Connecting Nutrition and Mental Health

Article Written By: Judy Rooney, LCSW, Certified Mindset & Habit Coach, Behavioral Health, Tri-State Clearwater Medical

As we celebrate National Nutrition Month, I think it’s important to highlight the connection between nutrition and mental health. One of the most overlooked aspects of mental health is nutrition. Food plays a significant role in not only our physical health, but our mental and emotional health as well. Did you know that there is actually a new field, Nutritional Psychiatry, which studies how food impacts cognitive functioning and emotional health? Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, is a pioneer in this area of study and directs the Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has written a book, “This is Your Brain on Food,” where she provides emerging evidence of the food-mood connection, and what we need to eat to beat depression and anxiety.

Research has shown that 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, a chemical responsible for mood and emotion, is made in the digestive tract. The gut also plays an important role in cortisol release, a chemical that is instrumental in making sure the body responds to stress effectively. Several studies have found that microorganisms living in your gut, including probiotics, can play a key role in mood regulation by helping to reduce inflammation in your body and produce feel-good neurotransmitters.  All of us can relate to having a “nervous stomach,” or perhaps “butterflies in our stomach,” that correlates to the connection of the complex relationship between the gut and the brain, and ultimately how we feel – physically and emotionally.

So, in addition to the traditional approach of medication and psychotherapy for the treatment of depression and anxiety, there is encouragement and evidence to be intentional with the foods that you eat to help manage symptoms. Whatever your dietary preferences or needs, there is a variety of foods that provide mood boosting benefits!

Eating the Colors of the Rainbow

Dr. Naidoo recommends, and confirms, the importance of “eating the colors of the rainbow,” combined with dark leafy greens. The plant polyphenols have different colors, and the more colors, the better, because that brings biodiversity back to the gut microbes. Leafy greens are rich in folate, which is a very important nutrient in mood, because people with depression have been found to have a lower dietary intake of folate. Vegetables are a wonderful choice to provide folate, fiber, and other nutrients. Beans are a great source of protein, folate, and fiber that help minimize the blood sugar spikes and dips that can affect our mood. 


Omega-3 fats are important in brain health and may be involved in the functioning of serotonin, a neurotransmitter important in the regulation of mood. Wild-caught fish, especially the oilier types such as salmon, trout, anchovies, sardines, and tuna (not canned), are great choices to help fight depression. It can also be obtained from plant-based sources like chia seeds, flax seeds, and algae. Walnuts are the winner when it comes to nuts supporting overall brain health, being one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 and a great source of protein to help keep blood sugar levels at a healthy balance. Research found that adults who ate nuts, and specifically walnuts, were more likely to have higher levels of optimism, energy, hope, concentration, and a greater interest in activities.

Prebiotic, Probiotic & Fermented Foods

Another important food category Dr. Naidoo suggests is prebiotic, probiotic, and fermented foods.  Prebiotic foods are simple foods in our diet, that include garlic, leeks, onions—and other foods including bananas and oats. Fermented foods are also critical to that gut environment, and they are generally made from vegetables that include kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, and yogurt or kefir if you eat dairy. Apple cider vinegar is also on this list.


Another missed kitchen ingredient that research has shown to improve symptoms of depression is spices. Dr. Naidoo recommends adding turmeric with a pinch of black pepper to your tea, soup, or super smoothie. There is strong evidence that the piperine in black pepper makes the curcumin in turmeric more bioavailable to the brain and body. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, can reduce stress and increase longevity of the brain and heart. Nutmeg is known as a “relaxant spice,” but be careful, a little goes a long way, so just use a pinch here and there. Other identified spices known for their helpful mental health qualities include cinnamon, thyme, cloves, fennel seed, saffron, and vanilla.

The 5 B’s

For foods to help calm us, Dr. Naidoo recommends the 5 B’s: beans, brown rice, berries, bran, and baked potato with the skin on, identifying that dietary fiber promotes the growth of “good” gut bacteria, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, which has a positive effect on mood by activating brain pathways and nerve signaling that can alleviate anxiety. Who knew? She also suggests foods rich in magnesium, almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, cooked black beans, and edamame, because of the way that magnesium can ease stress responses, changing levels of harmful stress chemicals in the brain.


Of course, we know that there are food categories that tend to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, many of these foods are the ones that we tend to gravitate to when we are having a bad day. Most things in moderation won’t harm you, however, keep in mind that processed foods, especially those high in sugar and refined carbs, may contribute to those symptoms of depression and anxiety. When we eat those refined carbs there’s a spike in the body’s energy levels, and then a crash, which can result in low mood and fatigue. Keeping your blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day can help your mood and energy stay balanced as well.  

Alcohol and Caffeine

Limiting alcohol consumption is an obvious recommendation. Alcohol is a depressant, and can be quite sugary, which can sabotage your mood and create blood sugar levels to elevate and then crash, besides the effect of impairing your judgement. Caffeine and energy drinks fall into this same category, they can lead to crashes that leave you feeling low, and if in excess, may lead to increase symptoms of anxiety and sleep disturbance. Caffeine is a stimulant that activates your “flight or fight” response, and research has determined it can increase your anxiety symptoms, especially if you have an anxiety/panic disorder. There is other research that identifies that small amounts of caffeine may reduce anxiety and boost your alertness and mood, which suggests that in addition, green tea and dark chocolate may be a substitute. Dr. Naidoo states that dark chocolate is associated with improvement of cognitive health and mood, which makes me feel better!

I know that all of this may seem like a lot of information, but literally, we have just scratched the surface of all the information out there about the connection of food and mood. The bottom line, is that diet can play a role in managing symptoms of depression and anxiety. The nutritional choices we make every day can impact our body’s ability to function at its best. It’s great now to understand that when your health care provider suggests eating a healthier diet, that there is actually science behind what we should be doing. So go ahead and try some new foods, be intentional with your food choices on a daily basis to make an impact on your emotional health and well-being.

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