By Sarena-Rae Santos, Natural Health Blogger
As someone who has struggled with mental health for a large portion of my life, it was hard to understand I was not alone. Nine hundred seventy million people worldwide struggle with mental health, resulting in approximately 8 million preventable deaths annually (1).
Many people fail to realize that proper nutrition affects everything, not just your physical health but your mental health too. If your diet isn’t correct, or you’re experiencing nutritional deficiencies, you can’t be the best possible version of yourself, meaning mental health may also be impacted. I didn’t learn this until I started focusing on real food solutions. Proper nutrition filled with antioxidants, protein, and occasional carbohydrates is vital for mood-boosting and overall brain health.
5 Foods to Avoid for Your Mental Health
You are what you eat is one of the most literal things you will hear, from mental to physical health. What you eat will either encourage healing, be the most powerful form of medicine or feed disease, and be the slowest form of poison. So let’s discuss the poison, followed by the medicine.
Although some alcoholic beverages, like red wine, are considered heart-healthy when consumed in moderation (2). If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s probably best to skip alcoholic beverages. Studies have found an association between hazardous levels of alcohol consumption and mental health problems. They’ve even noted declining academic performance among 18 to 24-year-olds (3).
Of course, that study is particularly focused on hazardous levels of alcohol consumption, so what about regular, non-hazardous drinking levels? Well, alcohol is a psychotropic depressant, meaning when you drink alcohol, your brain inhibits neurons by impacting their ability to transmit impulses and slows down your central nervous system (4). It may make you feel good at the moment, but when reality comes back, your mental health will take a toll.
Alcohol abuse can cause signs and symptoms of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, psychosis, and antisocial behavior (5). Furthermore, research shows that common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, social anxiety, stress, alexithymia, and insecure attachment styles are risk factors for alcohol use disorder (6). Chances are these symptoms result from ‘self-medicating,’ meaning they drink to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms of their existing mental health struggles. Instead, consider trying an adaptogenic mocktail in place of alcohol.
If you read our blog, Understanding Food Toxins, you know there are many food toxins to watch out for, but not all of them impact your mental health. When I say food additives, artificial coloring and sweeteners come to mind first. These two additives harm our overall health, including mental health.
Animal studies indicate synthetic food dyes affect activity, memory, and learning while causing neurotransmitter and microscopic changes in the brain structure (7). Some sources have even labeled food coloring “neurotoxic chemicals” and point to them as agents aggravating mental health problems, most notably attention disorders (8).
In our blog, Why You Should Ban Food Dyes From Your Home, we discussed many of the risks associated with artificial food colorings, including behavioral changes. Just to recap some of what was said, food coloring risks include:
- May be linked to cancer
- May influence children’s behavior
- May trigger hyperactivity
- May cause allergic reactions
- Triggers asthmatic symptoms
- Genetic damage
When it comes to artificial sugars, things get even deeper. For instance, aspartame has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems like learning problems, headaches, seizures, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia (9). Studies have linked saccharin exposure with behavioral phenotypes consistent with impaired dopamine neurotransmission (10). Furthermore, animal studies found sucrose produces behavioral and neurochemical effects comparable to drug abuse. The study listed effects like conditioned place preference, locomotor sensitization, anxiogenic and depressant responses during forced abstinence, and enhancement of mesolimbic dopamine transmission (11).
Most of us know that fried foods aren’t good for our health. Southern-style diets, often filled with fried foods, sweet drinks, and processed meals, have been associated with a 50 percent higher risk of death from kidney disease. This combination of foods and beverages is believed to cause issues filtering out the harmful fats, sugars, and minerals in such a diet (12).
This isn’t what most will want to hear, but our favorite comfort foods, fried foods, are detrimental to our mental health too. Studies have found a correlation between frequent consumption of fried foods and higher instances of anxiety and depression (13). We can only assume this is a result of nutritional deficiencies.
Processed foods contain an abundance of food additives besides previously mentioned food coloring and sweeteners. Other artificial ingredients in processed foods include sodium, phosphorus, nitrates, and trans and saturated fats, all brimming with their own health concerns. Processed food is any agricultural product that has had anything altered from its natural state. That can include cooking, drying, washing, or any other process that changes its original nature. So, where should we draw the line?
I recommend drawing the line at added preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other unnecessary additives, which many would consider ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods may include added preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. These foods may also contain additives like artificial colors, flavors, or stabilizers (14).
Studies demonstrate excessive consumption of processed foods may damage the kidneys (15). Additionally, research suggests that eating a diet high in processed foods increases the risk of depression (16). Processed foods include processed animal-based and plant-based foods like meats or cheeses.
Remember, pizza doesn’t grow on trees, there aren’t fruit roll-up bushes, and you can’t pick cereal from your backyard (but wouldn’t that be fun)? While processed foods might be tasty and convenient, they hurt us long-term.
We already discussed artificial sweeteners, but what about plain old white sugar? Unfortunately, excess sugar is the cause of many ailments like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more (17). Of course, refined sugar is also a highly processed food.
Refined sugars come from sugar cane or sugar beets, processed to extract the sugar. Not only does consuming sugary foods put at-risk individuals on the fast track to developing diabetes, but sugar has been directly linked to causing and contributing to already existing depression (18). Additionally, researchers have found that sugary foods and beverages were directly related to common mental disorders and depression (19).
This is why I caution against traditional sugar and recommend purchasing organic cane sugar (this will at least avoid GMOs). Some of my favorite sugar alternatives are raw honey, dates, date syrup, coconut sugar, and monk fruit sweetener, all easily found in almost any supermarket.
5 Foods to Add for Your Mental Health
Remember how I said what you eat will either encourage healing, be the most powerful form of medicine, or be the slowest form of poison? Since we already discussed the poison, let’s discuss the foods that encourage healing now.
If you read our blog, How Adaptogens Ease Your Stress (and What Ones To Use), you know adaptogens work by helping the body manage stress and promote healthy emotional responses. For those who may not know, adaptogens are herbal substances that enhance the “state of non-specific resistance” and support the body’s ability to deal with stress from anxiety, fatigue, trauma, infection, and so on (20).
Adaptogenic herbs support healthy metabolic function and restore balance in one’s body, and studies back this. Studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic, and CNS-stimulating activity (21). Additionally, adaptogens ensure that everyday stressors are not causing bodily damage due to being stuck in fight-or-flight mode.
- Ashwagandha – check out our ashwagandha herbal profile
- Astragalus – check out our astragalus herbal profile
- Cordyceps Mushroom
- Holy Basil – check out our holy basil herbal profile
- Licorice – check out our licorice herbal profile
- Reishi mushroom – check out our reishi mushroom herbal profile
- Schisandra – check out our Schisandra herbal profile
- Turmeric – check out our turmeric herbal profile
Beta carotene is the pigment in a plant that gives it a vibrant red, orange, or yellow color. Beta carotene is considered a provitamin A carotenoid, which means the body can convert it into vitamin A. Beta carotene is also a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants can help fight damage from harmful free radicals. The buildup of free radicals has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Beta carotene has been linked to better cognitive function, better skin health, protection against lung cancer, and protection against age-related macular degeneration (24,25,26,27).
- Cayenne – check out our cayenne herbal profile
- Chili pepper
- Red and yellow peppers
- Romaine lettuce
- Sage – check out our sage herbal profile
- Sweet potato
Studies have found a link between fermented food consumption, food-derived prebiotics, cognitive performance, and depressive and anxiety symptoms (30). Since anxiety can deteriorate cognitive function, gut microbiota-based strategies may improve cognition by alleviating anxiety symptoms, especially in those who aren’t depressed (31,32).
Maybe this has something to do with the gut-brain connection, which we discuss in our blog, Natural Ways to Reduce Stress & Anxiety.
Studies have discovered that modulation of the gut microbiota may benefit cognitive function and mood and anxiety symptoms. For instance, studies have found probiotic and prebiotic preparations to positively alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety in humans (33,34,35). Additionally, commonly-consumed fermented food lowers depression and anxiety symptoms (36,37).
- Pickles (Bubbies or brined; not vinegar/canned)
- Kombucha (try our herbal kombucha recipe)
- Water kefir (learn how to make your own water kefir)
- Milk kefir
- Coconut kefir
- Homemade fruit/veggie ferments (try our fermented garlic honey recipe)
- Yogurt (learn how to make your own yogurt)
- Raw milk cheese
- Fermented cottage cheese
- Apple cider vinegar (learn how to make your own ACV)
- Sourdough bread (try our gluten-free sourdough boule recipe)
Vitamin C is an important nutrient.
Those with a vitamin C deficiency often feel fatigued or depressed (40). In studies, vitamin C deficiency, including scurvy, has been linked to depression and cognitive impairment (41). Additionally, studies have found vitamin C supplementation promotes mental vitality in healthy young adults (42).
Vitamin C is the safest and most effective nutrient to add to your diet. The benefits of vitamin C are quite surprising, from protection against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, eye disease, and even skin conditions (43). Vitamin C is another powerful antioxidant that can help fight damage from harmful free radicals, which have been linked to chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
When it comes to mental health, vitamin C also poses many benefits. Evidence indicates high levels of Vitamin C in the adrenal gland, and its release in response to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) provides further evidence that vitamin C plays a role in the stress response (44).
- Basil – check out our basil herbal profile
- Black pepper
- Chili pepper/powder
- Dill weed
- Thyme – check out our thyme herbal profile
- Turmeric – check out our turmeric herbal profile
Vitamin E is a vitamin that dissolves in fat and is usually found in animal products. In most of the research I’ve come across, recommendations are to avoid animal products and to adopt a plant-based lifestyle if mental health is something you struggle with. With that said, if you wish to research a plant-based lifestyle, two great resources are Feeding Plant-Based Kids and Why Adopt A Plant-Based Lifestyle.
Vitamin E is another antioxidant required for the proper functioning of many organs. It slows down the process of damage from harmful free radicals, which has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease (47). Regarding mental health benefits, studies have found vitamin E demonstrates antidepressant-like effects (48,49,50). Additionally, studies have noted lower vitamin E levels in those with major depression (51).
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper – check out our cayenne herbal profile
- Garlic – check out our garlic herbal profile
- Ginger – check out our ginger herbal profile
- Oregano – check out our oregano herbal profile
- Red peppers
- Thyme – check out our thyme herbal profile
- Vegetable oils (learn why you should avoid seed oils)
- Wheat germ
Additional Mental Health Resources
First and foremost, if you are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health-related distress, please seek professional help or text/call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. If this is not an emergency but something you struggle with, understand you are not alone and that we offer many mental health resources, including: