Have you ever wondered if and how the food we consume impacts our mental health? Inflammation and oxidative stress can impact brain function and contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. There are nutrients in foods that are natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that can benefit mental health. Increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, and nuts is beneficial for lowering inflammation and oxidative stress. There are a variety of foods that are included in these categories so there are plenty of options for you to try and find the foods you like to eat!
Pathways Affecting Mental Health
Currently, there’s research that links mental health conditions with inflammation, oxidative stress, and neurogenesis:
Low-grade inflammation is when the immune system is chronically activated and is associated with chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. In the brain, stress-induced inflammation is linked to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Oxidative stress causes damage to proteins and DNA that affect cell function and can ultimately lead to cell death. High amounts of oxidative stress are associated with severe neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Low amounts of oxidative stress are observed with depression and bipolar disorder. In fact, lowering oxidative stress is thought to be one of the targets of antidepressant medication.
Neurogenesis is the formation of new neurons in a part of the brain called the hippocampus that is important for mood regulation, learning, and memory. This pathway is decreased by both inflammation and oxidative stress and can occur during depression.
Nutrients that Promote Mental Health
There are nutrients in food that have a direct impact on inflammatory and oxidative stress pathways because they function as anti-inflammatory or antioxidant agents.
Anti-inflammatory compounds include omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts (especially walnuts) and fatty fish (especially salmon), and zinc, an essential mineral found in beans.
Antioxidants include vitamins C and E found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits like oranges, leafy greens like spinach, and colorful vegetables like red and orange bell peppers.
Polyphenols are other compounds in plants that have anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties but are not considered essential vitamins and minerals. Some examples are flavonoids found in blueberries, dark chocolate, and turmeric, a spice from the same family as ginger.
Add Anti-inflammatory Foods and Antioxidants to your Diet
There is research to support a positive association between diet quality and mental health, but it’s not yet to the point of creating a definitive list of foods. Instead, the focus should be on eating a variety of fresh and whole foods. There are specific components of healthy diet patterns that improve inflammation and oxidative stress.
You’re probably quite familiar with these things from your chats with your Health Advisor. These patterns include:
- Whole fruits and vegetables: can be fresh or canned or frozen to increase amounts of essential vitamins and polyphenols.
- Whole grains and legumes (beans and lentils): a beneficial source of fiber and essential minerals.
- Lean meats and seafood: unsaturated fat and protein.
- Nuts and seeds: unsaturated fat and essential minerals
Research also advises avoiding highly processed foods that are energy-dense with few nutrients, including sweet and salty snacks and beverages. A diet pattern in which large amounts of processed foods is associated with proinflammatory signals and suppressed neurogenesis.
A great way to start adopting these processes is to replace processed snacks with fresh foods that are quick and nutritious. Some examples are trail mix with mixed nuts and dried fruit, veggies and hummus, and yogurt with fresh fruit.
Inflammation and oxidative stress can impact brain function and contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. There are nutrients in foods that are natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that can benefit mental health. Increasing the amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, and nuts are beneficial for lowering inflammation and oxidative stress. There are a variety of foods that are included in these categories so that you have many options and can find what’s right for you!!
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- Salim, Samina. “Oxidative Stress and the Central Nervous System.” The Journal of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics vol. 360,1 (2017): 201-205. doi:10.1124/jpet.116.237503
- Zainuddin, Muhammad Syahrul Anwar, and Sandrine Thuret. “Nutrition, adult hippocampal neurogenesis and mental health.” British medical bulletin vol. 103,1 (2012): 89-114. doi:10.1093/bmb/lds021
- Moore, Katie et al. “Diet, nutrition and the ageing brain: current evidence and new directions.” The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society vol. 77,2 (2018): 152-163.
- Marx, Wolfgang et al. “Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence.” The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society vol. 76,4 (2017): 427-436. doi:10.1017/S0029665117002026