Nutrition and Mental Health: First Steps

There is so much to this topic! We could spend years together sorting out all the myriad ways our nutrition effects our bodies and in turn, our mental health. It’s amazing to me that in the almost ten years I’ve been studying and working as a counselor, this subject has barely been mentioned. I can count on one hand the number of courses that have come across my desk for continuing education in the relationship between what we eat and how we feel. Unfortunately, it is a significantly important factor in our mental health that is missing in the discussion of mental health treatment. Hopefully we can start to change the discussion a little bit.

Let’s take a quick review of the Standard American Diet (SAD). We all love that acronym, right? The Standard American Diet makes us SAD. But let’s explain that a little bit more. When I refer to the SAD as a poor diet choice that needs adjusting, I’m referring to the excess of processed foods containing refined sugar (added even to products we think should be healthy!), fruit juices, white, refined rice, pastas and bread, not to mentioned the prepackaged and even fresh bakery items that entice us with their tempting aromas only to damage our bodies. The processed foods so many of us rely on are filled with chemicals and synthetic sweeteners and preservatives that our bodies don’t recognize as food. Add to that the inclusion of hormones, antibiotics and food colorings (did you know there is food coloring in pickles??), and you have the perfect storm leading to chronic inflammation and neurotransmitter imbalances. Eating this way ultimately leads to nutritional deficits. Our brains and bodies will not be getting the nutrients they need on this diet. The lack of nutrition may hit some of us later than others; I can remember eating terribly all throughout college and feeling great! But the truth is, we all eventually reap the consequences of poor nutrition.


So chronic inflammation. Research has now established that inflammation is a constant element in most mental illness, particularly depression. Poor diet contributes to inflammation in the body. So does stress, lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, gut permeability (we will discuss this in a future post), lack of sleep, exposure to toxins and vitamin D deficiency. When inflammation is chronic, the immune responses of your cells are always in go-mode. This produces cytokines (which can be inflammatory and anti-inflammatory). Inflammatory cytokines contribute to the decay of nerve cells and lead to depression. High levels of this kind of cytokine will impair neurotransmitter function.  Foods high in refined sugars (which are everywhere in the our highly-processed diet culture) trigger this inflammatory response.

This is why foods like berries, turmeric and ginger are good to integrate into your healing diet; they have anti-inflammatory properties and can sort of switch the cytokine response in your immune system, which can then improve depression and even help your anti-depressant medications work more effectively.

The first step, however, to really making a lasting, meaningful change is to eliminate added, refined sugar from your diet. If you’re reducing stress and increasing anti-inflammatory food but still eating the highly-processed foods and “fake” foods causing the inflammation in the first place, you’re not going to notice an improvement in your health, physical or mental.

So how to do you eliminate sugar and refined foods?

  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Avoid buying the prepackaged and boxed food items.
  • Read food labels. Sugar isn’t always plainly stated. The label may list barley malt or malt syrup, beet sugar, cane juice, corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose (any of the-ose ingredients, really), maltodextrin or sweet sorghum to name a few. A good rule of thumb is that if something has more than 4 ingredients, don’t buy it.
  • Switch your at-home sweetener to Stevia. It is 100 times sweeter than sugar and can reduce blood sugar levels. I like this liquid Stevia. Trim Healthy Mamas may also be familiar with using sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol in combination with stevia. There are TONS of sugar free baking recipes out there, so you won’t have to go without your cookies and brownies. And if you just need a chocolate fix, Lily’s chocolate is Stevia-sweetened.

This is a good start. Remember, change happens slowly. Be gracious and gentle with yourself and your body as you begin to make healthier choices and heal from the inside out!

close up photography of strawberries and cherries
Photo by Trang Doan on

Here’s a tasty anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety smoothie to try while you’re making these adjustments to your health…

Cherry Matcha Smoothie (THM-E)

5oz coconut water + 7oz regular water (adjust for thickness)

1 scoop vanilla protein powder (mine is sweetened with Stevia) cup frozen Cherry Berry Blend (blueberries, strawberries and cherries)

1/4 – 1/2 cup frozen Cherry Berry Blend

1 handful kale or spinach

1 tsp – 1 Tbsp Matcha Green Tea Powder

1-2 tablespoons unrefined, cold-pressed coconut oil

1-2 tablespoons milled or soaked chia seeds

A few drops of liquid Stevia

Squeeze of lemon if you really don’t like the Matcha taste.

Cherries are rich in anthocyanins, making them useful for reducing inflammation. They also increase the availability of tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid necessary for producing serotonin, for reducing stress, improving sleep and mood. Green tea will give you an energy boost without the jitters, and it contains the amino acid theanine, which is also has natural anti-anxiety properties.

Hope you enjoy! Remember, eliminate sugar, reduce stress and increase anti-inflammatory foods to fight chronic inflammation in your body. And if you have follow-up questions, let me know!

Korn, L. E. (2016). Nutrition essentials for mental health: A complete guide to the food-mood connection. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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