Nutrition And Mental Health

Nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new field that has garnered increasing attention in recent years. The concept focuses on the impact of nutrition on mental health and how dietary habits can affect one's mental well-being.

Updated April 12th 2023


  • Nutritional psychiatry is a growing field examining the impact of nutrition on mental health.
  • Diets high in refined sugars may contribute to impaired brain function and worsen symptoms of mood disorders.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, and antioxidants play an essential role in brain health.
  • Gut bacteria impact brain health; a healthy gut is essential for maintaining mental well-being.
  • A balanced diet and proper nutrition are crucial for good mental health.

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This article provides a comprehensive overview of the role of nutrition in mental health, highlighting the potential benefits and consequences of specific dietary components, as well as the relationship between gut health and brain function. The information presented outlines the conclusions of Dr. Eva Selhub, published on the Harvard Health Blog on November 16, 2015 (Selhub, 2015).

The Impact of Refined Sugars on Mental Health

High consumption of refined sugars has been associated with negative effects on brain function. Research indicates that diets high in sugar may contribute to impaired memory and learning, as well as exacerbating symptoms of mood disorders like depression and anxiety (Benton et al., 2008; Cao et al., 2009; Selhub, 2015). The consumption of refined sugars can lead to a spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a sudden drop, which can negatively impact mood and energy levels (Selhub, 2015).

The Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health, playing a vital role in cognitive function and mental well-being. These fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties, and their consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of depression and anxiety (Grosso et al., 2014; Mocking et al., 2016; Selhub, 2015). Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds.

B-Vitamins and Antioxidants

B-vitamins and antioxidants are essential nutrients for maintaining optimal brain health. B-vitamins, such as folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, play a crucial role in maintaining healthy neurotransmitter levels and reducing inflammation in the brain (Bottiglieri et al., 2000; Selhub, 2015). Antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, protect the brain from oxidative stress and free radical damage, which can contribute to cognitive decline and mental disorders (Joseph et al., 2005; Selhub, 2015).

Gut Health and Mental Well-being

The gut-brain connection is increasingly recognized as a critical aspect of mental health. The gut microbiome, the collection of microorganisms residing in the gastrointestinal tract, has been found to influence brain function and behavior (Foster et al., 2017; Selhub, 2015). A healthy gut microbiome, rich in beneficial bacteria, is essential for maintaining proper brain function and mental well-being. Probiotic foods, such as yogurt and fermented vegetables, can support a healthy gut microbiome, and in turn, positively impact mental health (Dinan et al., 2015; Selhub, 2015).

The Role of Tryptophan and Serotonin

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, plays a significant role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, sleep, and appetite (Selhub, 2015). A deficiency in tryptophan may lead to low serotonin levels, which has been associated with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders (Young, 2007). Consuming foods rich in tryptophan, such as turkey, nuts, and seeds, can help maintain adequate serotonin levels and support mental well-being (Selhub, 2015).

Dietary Recommendations for Optimal Mental Health

To promote good mental health, it is essential to consume a balanced diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods. The following dietary recommendations can help maintain optimal brain function and mental well-being (Selhub, 2015):

  • Limit the consumption of refined sugars and processed foods, as they can negatively impact mood and cognitive function.
  • Include omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods, such as fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds, in the diet to support brain health and reduce inflammation.
  • Consume foods high in B-vitamins and antioxidants, like leafy greens, whole grains, and berries, to support neurotransmitter production and protect the brain from oxidative stress.
  • Support gut health by incorporating probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt and fermented vegetables, into the diet.
  • Ensure an adequate intake of tryptophan-rich foods, like turkey, nuts, and seeds, to maintain healthy serotonin levels.


A balanced diet and proper nutrition are key components of good mental health.

The field of nutritional psychiatry emphasizes the importance of nutrition in maintaining mental health and highlights the potential consequences of poor dietary choices on cognitive function and mood. Diets high in refined sugars may negatively impact brain function and exacerbate symptoms of mood disorders. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, and antioxidants play a crucial role in promoting brain health. The gut-brain connection also underscores the significance of a healthy gut microbiome in supporting mental well-being.


Benton, D., Williams, C., & Brown, A. (2008). Impact of consuming a milk drink containing a probiotic on mood and cognition. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(3), 355-361.

Bottiglieri, T., Laundy, M., Crellin, R., Toone, B. K., Carney, M. W., & Reynolds, E. H. (2000). Homocysteine, folate, methylation, and monoamine metabolism in depression. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 69(2), 228-232.

Cao, D., Lu, H., Lewis, T. L., & Li, L. (2007). Intake of sucrose-sweetened water induces insulin resistance and exacerbates memory deficits and amyloidosis in a transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer disease. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 282(50), 36275-36282.

Dinan, T. G., Stanton, C., & Cryan, J. F. (2013). Psychobiotics: a novel class of psychotropic. Biological Psychiatry, 74(10), 720-726.

Foster, J. A., Rinaman, L., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiology of Stress, 7, 124-136.

Grosso, G., Pajak, A., Marventano, S., Castellano, S., Galvano, F., Bucolo, C., ... & Caraci, F. (2014). Role of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of depressive disorders: a comprehensive meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. PloS One, 9(5), e96905.

Joseph, J. A., Shukitt-Hale, B., & Casadesus, G. (2005). Reversing the deleterious effects of aging on neuronal communication and behavior: beneficial properties of fruit polyphenolic compounds. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81(1), 313S-316S.

Mocking, R. J., Harmsen, I., Assies, J., Koeter, M. W., Ruhé, H. G., & Schene, A. H. (2016). Meta-analysis and meta-regression of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for major depressive disorder. Translational Psychiatry, 6(3), e756.

Selhub, E. (2015). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from

Young, S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 32(6), 394-399.

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