How does nutrition affect mental health?


Did you know March is World Nutrition Month? This seems like an appropriate time to start considering what foods you are putting into your body and learning how it has an impact on your mental health.

Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.

To help us understand the connection between nutrition and mental health, we reached out to some local nutritionists to educate us on how gut health impacts mental health.

Topic Of Discussion

Why is good nutrition important?

According to Amber Gourley, a dietitian at Heal U, proper nutrition impacts digestion, hormone regulation, immune function, mood and energy levels, and overall prevention from acute and chronic disease states. Consuming a variety of whole foods allows the body to digest a diverse range of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to impact overall wellbeing.

Monique Richard, registered dietitian nutritionist of Nutrition-In-Sight, adds in order to function and feel our best, our bodies need energy which comes from food. Good nutrition supports our health, keeps us feeling energized and can help to prevent and manage certain diseases. How and what we choose to nourish our body impacts our physical and mental health, quality of life and mind-body connection. Good nutrition for most individuals means eating a variety of foods in a balanced and adequate way based on that individual’s needs (needs will differ per person based on body composition, activity, health conditions etc.). Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods supports energy needs, supplies the building blocks for muscle tissue and supports systems that work together by carrying vital vitamins and minerals to targeted cells throughout our body. As an integrative and functional dietitian, I work to understand each client’s individual nutritional needs to make specific nutrition recommendations based on their unique genetic profile, history and nutrition related goals.

What are the links between the gut and mental health?

The relationship between what we eat, our gut health and mental health is an exciting and quickly evolving area of research. What we understand currently is that what we eat can impact our gut microbiome, or the types of microorganisms living in our digestive tract, and can support or inhibit absorption, inflammation, and communication between our digestive tract and our brain. Both the brain and digestive tract are part of our central nervous system, they work together to support the activities of daily living. Eating patterns that include prebiotics, those foods high in fiber that feed our good bacteria, probiotics, those foods that are fermented or contain live cultures, and a variety of brightly-colored fruits and vegetables have been shown to support a healthy gut and microbiome.

Getting into a rhythm of good nutritional habits influences more than just your weight; Your gut and mental health are beneficiaries as well! There is two-way communication that moves between our brain and our gut. Without enough total bacteria or certain types, our mood, digestive efficiency, and even energy is affected. Nourishing our gut bacteria through fiber, prebiotics and probiotic sources, and eating enough food to meet energy needs not only regulates digestive processes, but in some cases assists in managing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

What diets best support mental health?

Both Monique and Amber suggest the Mediterranean diet is one way to support our mental health. They also tell us it’s important to consume a variety of foods.

Monique states, “To support mental health and well-being it’s important to consume a variety of foods so that our bodies have the macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in needs to function optimally. Our cognitive capacity, psychological and physical health and overall wellbeing can be compromised when nutrient needs are insufficient or inadequate. There are many dietary patterns that can sufficiently support mental health and well-being such as the Mediterranean Diet Lifestyle. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts, salmon, hemp seeds and chia seeds support brain function. Other micronutrients such as folic acid, magnesium and vitamin E also support mental health. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps with mood, sleep and other important body functions. Carbohydrates can increase levels of tryptophan which can contribute to increased levels of serotonin in our brain. Although supplements and other nutrient specific interventions can be beneficial, supplements alone without the various components in food are not as efficacious. Relying on consuming a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to increase micronutrient intake, varying lean protein sources and pairing with healthy complex carbohydrates (carbohydrates high in fiber, less refined, such as beans, legumes, potatoes, quinoa, brown and wild rice varieties) and healthy fats as described will help support a healthy and functioning brain, heart and digestive tract.”

Amber continues to add the two-way communication between your gut and brain can be nourished “by creating an emphasis on fruits and vegetables and whole foods at meals. More specifically, consuming sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fish 2x/week or adding in ground flax or Chia seeds, while meeting your vitamin D needs, can boost cognitive function! Some diet trends such as the Mediterranean Diet or plant-forward recipes align with these recommendations and may provide structure to meet your eating goals.”

How can I get help with my nutrition and gut health?

If you are in the Tri-Cities Tennessee area, we are fortunate to have both Monique of Nutrition-In-Sight, LLC and Amber of Heal U, LLC here locally. Both of these great dietitians offer a variety of specialties and services.

Heal U is a holistic wellness center where we believe in the importance of focusing on the whole body, not just one facet. Their core service is functional nutrition counseling specializing in women’s health but we do see men as well. Their primary areas of expertise are PCOS, eating disorders, disordered eating, autoimmune disorders, digestive disorders, pre & postnatal health, thyroid disorders, and diabetes. (you can go to their website to see the full list of conditions we work with). As part of our integrated approach we also offer massage, and are in the process of opening our IR sauna, Float tanks (they will have two), Red light / PBM therapy and Salt (halotherapy) for a total wellness experience.

Monique Richard is the founder and CEO of Nutrition-In-Sight LLC. As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), integrative and functional practitioner and registered yoga teacher, she brings a personalized, mindfulness based approach to support clients in a variety of nutrition counseling services that include, but are not limited to, diabetes, sports nutrition, weight management, eating disorders, cardiovascular disease and plant-based nutrition. Nutrition counseling is a client/provider supportive and collaborative partnership that aims to improve health and nutrition related concerns. The Nutrition-In-Sight business model allows her to spend time with clients, build a relationship and work to improve health through individualized nutrition counseling.

Feel like you have pretty good nutrition but still struggle with mental health concerns? Give Tri-Star Counseling, LLC a call! Tri-Star Counseling offers therapy and counseling services in Johnson City, Tennessee and telehealth therapy services to Tennessee residents.

Check Out More