Happy World Mental Health Day! Eating superfoods such as berries, fish and nuts can be one way to celebrate, since some health experts believe they boast several benefits to mental health.
Eating a colorful, balanced diet is essential to maintaining mental health and managing feelings of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, experts say.
“Lots of people get their food exactly right, live very active lives, and still have significant troubles with their mental health,” Ramsey said.
“We can’t control our genes, who our parents were, or if random acts of trauma or violence happen to us,” he added. “But we can control how we eat, and that gives people actionable things that they can do to take care of their brain health on a daily basis.”
Let’s take a look at 10 superfoods that can positively impact mental health, ease feelings of anxiety and relieve depression.
What is a superfood?
Superfood is the name given to foods that are especially good for you because of the fiber, protein and healthy fats they contain. They are also typically rich with nutrients such as antioxidants, minerals and vitamins.
“Superfoods help promote health by increasing your immune function and decreasing your chance of disease prevention or progression,” registered dietitian Beth Czerwony told the Cleveland Health Clinic in 2021.
1. Whole grains can improve mood
Whole grain foods offer fiber, protein, vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, per Healthline. Some common whole grains include oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, popcorn, barley and buckwheat.
Whole grains can add mood-boosting chemicals to your brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Carbohydrates are thought to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which has a calming effect. Eat foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains” to get these benefits, the Mayo Clinic reports.
A 2017 study found that adults who consumed more whole grains had lower odds of experiencing anxiety and depressive symptoms. Those who ate refined grains were more likely to feel anxious or depressed.
“Whole grains can help reduce depression and anxiety by relaxing the brain and improving your mood,” reports Food Network. “And, thanks to its equally high production of melatonin, whole grains can also help you maintain a steady sleep cycle — resulting in a more fitful slumber and better emotional state.”
2. Vegetables ward off depressive symptoms
“There is definitely growing evidence that high consumption of vegetables and fruits does help mental health, especially anxiety,” Uma Naidoo, a physician and director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told The Washington Post.
The USDA recommends adults eat 2-3 cups of vegetables every day.
3. Dark chocolate can alleviate anxiety and depression
Chocolate is typically thought of as an unhealthy snack, but dark chocolate actually offers some health benefits due to the fiber, iron, magnesium and antioxidants it contains.
Health experts believe it may reduce anxiety and depression symptoms because it contains flavonoids.
“The flavonoids in the cocoa help protect your cells. They’re a type of antioxidant that may also help lower your blood pressure, boost the blood flow to your brain and heart, and make you less anxious,” writes WebMD.
Dark chocolate may also make you sharper. A 2020 study found that a 70% dark chocolate bar or higher can increase cognitive function and neuroplasticity in young adults.
“Short and middle-term effects of daily cocoa intake may provide young adults with a better cognitive performance in verbal learning, memory, and attention favoring academic achievement,” reports the study.
4. Eating nuts can lower depression risk
Studies have shown that eating just a handful of nuts can reduce depression risk. Research published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that consuming a handful of nuts daily is linked to a 17% lower risk of depression.
Researchers found adults middle-aged or older who ate 30 grams of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews or Brazil nuts were less likely to take antidepressants or develop depression.
Studies have also shown that nuts can boost memory and brain health. Eating 60 grams of nuts per day (about 1⁄2 cup of almonds) increased verbal memory and blood flow to the brain, according to a 2023 study.
5. Yogurt improves symptoms of anxiety
Certain yogurts are an excellent source of probiotics, which can improve mental health and anxiety by healing gut bacteria, according to research. You have to look for the ones with “live active cultures.”
In one recent study, 66 postmenopausal women ate probiotic-rich yogurt each day for six weeks. The women who ate it experienced a boost in quality of life and reduced feelings of anxiety and stress.
A 2013 study from UCLA found that women who consumed probiotic yogurt regularly got better rest and experienced less stress.
“Our findings indicate that some of the contents of yogurt may actually change the way our brain responds to the environment,” said Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, an associate professor of medicine in the digestive diseases division at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
6. Salmon can improve mental health
Salmon contains vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are associated with mental health boosts, reports Healthline. These nutrients offer that benefit because they help regulate dopamine and serotonin, which impact your mood.
“The omega-3 content, as well as the vitamin D, in fatty fish can help regulate the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel calm,” Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian and author of “Smoothies & Juices,” told “Today.”
7. Blueberries relieve anxiety and depression
Blueberries are thought to reduce anxiety and depression because they contain antioxidants, reports WebMD.
A 2020 study found that young people who consumed blueberry supplements regularly over a monthlong period self-reported lower symptoms of depression.
8. Chamomile reduces anxiety and improves mood
Chamomile is an herb that is known to help calm anxiety, according to Healthline. It does so because it’s anti-inflammatory and helps regulate neurotransmitters related to mood.
In 2019, researchers reviewed several studies on chamomile to determine whether it could be a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. They found that those who consumed chamomile over a two- to four-week period experienced improved symptoms of anxiety and “a significant improvement in sleep quality after chamomile administration.”
Another study, published in 2012, found that those who consumed chamomile extract for two months experienced reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
9. Spinach can be anti-depressive and anti-anxiety
Spinach is an excellent source of iron, magnesium, calcium and other vitamins and minerals, and these nutrients can help keep the brain healthy and happy.
“The antioxidant effects may delay aging-related brain damage,” Jagdish Khubchandani, Ph.D., a professor of Public Health at New Mexico State University, tells Insider. “This would help maintain cognitive functions. There’s also evidence of anti-stress effects of spinach in reducing depression and structural and functional damage to the brain.”
A 2018 study suggested that spinach can help protect consumers from anxiety and depression. Mice fed spinach experienced significantly improved symptoms of chronic anxiety and depression.
Eating dark, leafy greens like spinach can positively impact mood and mental health.
“Spinach, chard and other dark leafy greens contain magnesium, which can positively impact serotonin levels and boost your mood,” reports The Washington Post.
10. Turmeric can prevent anxiety issues
Turmeric is a spice that adds more than flavor to your food. It also gives you curcumin, a chemical compound known for assisting in brain health and preventing anxiety disorder, according to a study from 2014.
A separate 2020 study observed 80 participants in a parallel, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. They took 80 milligrams of curcumin or placebo capsules over two months.
Participants who consumed the curcumin capsules reported significantly lower feelings of anxiety, stress and depression levels than those given the placebo.
A 2017 animal study identified similar results in rats.
“Reduction of anxiety, and increase in brain production of docosahexaenoic acid, an agent extremely related to anxiety, was observed following curcumin administration in rodents,” the study said.
Foods bad for mental health
As previously established, what you eat matters to your mental health. Diets heavy in sugar and processed foods can hurt mental health and increase feelings of anxiety and depression, research shows.
“A dietary pattern characterized by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression,” a 2017 research analysis reports.
Let’s take a look at some of the dietary habits that can negatively impact mental health.
1. Sugar can hurt overall mood
Sugar has no long-term positive effects on mood, according to research. A study from 2017 found a link between added sugar and depressive symptoms. A higher sugar intake increased risk of developing mood disorders such as chronic depression or anxiety.
“Sugar is not at all beneficial to your overall mental health. In fact, it’s a detriment to it,” reports Food Network. “Not only can it inflict long-lasting damage to your body if you overindulge on a regular basis, but a so-called ‘sugar rush’ can send your brain on an emotional journey and seriously affect your well-being.”
Another 2017 study found that individuals who use sugar to relieve feelings of anxiety actually experience the opposite effect. Over the long term, sugar actually weakens the body’s ability to fight off anxiety.
2. Caffeine might exacerbate anxiety
Caffeine might worsen feelings of stress and exacerbate anxiety disorders. A recent study reports that patients were more than 50% more likely to experience a panic attack after consuming caffeine.
“Overuse of caffeine can cause anxiety symptoms, and on the flip side, symptoms of anxiety may become worse with the use of caffeine,” writes Medical News Today.
The FDA recommends adults limit daily caffeine intake to 400 milligrams per day.
3. Alcohol is linked to depression
There is a significant link between alcohol and depression and anxiety, according to the American Addictive Centers.
“Research has shown that there seems to be a bidirectional relationship between alcohol use disorder (AUD) and depressive disorders. Both disorders can exist together, each disorder increases the risk for the other disorder, and each disorder can worsen the other,” the American Addictive Centers reports.
4. Processed foods and meats hurt mental health
Highly processed foods, such as cereals, snack bars and packaged treats, are associated with higher odds of experiencing depression, anxiety and cognitive decline, reports The New York Times.
A 2022 study of more than 10,000 American adults found that those who consumed ultra-processed foods were more likely to experience feelings of depression and anxiety.
“There was a significant increase in mentally unhealthy days for those eating 60 percent or more of their calories from UPFs (ultra-processed foods),” Dr. Eric M. Hecht, the study’s author, said, per The New York Times. “This is not proof of causation, but we can say that there seems to be an association.”
Eating highly processed meats can also negatively impact mental health. Researchers fed rats a steady diet of processed meats, and the rats that consumed these meats were more likely to show signs of psychiatric disorders and experience manic episodes, according to the 2018 study.