7 Foods That Have Mental Health Benefits, According To Experts

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When you plan your meals for the week, you might not be taking your mental health into account — but, according to a growing field of research, food can have a positive impact on your mental health. Scientists have uncovered a connection called the gut-brain axis that links the health of your gut, and the millions of bacteria that make up its microbiome, with the health of your brain. That has big implications for how we understand mental health, and, as experts tell Bustle, can also mean that what we put on our plates influences how we think and feel.

One of the most interesting areas of research is in something called "psychobiotics." Dr. Sabrina Mörkl of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychiatric Medicine at the Medical University of Graz, an expert on the gut-brain axis, tells Bustle, "Psychobiotics are defined as specific subtypes of probiotics and prebiotics (fibers that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria), which impact the gut bacteria and the gut-brain axis and result in modifications of mood, anxiety and cognitive function." One of the strongest psychobiotics, she says, is diet, but we're still understanding how it can affect mental health; we know that it's necessary for the health of gut microbes and affects inflammation and the effectiveness of medications, but there's a lot of research left to be done.

It's important to take some of the media coverage of so-called superfoods that could affect the brain with a grain of salt. "Most of the research into the gut-brain axis has been conducted in mice," Dr. Ruari Robertson, a nutritionist and microbiologist at Queen Mary University of London, tells Bustle. "However, these studies, and the few in humans, have provided some insight into what foods may target the connections that link the gut microbiome to mental health." Further, experts are aligned on the idea that changing one's food choices is not a substitute for therapy or mental health medication, and if you need mental health support, talking to your doctor or to a therapist will be the best place to start.

Science have a few ideas about what foods can help your mental health — and as research continues, we'll begin to understand more about how they help. Here are seven foods that may have surprising mental health boosts.

1. Proteins

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Eating proteins seems to be very important to brain health, and that can have an influence on mental balance. "The brain is very sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar so it's important that we are not eating carbohydrate-heavy meals," nutritionist Sara Kahn tells Bustle. "These type of meals can cause the blood sugar to spike then drop, which can also exacerbate anxiety. Always include sources of protein in every meal to help keep blood sugar balanced." She recommends wild salmon or pasture-raised eggs, poultry, and meats, or plant-based options like beans, lentils, and organic tofu or tempeh.

2. Prebiotics

Prebiotics are not the same as probiotics. "Prebiotics are fibers that selectively feed beneficial gut microbe," Dr. Robertson tells Bustle, "and they have been shown to reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, in humans." The study of prebiotic influence on mental health is still pretty new, but a review of studies in 2018 found that prebiotics have been shown to have positive effects on depression, anxiety — but the study also cautioned that a lot of studies on prebiotics are based on animals, not humans. Good sources of prebiotic fiber, Dr. Robertson tells Bustle, include artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks, bananas, chicory, chickpeas, lentils, and oats.

3. Oily Fish

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You've likely heard about omega-3 fatty acids being brain-boosters, and some evidence from gut studies supports this. "Omega-3 fats not only have anti-inflammatory effects in the gut, they also make up a huge proportion of our brains and furthermore may prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteria in the gut which tend to be present with diets high in other types of fats," Dr. Robertson tells Bustle. Studies have shown that omega-3 fats are essential for good brain development, and may help with the symptoms of mood disorders. Omega-3 fats are found in oily fish like mackerel, salmon, or tuna, as well as sources like walnuts, kidney beans, or edamame.

4. Magnesium-Rich Foods

"Magnesium is an essential mineral for mental health, as magnesium deficiency is associated with both anxiety and depression," Kahn tells Bustle. "Chronic stress can deplete magnesium." A review of the science around magnesium in 2018 found that magnesium plays a big role in brain health, but that studies that used it for treating depression have been inconclusive. Avocados, beans and lentils, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole wheat, and dark chocolate are all good sources of magnesium.

5. Fermented Foods

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Break out the yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir. The fermented-food fad might be all the rage, but it could also help your gut-brain axis, says Dr. Robertson. "Certain fermented foods have been found to beneficially affect mood and brain health," he says, as fermented foods "contain live microbes that are good for the gut." A review of the science in 2018 found that fermented foods might be helpful in future treatments of depression and anxiety, but that a lot more work needs to be done.

6. Polyphenols

It sounds like a mouthful, but polyphenols are actually an essential part of your diet. "Polyphenols are plant compounds that we can't digest and so instead are broken down by the gut microbiome," Dr. Robertson tells Bustle. "A number of polyphenols have shown benefits for mental health, which may be due to their processing by the gut microbiome." Polyphenols are found in very dark chocolate, berries, red grapes, extra virgin olive oil, soy, cloves, and green tea.

7. The Mediterranean Diet

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If you're looking for a comprehensive overhaul of your food routine to help your brain, experts say there's a good option available. "As far as we know, it's the Mediterranean diet!" Dr. Mörkl tells Bustle. "This diet is well researched to have a preventive effect on psychiatric disorders such as depression."

The Mediterranean diet comprises a lot of the food groups that have been shown to benefit the gut-brain axis. "The Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, fruit, vegetables and unsaturated fatty acids, and therefore provides a solid alimentation for the thousands of gut bacteria species residing within us," Dr. Mörkl tells Bustle. Those gut bacteria, she says, influence the gut-brain axis and therefore influence how we think, feel and behave. It's also been shown to be good for the heart and for general nutrition.

If you're looking to give your food intake an overhaul, it's worth making sure that you include elements of these different ideas in your diet. Diversity is also really important for a healthy gut — the more variety in your food, the more varied your gut bacteria are, which boosts your health. While food choices aren't a substitute for mental healthcare, and both food and mental healthcare can be hard to access, it's worth looking towards these sources of nutrition for a mood boost, where you can.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.