How Nutrition Influences Your Brain and Mental Health

More than ever, practitioners today are starting to take a stand for nutrition in the mental health space. While nutrition isn’t everything in terms of mental health, growing research is starting to support how nutrition and lifestyle factors actually do impact the brain. Dr. Daniel Amen is one medical leader trying to shift the conversation from mental health to brain health, in order to highlight the physical aspects of mental health and reduce stigma. As he notes, we are now starting to look at the brain from a growth-oriented lens. Certain lifestyle factors can change your cognition, resilience, and more. 

So how does nutrition in particular actually impact your brain? It all comes down to one word: neurotransmitters. 

neurotransmitters and nutrition

What are neurotransmitters?

Your nervous system can’t function without neurotransmitters, and essentially they are how your nervous system communicates. Balance of neurotransmitters can help with cognition, mood, memory, relaxation and much more. Certain nutrients can provide the raw materials to make these neurotransmitters. 

So, does nutrition impact neurotransmitters and your brain? Absolutely. There are many neurotransmitters with different roles in the body, but commonly known ones include dopamine, GABA, serotonin, and epinephrine. 

Nutrients for brain health

Many nutrients can impact the brain, but I did want to highlight the most influential. 

Vitamin B6 is actually 100 times more concentrated in the brain than in the blood. Specifically, vitamin B6 can affect GABA, dopamine, and serotonin (so it can alter mood, concentration, sleep and anxiety). Some sources of B6 include salmon, chicken, beef, potatoes, tempeh, and bananas.

Omega-3’s found in seafood are involved in the synthesis of serotonin. Similarly, vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, also plays a role in serotonin synthesis. This is probably the most commonly associated nutrient with mental wellness, due to seasonal affective disorder. 

Other nutrients include certain amino acids such as tryptophan (famously in turkey, but also in other animal proteins, beans, and nuts) and zinc (in shellfish, nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate). 

The gut-brain connection

The human gut and microbiome is so complex (and fascinating). The gut-brain connection has been gaining attention in recent years. We are now finding that the gut can affect the brain, and the brain can affect the gut. 

Gut bacteria can product neurotransmitters, so support a healthy and abundant gut environment through the foods you eat. Add a wide variety of colors of produce to support different strains of beneficial bacteria, and include whole food probiotic sources

Another important piece of this gut-brain connection is the vagus nerve. Having a strong vagal tone means that it is easier for you to switch from a stressed to relaxed state, and can positively impact the brain and gut. The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by deep breathing, cold exposure, laughing, and humming. Gut bacteria also plays a major role in vagal tone. 

Putting it all together

Although research is still needed, there is so much progress on lifestyle factors and brain/mental health. This can only give us more tools to feel empowered to improve our mental wellness. So, needless to say, don’t sleep on diverse and vibrant meals to support the gut and brain. 

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About Chelsea Stegman

Chelsea is the owner and founder of Chelsea Stegman Nutrition, LLC. She is a Chicago based virtual dietitian working with active professionals through energy management, recovery, and adrenal health. She takes a well rounded approach to working with clients, including nutrition to fuel strength, cardio, and recovery based exercise; overall recovery; adrenal testing; habit development; and supplementation. You can catch her hanging with her mini husky, exploring the local restaurants, or running by the lakefront. Find her online at www.chelseastegmanrd.com.