Can Food Help Treat Mental Illness? Eating Your Way to Mental Health

I’ve struggled with mental illness for most of my life. It was the driving force behind me becoming a health coach. I didn’t get certified to gain a career; I did it to coach myself in hopes of cultivating a life without the chains of frequent panic attacks and depression. One of the most important changes I’ve made on this journey is the food I consume.

Food Is Medicine

The food we choose to consume can be truly medicinal or poison to the body. A new field of psychiatry has submerged in the last decade called nutritional psychiatry. Professionals in the field of nutritional psychiatry often offer suggested diet changes in conjunction with medicine as needed.

Your brain has a direct link to your gut. In fact, the bacteria in your gut produces some of the same neurotransmitters as the brain like serotonin and dopamine. Your stomach is also responsible for an important chemical called GABA. Researchers are now finding that GABA plays an extremely important role in those with severe anxiety, and particularly those who experience treatment resistant depression.

Several current medications for mood disorders correct imbalances in neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. However, many patients do not benefit from these medications. Our findings build on the idea that some current medications do not help many patients because those drugs don’t affect the GABA-related brain chemistry.

Dr. Andrea Levinson

GABA imbalances have been linked to anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. An amino acid called glutamate helps to produce GABA. Adding foods rich in this amino acid can aid in the production of GABA.

Diets high in processed foods and refined sugars can harm the bacteria in the gut, causing inflammation and prohibiting the proper function of neurotransmitters in the gut and brain.

Healing the Mind Through Diet

The average Western diet is high in saturated fats, refined sugars, and includes an over consumption of animal proteins. We generally lack the daily recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. We count calories and eat frozen diet meals in the name of health, but in all honesty those things can do more damage to our mental health and overall wellness.

The bacteria in the gut makes up what’s call the microbiome. A healthy microbiome is absolutely essential to mental health and an overall healthy immune system. While overconsuming fatty foods and refined sugars can damage the good bacteria and increase the bad bacteria in your gut- adding fruits, vegetables and fermented foods to your diet helps to breed healthy bacteria and balance out the bad. Choosing anti inflammatory foods like those in the traditional Mediterranean diet can help to heal gut bacteria.

Foods that Help Support Mental Health

In one of my favorite TED talks Nutritional Psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey emphasizes a diet of seafoods, greens, nuts, and beans to support mental health. Dr. Ramsey explains the research surrounding a traditional Mediterranean diet to help treat mental illness.

I don’t necessarily like the term diet, as it brings up negative connotations surrounding food for many. The dieting industry has hijacked this term with decades of fad diets that are often purely for profit instead of health. Let’s instead think of these nutrition goals as lifestyle changes for the sake of establishing wellness.

So, what exactly should you be adding to your next grocery list to create a pantry full of medicinal foods?

The goal here is to focus on inflammation fighting foods when creating a medicinal grocery list. This will include mostly whole foods closest to their natural form. A good rule of thumb is to shop mainly around the perimeter of the store. Most inflammatory foods are located in the middle section of stores, while whole foods are around the outer areas. Try bulking up on these items next time you shop.

Leafy Greens

Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are high in brain boosting vitamins and minerals like magnesium, folate, chromium, and vitamin K. Magnesium helps to naturally reduce stress and anxiety, while chromium helps to release mood regulating chemicals in the brain. Try adding foods like spinach, kale, arugula, brussels sprouts, and broccoli to your daily meals to boost mental health.

Healthy Fats

Foods rich in healthy fats are natural inflammation fighters and can be an excellent source of energy for the brain. The body needs a certain amount of fat to help absorb nutrients, regulate hormones and provide brain power. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include omegas that can help reduce the risk of depression.

Healthy fat options include salmon, fresh tuna (not canned), avocado, olive oil, almonds, walnuts and eggs. All of which are heavily emphasized in traditional Mediterranean lifestyles.

Vitamin D Rich Foods

Vitamin D is not your average vitamin- it’s actually a hormone and the only vitamin of it’s kind. After vitamin D is consumed or absorbed through the skin (thanks sunlight) it’s then sent to the kidneys and liver where it’s converted into a hormone. Foods rich in vitamin D include mushrooms, fish, Greek yogurt, milk, spinach and kale. Research suggests that vitamin D deficiencies can increase the risk of depression.

Every tissue in the body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system, which means vitamin D is needed at every level for the body to function.

James M. Greenblatt M.D.


Nuts can provide a great source of omega-3 fats and lean protein. Research suggests that walnuts are extremely beneficial to mental health. Instead of reaching for peanuts or honey roasted nuts try incorporating raw walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts and almonds into your meals. They are a great addition to salads or on their own for a protein packed snack.


Legumes are vegetables otherwise known as beans, peas, and lintels. Their richness in fiber helps to promote gut health (remember that gut brain connection?). Legumes are also high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium- all of which are linked to mental health function.

Try adding some black beans, kidney beans, peas, and lintels to your meals. They are great replacements for meat protein and can help to lower your grocery bill.


Berries provide some of the richest sources of antioxidants available. These antioxidants help to protect brain cells from damaging free radicals. Studies suggest berries actually change the way neurons in the brain communicate- preventing inflammation that can cause neurological damage.


Lycopene is an antioxidant that helps to reduce stress and repair damaged brain cells. Tomatoes are one of the richest sources of lycopene available. A study found that those who ate tomatoes or tomato based products (not ketchup) everyday reduced their risk of depression by up to 52%.


Chocolate is derived from the cacao bean. Eating chocolate in the form of cocoa nibs, powder or a dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao can help support mental health and boost your mood.

Cacao beans are a highly concentrated source of antioxidants. The antioxidants and amino acids in cocoa help produce feel good chemicals in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. One chemical in particular, phenylethylalanine, is considered a natural antidepressant and produces the feeling you get when falling in love.

Fermented Foods

Probiotics help to support a the microbiome and sustain a healthy gut brain connection. Fermented foods like kefir, Greek yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi are some of the best natural sources of probiotics.

Foods That Can Negatively Impact Mental Health

Most foods in the standard Western diet are highly inflammatory and can increase the risk of mental illness as well as chronic diseases. These foods can typically be found in the center of the grocery store, fast food or chain restaurants. Try avoiding premade meals or prepackaged snacks. Even many foods deemed as healthy or diet food fall into this category.

Here’s what to look out for:

  • Highly Processed Foods (premade meals, frozen meals, canned soups, etc.)
  • Refined Sugar (white sugar, boxed pastries, cakes, cookies, ice cream, etc.)
  • Fast Food
  • Excessive Caffeine (stimulants can increase anxiety)
  • Excessive Alcohol

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