Nutrition and Exercise for Mental Health
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Over 46 million U.S. adults have a mental health diagnosis, with depression and anxiety disorders topping the list. Even without a diagnosis, many of us deal with challenging symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
It’s easy to think that mood and mental health concerns are separate from the physical body, but don’t discount the body-mind connection. How we care for our bodies with the food we eat, how we move, and other lifestyle behaviors profoundly influences the brain and mental well-being.
Today’s article will dive into the mental health connections with nutrition and exercise. We’ll cover general tips, supported by research, for eating and moving in ways that benefit your brain. However, the information covered does not replace working with your healthcare team. If you need immediate mental health support, please call 988.
Keep reading more about:
- The nutrition-mental health connection
- Nutrition tips
- The exercise-mental health connection
- Exercise tips
- Hot to get started
Let’s jump in!
The Food and Mood Connection – Nutrition for Mental Health
You’ve likely experienced your mood influencing nutrition. For example, you may notice you reach for comfort foods when stressed or that mood changes affect your appetite.
The reverse is also true: what you eat affects your psychological state. A poor diet contributes to a poor mood, but improving your diet has benefits beyond the physical; it supports mental health, too. Optimizing your diet is helpful for prevention and as part of a treatment plan for depression, anxiety, and other concerns.
Let’s look at some of the reasons behind the food-mood connection:
Depression is an inflammatory condition, and one root cause of inflammation is a diet high in inflammatory foods like sugar, refined carbohydrates, toxins, and inflammatory fats. Shifting to an anti-inflammatory eating pattern may help reduce inflammation and improve mental health symptoms.
Those who eat a traditional diet, such as a Mediterranean or Japanese diet, have lower rates of depression. While traditional or ancestral diets vary by region, they rely on local, seasonal, and unprocessed foods. Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation and are regularly consumed in many of the healthiest diets globally.
Eating refined carbohydrates and sugar and the subsequent blood sugar spikes are associated with depressive symptoms. Conversely, low blood sugar is also associated with mood changes and poor mental health.
The brain needs constant energy, but high and low blood sugar disrupts the available energy to the brain, affecting brain function. An eating pattern that balances blood sugar is beneficial for mental health.
What you eat affects the gut microbiome, and the gut microbiome influences brain health via the gut-brain axis. Gut imbalances correlate with autism, dementia, and psychiatric disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Your lifestyle habits and environment highly influence the gut microbiome, which quickly shifts with dietary changes. A gut-healthy eating pattern is vital for your gut and brain.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers in the nervous system that help regulate mood, appetite, and cognition. Producing and regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, require significant nutrient inputs.
Nutrients for healthy neurotransmitters include:
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fats
Even marginal nutrient deficiencies can contribute to alterations in neurotransmitter levels, contributing to depression and anxiety.
Healthy Eating Patterns for Mental Health
Use nutrition to decrease your risk for mental health symptoms and improve your quality of life. Here’s how:
- Eat colorful produce daily; include abundant vegetables (including greens) and some fruit.
- Add cold water fish 2-3 times per week and take an omega-3 supplement.
- Cook primarily with olive oil (low heat only), coconut oil, avocado oil, and ghee or butter.
- Regularly include nuts and seeds in the diet. Raw, sprouted, or dry roasted are preferable.
- Choose whole forms of carbohydrates such as legumes, tubers, and whole grains.
- Choose unsweetened dairy products and grass-fed/organic if possible.
- Choose quality animal products, including eggs, poultry, and grass-fed meats to help meet your daily protein needs.
- Combine carbohydrates with protein and fat at meals and snacks.
- Include fermented foods as condiments (sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, miso, etc.).
- Add herbs and spices to meals for flavor and nutrition.
- Cook at home most of the time.
- Minimize refined carbohydrates, candy, sweetened beverages, fast food, processed meats, fried food, and alcohol.
Exercise for Mental Health Benefits
Exercise is a primary example of the body-mind connection: physical exercise improves mental health.
A large body of research suggests those with higher activity levels have lower rates of depression, stress, and anxiety. Conversely, inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for many physical and mental diseases.
Exercise is a stressor, but a positive one that helps reduce other stress burdens. Beginning or increasing exercise has many positive benefits for depression and other mental health concerns.
Exercise benefits mood and mental health by:
- Increasing blood flow to the brain
- Driving the release of neurotransmitters
- Promoting neurogenesis (growth of brain and nervous system tissue)
- Improving overall brain function
Because of these brain benefits, exercise is beneficial for the prevention of mental health disorders and part of the management of mental health symptoms. In this way, consider exercise to be a therapy.
Much of the research focuses on aerobic training for depression, but newer research has also looked at resistance training, showing benefits for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Exercise Tips for Mental Health
There are many ways to exercise; it’s worth finding what works best for your body, mind, and lifestyle.
Here are some general exercise tips for supporting mental health:
- Enjoy moderate aerobic (cardio) and strength training each week. Work up to 150 minutes weekly (five days of 30-minute workouts) plus at least two strength sessions.
- Increase low-intensity movement, such as walking, as much as possible.
- Break up sedentary time with more movement – walking, cleaning, gardening, and other activities of daily life.
- Exercise in nature as possible for added mental health benefits.
- Find movement you enjoy and can get excited about.
- Connect with how you feel (body and mind) after exercise.
- Allow rest and recovery after exercise – space out higher-intensity workouts.
- Work on building consistent habits and making movement a priority.
Changing your habits is hard, particularly if your mood is low. It’s okay to start slow. Be gentle with yourself.
One strategy is to break your goal down into the smallest parts. Make the goal so small that it’s easy to do. For example, if you want to run a few miles but are new to running or out of practice, start with a 5-minute walk around the block. Do it every day at a convenient time (such as after dropping the kids off at school). When the habit is consistent, then work on making your walk longer or starting to jog.
Another strategy is to exercise with a supportive community, such as the programs offered by Hannah Bower through her website and app. Hannah’s programs promote physical and mental health, focusing on fitness for pregnancy, postpartum, and women’s health.
Feeling good promotes healthy behaviors, and healthy behaviors promote good mental health. Nutrition and exercise are foundational for your mood and mental health today and into the future.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before changing your diet or beginning a new supplement, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, take medication, or have a medical condition.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.