There May be a Connection Between What We Eat and Our Mental Health

close up of fruits hanging on tree
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While health is characterized by an array of factors, such as sleep, diet, BMI, exercise, stress levels, and more, one significant characteristic of our overall health is often overlooked writes Kate Maxwell.

Our mental health.

An underrated and forgotten topic in collegiate life, mental health is just as important as our physical health. While we are taught to exercise, eat more plants, and get enough sleep, we lack the paramount education on taking care of ourselves.

There are many ways to nurture and boost your mental health, including probable evidence from eating nutritious foods. New research is suggesting a link between eating healthfully and improved mental health, so we decided to do a little digging. After breaking it down into common vitamins, minerals, and macros, here is what we found.

Vitamins

Kristine Mahan

Vitamins play a key role in our development, metabolism, homeostasis, and overall health. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to function as humans. Some vitamins are readily available in a variety of foods, while others are more concentrated to certain food groups. Our brain health, specifically our cognitive thinking and function, is dependent on the right amount of nutrients which help nourish our brainand serve to “protect against oxidative stress”. For now, we will focus on the key vitamins that American medicine stresses: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D.

Vitamin A

Christin Urso

When we think of Vitamin A, we instantly think of bright, orange carrots. Can you blame us? Just 1 medium carrot boasts over 200% of our daily recommended intake. Pretty impressive. Vitamin A, a fat soluble vitamin, is crucial for maintaining the health of our bones and skin, as well as produces pigments in our eyes. Vitamin A, or retinol, also helps keep our immune systems strong and healthy.

Adequate levels of this vitamin are especially important for children under 5, given most of our growth occurs within the first few years of life. An insufficient consumption of Vitamin A can cause symptoms of blindness, a weak immune system, and eye damage. Nobody enjoys being sick or ill, and many recent studies draw a clear connection between depression and a weak immune system. Although deficiencies of Vitamin A are rare, make sure to eat a balanced diet to ensure your body is getting enough retinol for daily functions.

Vitamin C

Rebecca Block

Vitamin C is essential to a healthy immune system. Originally the antidote used to treat rare, crippling diseases like scurvy, vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is now used for a plethora of different functions. The most common? Treating the common cold. *chugs orange juice* Many of the benefits of Vitamin C apply to those seeking solace from ongoing mental health problems. These include depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, dementia, and mental stress. Vitamin C can be found in a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, with citrus fruits and oranges reining the highest dose of ascorbic acid. Time to make some lemonade!

Vitamin D

Alex Frank

Vitamin D, otherwise known as the “sunshine vitamin”, is a fat-soluble nutrient that helps our body absorb calcium. Being outside for just 10-15 minutes 3x a week is enough to satisfy the body’s Vitamin D requirement. The connection to mental health with Vitamin D is simply exposure to nature. Countless researchers support the idea that the more time spent outside, the higher our quality of mental health. Surprisingly, there are very few foods that naturally contain Vitamin D. Many foods are fortified with the vitamin, but animal products such as meat, cheese, and fatty fish contain a sufficient quantity of the sunshine vitamin.

Carbohydrates 

Vicky Nguyen

Perhaps one of the most common sources of energy in the American diet (and worldwide), carbohydrates are found in a bulk of the foods in our grocery stores, gardens, and farms. A naturally occurring sugar, carbs help to ensure our body has enough energy to carry out the multitude of tasks we command daily. Without the energy our bodies need, we become sluggish and unproductive. Our mood plummets and we become irritable.

Carbohydrates exist in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy, and more- so along with the valuable glucose we need as fuel, we also receive a variety of beneficial vitamins and minerals. The Mental Health Foundation states “A balanced mood and feelings of well-being can be protected by [consumption of] … complex carbohydrates.” Focusing on complex carbohydrates found in whole grains and legumes, versus refined carbs found in processed food and desserts, has been shown to improve mood and energy. Time to whip up some whole wheat pasta!

Protein

Christin Urso

Perhaps one of the few nutrients that Americans get more than enough of- protein. Here in the United States, it is very rare to see a true protein deficiency. Protein is a very important macronutrient, helping maintain our cell structure, function, and regulation. There are 20 amino acids that make up proteins, with 9 of these being essential, or coming strictly from our food. The remaining amino acids are able to be synthesized in our body. Our brain neurons communicate through protein, and our hormones and enzymes that allow for chemical changes in our bodies are sourced from protein.

Recent studies have indicated a critical link between “major depression and altered levels of amino acids”, indicating the importance of getting enough protein in our diets. In America, our major sources of protein are animal based– meats, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. However, plant-based protein sources are becoming more popular. Plant forward options include nuts, beans, legumes, and whole grains.

Sugar Sweetened Beverages

Mackenzie Patel

We all know that sodas are not good for us- but can consuming these sugar sweetened beverages have a devastating impact on our mental health? A recent studyfound that children and adolescents consuming a high sugar, soft drink filled diet had a much higher prevalence of ADHD. Given the fact that sodas are just empty calories, there are no beneficial nutrients coming from the drink. In fact, the high spike in carbohydrates will only harm us in the long run- physically and mentally. Next time you get the urge to chug a Dr. Pepper, try making your own carbonated drink instead. This will cut down on the risk of a blood sugar spike (and a quick drop) and help keep you focused, productive, and energetic.

Minerals

Nicole Burnett

Minerals provide a wide range of benefits to the human body, ranging from developing and strengthening bones to regulating some of the major structures and functions of our body. Since there’s so many different minerals that impact overall health, we are focusing on three of the most major minerals: Iron, Calcium and Potassium.

Unfortunately, the relationship between how either deficiencies or overloads of certain minerals on mental health has not been explored in-depth. Comprehensive studies of the effects of minerals on symptoms for various mental illnesses have indicated that more research is going to be necessary to fully understand those correlations. However, some limited data has been concluded.

Iron

Emily Doyle

Some studies have shown that iron deficiencies in children could lead to an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders later in life. A study in BMC Psychology concludedthat low levels of blood iron during the early years of a person’s cognitive development increased later risk of developing autism spectrum disorders, mood disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Other studies have reported that women of childbearing ages that had abnormally low levels of iron also had poorer mental health than those with normal concentrations of iron; however, some of the studies used unvalidated methods of determining mental health, and so the studies might not be entirely accurate. However, one study that did use validated methods of assessing mental health did correlate low levels of iron with poorer overall mental health.

As almost 6 percent of Americans have varying levels of iron deficiency, it is important to continue researching what effects low iron levels can have on a person’s short and long-term mental health.

Potassium

Sarah Silbiger

Potassium, which is found in foods like avocados, bananas, and certain types of nuts, is used primarily by the body to regulate fluid and muscle contractions, and send nerve signals. Low levels of potassium can deregulate a variety of systems within the body, yet low potassium could impact more than just physical health.

According to SFGate, some studies that were conducted primarily in the 1990s showed a correlation between low levels of potassium and higher rates of depression. Additionally, hypokalemia (severely low potassium levels) could be a potential factor in psychosis cases.

According to Dr. Ella Hong, there is a “clinical possibility that hypokalemia may cause symptoms of psychosis in psychiatric populations,” especially when considering that 20 percent of psychiatric patients present with hypokalemia, a rate much higher than in the general public.

Almost all Americans have some level of potassium deficiency, so it is important to increase potassium consumption in order to avoid the serious mental repercussions that a low-potassium diet could entail.

Calcium

Yasmeen Aboulhawa

Surprisingly, studies have indicated that having too much calcium could be a risk factor for depression. Americans are often encouraged to consume foods high in calcium, such as cheese, beans and yogurt, but it is important to be sure to consume everything in moderation. Until more is known about how calcium might impact physical and mental health, it is important to stick to consuming the recommended 1,000-1,200 mg of calcium daily.

Fats

Jessica Kelly

There are several different types of fats, including “good” fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; there’s also industrially-made trans fat, which is considered to be unhealthy for consumption, and saturated fats, which are somewhere in the middle of the “good” and “bad” fats.

Saturated fats can be found in a variety of commonly-used food products, such as red meat and whole milk products. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can be found in foods like avocados, as well as various types of nuts and oils; meanwhile, trans fats are found in fried and baked goods, like pies, cakes, and doughnuts.

The various types of fat can have different effects on a person’s mental health. For example, the consumption of healthy fats has been linked to lower rates of depression. Alternatively, a study conducted by researchers from UC San Diego showed a correlation between the consumption of foods high in trans fat and increased aggression and irritability.

Americans tend to consume far too much trans fat on average, and that could be increasing the risk for already vulnerable populations to developing further aggression-related complications.

However, cutting back on processed foods and increasing the number of fruits and vegetables eaten daily can provide a positive boost to a person’s mental health.

Water

Jordi Almeida

Consuming enough water per day is one of the best ways for someone to maintain their physical and mental health. People need, on average, 64 oz of water per day but more may be needed if a person is physically active or experiences abnormal levels of sweating.

A small study of college students at an American university found that a significant portion of college students are not drinking enough water. Dehydration, however, can lead tochanges in a person’s mood. Dehydration slows downcirculation, which decreases oxygen flow to the brain and subsequently causes a more negative shift in mood.

It is important to drink at least eight glasses of water everyday in order to avoid any cognitive changes from occurring due to dehydration.

Caffeine 

Jocelyn Hsu

Caffeine is probably the most commonly used drug in America, with 90 percent of the population admitting to drinking some form of caffeine every day. More than half of Americans drink coffee regularly.

The data on how caffeine influences mental health is mixed; some studies, including one conducted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have linked drinking 4 small cups of coffee daily to a lower risk of depression and suicidality.

However, consuming too much caffeine (above the 400 mg recommended daily) has been shown to cause psychotic or manic symptoms in some (rare) cases; people with anxiety issues are particularly at risk for experiencing adverse mental effects due to caffeine consumption.

Even small dietary changes can have a big impact on your mental health. Order a side salad at dinner, drink an extra glass of water during your afternoon break, or add a few more colorful fruits into your daily breakfast. Each food has a unique set of vitamins and minerals that help our bodies carry out daily functions and remain cognitively strong. With an increasing demand for mental health research, we expect to see overwhelmingly positive correlations between a healthier diet and overall mental wellness.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin