, actually, the connection between the two starts in the womb; as the brain and the gut originate from the same cells in the embryo. In an adult body, the two are still connected via the vagus nerve. This 2-way chemical messaging system is responsible for the butterflies in your stomach when you face a stressor.

The gut microbiome also plays a large role in your mental health. The gut actually contains around 400 times more serotonin than the brain. This serotonin and dozens of other neurotransmitters, like dopamine and melatonin, are all produced by the 100 million nerve cells that line your GI tract. These nerve cells within the gut are also known as the enteric nervous system. GI disturbances can cause production problems in the enteric nervous system, which will then affect the availability of these neurotransmitters in the brain and can suppress the activity of the frontal cortex.

According to top neurotransmitter researchers, nutrients in the foods you eat are the precursors to neurotransmitters. The number of precursors you get from your diet will affect how much of each related neurotransmitter is produced by the enteric nervous system. When the brain is lacking vital neurotransmitters produced in the gut, mood disorders like anxiety can result. Proper digestive function allows our brains access to chemical signals that help us feel optimistic, motivated, and at ease.

Thanks to the work of the vagus nerve, the gut microbiome, and the enteric nervous system, your brain and the food you eat are in constant communication. This is why when you eat foods high in sugar like fast or processed foods, you tend to find your mental health in decline. In fact, people who eat a common diet of fast food and processed baked goods are 51% more likely to develop depression than people who abstain from processed foods. A second study found that the greater the amount of sodium in urine (which reflects sodium intake), the more severe risk of depression for both men and women. Further, excessive fast food consumption is also linked to symptoms of anxiety. Eating a diet full of the nutrients your brain needs is an essential role in your overall mental and physical well-being.

The proof:

Still skeptical? Many studies have demonstrated that dietary changes can have profound impacts on mental health. Some of such studies are listed below:

  • A trial published in the Journal of American Medicine found that following a Mediterranean diet reduced symptoms of anxiety.

  • One study compared one group of participants following a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet, and a second group eating poor diets full of processed foods. Following the 3-month study, the healthy diet group had significantly greater improvements in symptoms of depression. One-third of the healthy eating group achieved full remission from depression.

  • A four-year study following over 10,000 people found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of depression.

  • A group of Australian researchers examined food diaries from over 12,000 randomly sampled adults. They discovered that a diet high in fruits and vegetables resulted in increased happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction.

The best brain food:

An easy mantra to remember which foods will best serve your brain is “seafood, greens, nuts and beans- and a little dark chocolate." This mantra comes from Dr. Drew Ramsey a psychiatrist and professor at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in NYC.

Incorporating these foods into your meals will help to increase the overall quality of your diet and impact how you feel!


  • Most seafood contains high amounts of vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, protein, and iron. Cod, wild salmon, oysters, sardines, and mussels are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for brain health. For the seafood haters, you can also get omega-3s from sea vegetables, chia seeds, and flax seeds.

Leafy Greens

  • These cheap and versatile veggies should be the staple of your brain health diet. Leafy greens like spinach, arugula, collards, beet greens, kale, and chard are filled with folate, fiber, and vitamins A and C. They are rich in antioxidants and some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.

Nuts, beans, and seeds

  • Eating half a cup to one cup of beans, nuts, and seeds per day will provide your brain with invaluable nutrients. Try adding some almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds to your salad for some extra nutrients! Nuts and seeds are also great, high-protein snacks guaranteed to keep your appetite satiated.

Colorful vegetables and fruits

  • One easy rule of thumb to follow is that the more colorful your food, the better it is for your brain. Brightly colored fruits and veggies like red peppers, broccoli, eggplants, avocados, and blueberries contain powerful compounds that affect inflammation, sleep, memory, and mood. Reddish-purplish foods are known to pack the most powerful nutritional punch.

Herbs and spices

  • Not only will cooking with spices make your food taste better, but it can also positively impact your gut health. Studies have shown that certain spices can lead to a better healthier gut microbiome, reduce inflammation, and improve memory. Specifically, turmeric contains a chemical that has been linked to cognitive benefits.

Fermented foods

  • Fermented foods are made by combining microorganisms like yeast and bacteria with raw vegetables or milk. One study found that having 6 servings a day of fermented foods can lower inflammation and improve the health of the gut microbiome. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, cottage cheese, gouda cheese, and miso.

Dark chocolate

  • We saved the best for last. Yes, dark chocolate has been found to improve cognitive function and mental health! A study with over 14,000 participants found that those who regularly eat dark chocolate have a 70% reduced risk of symptoms of depression. (The same effect was not seen in people who ate milk chocolate.) The benefits of dark chocolate come from the flavonoids they contain. But, not all dark chocolate is created equally. Click here to see Dr. Johnson’s favorite (and healthiest) dark chocolate.

While eating for your mental health is an important part of your overall optimal health, the Johnson Center recommends a genomic-based nutritional plan. Through DNA testing, we can precisely identify the patterns and imbalances of your unique metabolism and use nutrients to suppress the expression of disease, illness, and other unhealthy patterns.

If you're interested in genomic testing, click here to learn more! Or contact our office at to schedule your complimentary 15-minute discovery call.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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