Mental illness affects nearly 20 percent of adults in the United States. On average, those with severe mental illness die nearly 25 years younger than their peers. Perhaps surprisingly, the most common causes of their mortality are highly preventable health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and obesity.
These statistics have come as a shock to many, but the evidence is a reminder of the tight connection between physical and mental health. The health of your mind, body, and spirit is intricately connected to your overall well-being.
Fuel Your Body, Fuel Your Brain
A growing body of research reveals a clear link between mental health disorders and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, respiratory disease, cancer, and diabetes. What do these diseases have in common? They’re largely preventable with good nutrition and regular physical activity.
The same is true for mental illness. Much like your gut, a lot of nutrients also interact with your brain including glucose, amino acids, antioxidants, and fats. Your brain relies on these nutrients, both physically and chemically, to form tissue, balance hormones, defend against free radicals, prevent inflammation, circulate oxygen, and much more.
As with physical and systemic health concerns, nutrient deficiency can aggravate or cause many forms of mental illness, while ample nutrients can help you stall or prevent them. Illness, in general, increases your nutritional needs, making good nutrition as vital to recovery and maintenance as it is to prevention.
Mental Health Benefits of Good Food and Fitness
One of the biggest rewards of prioritizing nutrition and fitness is an almost immediate increase in energy. This is especially important if you are constantly tired, have trouble getting out of bed, or are dealing with the drowsy side effects of prescription medication. You can regain alertness, alleviate depression and anxiety, and increase your positivity by filling in nutritional gaps with key nutrients, such as amino acids, B and D vitamins, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Combined with daily exercise, good nutrition also promotes healthier, more regular sleep patterns, which is critical to your mental health, memory, mood, weight management, immune function, and cardiovascular system. Likewise, substituting whole grains in place of simple carbs and sugars can smooth out blood sugar levels and steadily fuel your brain. This is especially important for people who suffer from fluctuating or erratic moods that exacerbate their mental health disorders.
In my career in the nutrition and fitness industry, I’ve witnessed multiple people improve their symptoms of mild depression through simple dietary changes. Small choices such as eating an apple instead of a chocolate bar, hydrating with lemon water instead of soda, and cutting out fast food have had tremendous benefits on their mental health.
The following five nutritional tips can also help boost your mood and improve mental health symptoms:
1. Eat plenty of foods rich in omega-3s.
Eating moderate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids every day has been clinically proven to improve your mood. This is no surprise, considering that omega-3 increases gray matter in areas of the brain related to emotion. High-quality sources of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, sardines, ground flax and chia seeds, free-range eggs, and pasture-raised proteins.
2. Choose high-quality proteins.
Proteins contain amino acids your body forms into neurotransmitters and brain chemicals. Many of these chemicals and hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, are responsible for your happiness. Good sources of complete protein, which provide all essential amino acids, include grass-fed beef, bison, wild-caught fish, shellfish, turkey, and whole eggs.
3. Aim for five to 10 servings of fruits and veggies a day.
Including plenty of fruits and veggies in your diet is the best whole-food approach to meeting your body’s vitamin and mineral demands. For instance, B vitamins, folate, calcium, chromium, iron, iodine, selenium, and zinc are all vital for healthy brain function and can be found in a variety of produce. Such produce also offers antioxidants essential to fighting oxidative damage to brain cells as well as dietary fiber that controls blood sugar and energy levels.
4. Get plenty of pre- and probiotics.
Your gut is often called your second brain because its microflora communicate directly with your nervous system. Consequently, studies support the benefits of probiotics for improving mood and mental health. Food-based sources of probiotics include natural yogurt, kefir, kombucha, tea, and cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi. Fueling your microflora also requires the prebiotic fiber found in garlic, onions, artichokes, whole grains, and peas.
5. Beware of iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is a common factor in attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), which has surprised some athletes who have become iron-deficient from their restrictive diets. Many of these athletes have experienced gradual improvement in their ADHD symptoms by eating more heme iron from seafood, poultry, and red meats, as well as non-heme iron from lentils and eggs.
When it comes to mental and physical illnesses, you must treat the illness at hand. But it’s important to also consider how an illness affects your healthy lifestyle and how your lifestyle affects your health. Proper nutrition — the fuel for both your brain and body — is a key element of both mental and physical health.