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Diet and Mental Health: What You Can Do to Boost Your Mood

Whether you occasionally have the blues, or you've been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, your diet may have an impact!

Image of healthy digestive tract without leaky gut

When you feel down or stressed out, what do you usually do? Binge watch your favorite series (again)? Call a friend to vent? Take a nap? Grab comfort foods? Any of these strategies are a quick fix, but they're not helping the root cause of the problem. There is growing research to suggest that the foods we eat impact our mental health. Including certain foods in the diet may help prevent mood imbalance or improve symptoms.

Nutrient deficiencies have been linked to a greater risk for depression and anxiety. Given that we need nutrients to produce neurotransmitters and to facilitate hundreds of biochemical reactions in our body, it is not surprising that a lack of essential nutrients leads to mood imbalance. Research has linked the lack of the following nutrients to mood disorders: vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate, magnesium, selenium, zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids.

Which Diet is Best for Mental Health Balance?

There is one dietary pattern that is consistently linked to lower rates of depression. It's also linked to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Which diet? The Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is based on what people traditionally eat in the Mediterranean area of Europe. It is rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, white meat, and olive oil. It is low in red meat and may include a moderate amount of fermented dairy foods, such as yogurt and cheese.

Two recent clinical trials have shown that the Mediterranean diet may improve depressive symptoms and help prevent them from coming back. Phytonutrients (particularly polyphenols) that are prevalent in the Mediterranean diet have been linked to a lower risk of developing depression in addition to reducing severity of depressive symptoms.

Another study found that a greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet (i.e., those who followed the diet closely) was linked to lower rates of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress compared to those who did not follow the diet as closely.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Scientists have known for a while that the gut and brain have a two-way communication via the vagus nerve and the enteric nervous system. More recently, research has exploded regarding the influence of the trillion plus microorganisms that live in the GI tract (known as the microbiota) on gut-brain communication and mental health. The foods that primarily make up the Mediterranean diet - vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and olive oil - are also foods that support a healthy gut and microbiome. Nutrition supports brain function and mental health via vitamins, minerals, and supporting a healthy gut microbiome.

An imbalance of gut microbes is associated with depression and anxiety.

There are "good" and "bad" microbes that normally exist in our GI tract. When they live in balance (i.e., plenty of the good bugs, not too many of the bad bugs), they promote good digestion, strong immune function, mental health balance, and other healthy benefits. When the number and diversity of the healthy microbes is low and/or the number of the unhealthy microbes is high, mental health may decline. Depending on the extent of the imbalance, this can result in symptoms ranging from feeling blue or a little anxious to major depression and anxiety.

But my digestion is my microbiome must be in balance.

The first question is, "What do you define as good digestive function?" Many people think it is normal to only have a bowel movement every 2-3 days. Some think loose stools every day is ok, or just how they are . Others think bloating on a daily basis is normal and they just wear stretchy clothes so they don't notice it as much. What you are "used to" may not be healthy digestive function.

Secondly, even if your bathroom habits appear to be good, you may still have gut dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria) that is contributing to mental health problems. Dysbiosis may lead to many non-digestive health conditions, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, poor immune system function, skin problems (psoriasis, eczema, acne), hormone imbalance, and others. (See my blog article "What is My Microbiome and Why Should I Care?")

Tips to Balance Your Mental Health

  • Eat a Mediterranean-style diet that is rich in:

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Whole grains (gluten-free if you're sensitive)

  • Legumes

  • Nuts

  • Fish (wild, not farmed) and white meat poultry (organic if possible)

  • Olive oil

  • Moderate amounts of fermented dairy foods (yogurt, cheese) (dairy-free if you're sensitive)

  • Limit or avoid red meat

  • Include gut-friendly probiotics (healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (food to help gut microbes flourish):

  • yogurt or kefir

  • fermented foods (e.g., kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso)

  • fruits and vegetables (e.g., berries, oranges, broccoli, carrots, and zucchini)

  • nuts and seeds (e.g., walnuts, cashews, and chia seeds)

  • whole grains (e.g., oats, quinoa, etc.)

  • If you exclude certain food groups, take a high quality multivitamin/multimineral to prevent nutrient deficiency

  • If you don't eat fish at least twice weekly, take a high quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement

  • Drink at least 8-10 cups of water daily

  • Incorporate stress management techniques into your daily routine

  • Be physically active on most days of the week (walk, jog, bike ride, yoga, lift weights, etc.)

  • Get outdoors daily

The Bottom Line

If you think you have symptoms of depression or anxiety, talk to your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment. In addition to seeking proper healthcare advice, consider choosing healthier foods as described above to promote better mood balance and overall health. Following a Mediterranean-style diet as well as incorporating foods that support gut health may not only reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, but may also help prevent these mental health disorders from occurring.

If you need help with incorporating diet and lifestyle strategies to support mood balance, consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is familiar with this area of research. You may also book an Introductory Call with Kirkman Nutrition to see if my program/services can help you.


Kris-Etherton, Penny M et al. “Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: depression and anxiety.” Nutrition reviews vol. 79,3 (2021): 247-260. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuaa025

Ventriglio, Antonio et al. “Mediterranean Diet and its Benefits on Health and Mental Health: A Literature Review.” Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH vol. 16,Suppl-1 156-164. 30 Jul. 2020, doi:10.2174/1745017902016010156

Parletta, Natalie et al. “A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED).” Nutritional neuroscience vol. 22,7 (2019): 474-487. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320

Jacka, Felice N et al. “A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the 'SMILES' trial).” BMC medicine vol. 15,1 23. 30 Jan. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y

Sadeghi, Omid et al. “Adherence to Mediterranean dietary pattern is inversely associated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress.” Nutritional neuroscience vol. 24,4 (2021): 248-259. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2019.1620425

Clapp, Megan et al. “Gut microbiota's effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis.” Clinics and practice vol. 7,4 987. 15 Sep. 2017, doi:10.4081/cp.2017.987

Malan-Muller, Stefanie et al. “The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: Implications for Anxiety- and Trauma-Related Disorders.” Omics : a journal of integrative biology vol. 22,2 (2018): 90-107. doi:10.1089/omi.2017.0077

Checa-Ros, Ana et al. “Current Evidence on the Role of the Gut Microbiome in ADHD Pathophysiology and Therapeutic Implications.” Nutrients vol. 13,1 249. 16 Jan. 2021, doi:10.3390/nu13010249

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