The Surprising Science of Nutritional Psychiatry: Nourish Your Mind

Dec 02, 2023
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Did you know that studies show that you could reduce your risk of depression by 25%-35% simply by following a few simple principles of nutritional psychiatry? Read our blog to learn more holistic tips to optimize the gut-mind connection.

The Surprising Science of Nutritional Psychiatry: Nourish Your Mind

Nutritional Psychiatry 101

The definition of nutritional psychiatry is the study of how diet and nutrition impact mental health and well-being. It explores the relationship between the food we consume and its effects on our mood, cognitive function, and overall mental well-being. As Hippocrates wisely said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," highlighting the significant role that nutrition plays in maintaining optimal mental health. This emerging field of research sheds light on the surprising science behind the connection between what we eat and how we feel, offering promising avenues for improving mental health through dietary interventions. 

What is the role of nutrition in psychiatry?

Certain foods can have a significant impact on our mood. This connection is primarily attributed to their ability to affect neurotransmitter synthesis, regulate or dysregulate the microbiome, and influence inflammation and oxidative stress levels. Consuming foods that promote the production of neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions can enhance mental well-being, while an imbalanced diet may contribute to mood disorders and decrease overall mood stability. Furthermore, the microbial composition of our gut can be influenced by dietary choices, ultimately impacting our mood and mental health. Lastly, consuming foods that cause inflammation and oxidative stress can negatively affect mood regulation. 

The "Gut-brain" Connection

The field of nutritional psychiatry explores the intricate connection between our gut and brain health. Often referred to as the "second brain," our gut plays a crucial role in influencing our mental well-being. Research has shown a direct link between gut health and mental health, with disruptions in gut flora potentially leading to mood disturbances. It is worth noting that 95% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. The communication between the microbiota in our gut and our brain, known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis, further emphasizes the significance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, characterized by microbial diversity and relative abundance. 

Diet and Mental Health

Sixteen eligible randomized controlled trials, involving a total of 45,826 participants, were analyzed to explore the impact of diet on mental health. These studies primarily focused on individuals with nonclinical depression. The findings revealed that dietary interventions had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. The positive effects were consistently observed across high-quality trials and when compared with both inactive and active controls. Moreover, studies that focused on female participants indicated even greater benefits from dietary interventions, exhibiting improvements in symptoms of both depression and anxiety (PubMed). 

Essential Dietary Principles for Mental Health

Nutritional Psychiatry emphasizes the crucial role of diet in supporting mental health. A balanced diet, rich in essential nutrients, is essential for promoting mental well-being. Key dietary principles include adhering to chrono nutrition, managing blood sugar levels, reducing food allergies and sensitivities, minimizing inflammation and oxidative stress, and optimizing mitochondrial function. Methylation folates and dietary polyphenols also play a significant role in maintaining mental health. Proper nutrition can address various conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, nutrient deficiencies, chronic infections, inflammation, autoimmunity, neurodegeneration, sleep apnea, mental illnesses, and metabolic disorders. Furthermore, it can improve muscle contraction, enhance mitochondrial function, boost ATP levels, and influence gene expression. 

Six Pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry 

The six pillars of nutritional psychiatry are as follows: 

  1. Be whole, eat whole: Focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods to provide your body and mind with essential nutrients.


  1. Eat the rainbow: Include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet to ensure you're getting a diverse range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.


  1. The greener, the better: Leafy greens like spinach and kale are particularly beneficial for brain health due to their high nutrient content.


  1. Tap into your body intelligence: Pay attention to how your body responds to certain foods and make choices that support optimal mental well-being.


  1. Consistency and balance are key: Establishing a regular eating pattern and maintaining a balanced diet can help stabilize mood and energy levels.


  1. Avoid anxiety-triggering foods: Certain foods, such as caffeine and refined sugars, can exacerbate anxiety symptoms, so it's important to minimize their consumption.

Traditional Diet Versus Western Diet

Studies comparing traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean and traditional Japanese diets, to a typical Western diet have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who follow traditional diets. This difference can be attributed to the fact that traditional diets are rich in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, and seafood, while containing modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. In contrast, Western diets often include processed and refined foods, as well as high amounts of sugars. Furthermore, the fermentation of many unprocessed foods in traditional diets provides natural probiotics, which may contribute to their mental health benefits.

Key Nutrients and Their Impact on Mental Health 

Omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, vitamin D, minerals, and antioxidants are key nutrients that significantly impact mental health. Deficiencies or imbalances in these nutrients have been linked to an increased risk of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and flaxseeds, support brain function and reduce inflammation. B-vitamins, like folate and vitamin B12 found in leafy greens and lean meats, help regulate mood and improve cognitive function. Vitamin D, obtained from sunlight and fortified foods, plays a crucial role in serotonin production and mood regulation. Minerals like iron, zinc, and magnesium, found in legumes, nuts, and whole grains, support neurotransmitter functioning. Antioxidants, found in fruits and vegetables, reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, promoting mental well-being. 

Chrono-nutrition and Mental Well-being

Nutritional psychiatry, specifically chrono-nutrition, plays a crucial role in promoting mental well-being. Chrono-nutrition is the science of how food, metabolism, meal timing, and your circadian rhythm interact. When you eat is as important as what you eat according to some researchers. By aligning our food choices with our circadian rhythms, we can support optimal mental health. This involves not only the selection of certain foods and supplements that regulate the circadian system but also the timing of our meals to effect changes in our internal clocks. Imbalances in this area can manifest as insomnia, depression (particularly with early morning awakening), bipolar disorder, labile mood, pre-menstrual syndrome, bulimia, dementia, and fibromyalgia. Some supplements that can help regulate the circadian rhythm include lithium orotate, melatonin, and vitamin B12. 

Mood Boosting Foods

Mood boosting foods, such as dark chocolate, spices, and fermented foods, can play a significant role in supporting mental well-being. To ensure a balanced diet that promotes mental health, consider incorporating BRAIN FOODS into your meals:  

B: Berries and beans 

R: Rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables 

A: Antioxidants 

I: Include lean proteins and plant based proteins 

N: Nuts (Almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and cashews) 

F: Fiber-rich foods, fish, and fermented foods 

O: Oils 

O: Omega-3-rich foods 

D: Dairy (yogurt and kefir, certain cheeses) 

S: Spices (turmeric lavender, passionflower, chamomile) 

It's also important to limit the consumption of ultra processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, and refined grains. 

Nutritional Psychiatry and Insomnia

Insomnia is a complex sleep disorder that goes beyond difficulty falling asleep. In some cases, waking up in the middle of the night can be attributed to a drop in blood sugar levels. To alleviate this, incorporating carbohydrates and certain foods known to promote relaxation, such as chamomile tea, may aid in sleep onset. However, for those struggling with waking up during the night, consuming a small amount of protein alongside a grain or fruit before bedtime can help maintain stable blood sugar levels. Have you ever experienced waking up at 3:00 am without any apparent cause? 


At Axis, we believe mental health treatment is more than meds. Nutritional psychiatry is more than a fad, but is an evidence-based treatment that can be leveraged with traditional psychiatry to secure better patient outcomes than just antidepressants alone. The remarkable link between what we eat and our mental well-being can empower patients to reduce their dependence on medications and reduce side effects. The science and research that supports the "gut-brain" connection clearly demonstrate how diet impacts our mood is crucial for maintaining optimal mental health. Traditional diets, rich in whole foods, have shown promising results compared to the modern Western diet. Key nutrients play a significant role in influencing mental health, and adopting a chrono-nutrition approach can further enhance our overall well-being. To stay updated on the latest advancements in mental health, we encourage you to follow our social media accounts and explore our blog. Together, we can nourish our minds and prioritize our mental health.