Introduction To Eating For Optimal Mental Health

Neurotransmitters are communication conduits in which messages travel from one nerve cell to another in the brain. Though the brain has billions of nerve cells, they don’t actually touch – thus the job of neurotransmitters to bring messages back and forth. In addition to the brain, scientists are discovering the role of the gut as the “second brain” because it relies on the same neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). 

Those with Major Depressive Disorder and/or anxiety have damaged or warped neurotransmitters due to trauma or heredity. Even in the most positive life experiences with the abundance of love from others, a person with damaged or poorly functioning neurotransmitters can feel despair, lack of motivation, distrust of others, anxious, and isolated. Medication can assist the neurotransmitters to function properly.

Neurotransmitters Connected To Mental Health

  • Serotonin improves willpower, motivation, and mood.
  • Noradrenaline (norepinephrine) enhances thinking, focus, and dealing with stress.
  • Dopamine increases enjoyment and is necessary for changing bad habits.
  • Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, love, connection, and reduces anxiety.
  • GABA increases feelings of relaxation and reduces anxiety.

Healing Neurotransmitters With Food

Food can serve as medicine for mental health challenges BUT consult with your mental health practitioner if you want to transition away from medication or modify the dosage. Prior to exploring food and nutrients for mental health healing, talk to your pharmacist and doctor because certain healthy foods, such as pineapple, do not interact well with antidepressants. 

What Is Blood Sugar?

The stomach and small intestines absorb the glucose and then release it into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, glucose is used immediately for energy or stored in our bodies, to be used later. However, our bodies need insulin in order to use or store glucose for energy. 

Without insulin, glucose stays in the bloodstream, keeping blood sugar levels high. High blood sugar levels can lead to:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly and quickly
  • Feeling nervous
  • Feeling tired or having low energy

When blood sugar levels dip too low, stress hormones are released which in turn unlocks the glucose that is stored in our bodies and then gives us a boost of energy. Yet, by having stress hormones constantly released in our bodies we then have adrenaline and cortisol present in our system which leads to:

  • Feeling confused
  • Feeling anxious
  • Having difficulty making decisions

Stay Hydrated

The first step in lowering high blood sugar is the stay hydrated with water. Water flushes out toxins from your kidneys and liver, and promotes brain clarity. (Disclaimer: While water can reduce the amount of glucose in the blood, do not consider it a replacement for your medication and insulin to manage your diabetes.)

When To Eat and Fast – Individual Journey

Intermittent fasting is recommended when eating for optimal mental health. Researchers are saying that having fasting window helps fight type 2 diabetes and balances blood sugar. Snacking through the day does not help maintain a healthy blood sugar level. 

Due to all the various diet trends from keto and paleo, it is confusing to know what to eat for optimal mental health. As you test various diet plans, maintain a journal documenting your meals, energy level, and mood. Also, begin your food journey by doing the following:

  • Cover half your plate with vegetables;
  • Have a quarter of the plate covered by protein; and 
  • The other quarter covered by whole grains.

In conclusion, your eating schedule is based on your body’s needs, level of physical activity, and age. Do not attempt intermittent fasting until you consult with your physician. Do not sustain it if you are uncomfortable and feeling weak beyond a few days. Keep a food journal to evaluate patterns and the relationship between your food intake and your mental state. Based on your entries, you will gain clarity on when and what to eat to maintain a healthy balance of glucose in your bloodstream and healthy neurotransmitters.

Take Care of Your Adrenal Glands

Adrenal glands are responsible for secreting cortisol when we are stressed which then leads to increasing the amount of glucose circulating in the body. Cortisol also hinders the production of serotonin in the gut. An increase in cortisol also leads to weight gain, high blood pressure, poor sleeping habits, reduce energy levels, and mood swings. Self-care is important in managing stress which includes eating the food (including healthy fats) to manage serotonin levels as well meditating and mind-body activities such as yoga.

Feeding Your Neurotransmitters In Your Gut

Not only is it important to nourish the neurotransmitters in your brain that impact mental health, such as serotonin, but those located in the gut have to be maintained with the right food. Nourishing the gut, also referred to as the “second brain,” is important when managing your mental health. Good bacteria thrives in the gut in order to keep your immune system healthy and your body free of disease.

The brain-gut connection is the enteric nervous system which relies on the same neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters such as serotonin to communicate and interact with the central nervous system. (90% of our serotonin is in our gut.)

This “brain-gut axis” can get negatively impacted by stress. When a person has the fight-or-flight response during times of stress, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing a perceived threat. Therefore, the health of the gut is jeopardized and the appropriate amount of serotonin is not produced.


Inflammation in the brain and gut has a direct correlation to mental health disorders. Consume foods containing antioxidants to relieve oxidative stress in the brain. Antioxidants eradicate free radicals which are unstable molecules that damage nerve cells in certain emotional areas of the brain. Also, maintaining healthy gut bacteria helps prevent and eliminate inflammation. 

Try eating “ugly fruit” in which bruised fruit contains a higher level of antioxidants. Use turmeric in food and drinks because it contains the chemical curcumin which has been known to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s response to being imbalanced and injured.

Craving Sugar

Cravings are not about nutrient deficiency, it is about feeding what your body is seeking. Sugar and dopamine have a dysfunctional relationship. Sugar activates the reward and pleasure centers on the dopamine pathways. Yes, it gives us a high but then it becomes addictive. Those with mental health challenges should eliminate refined sugar from their diet.

Resource Information

CLICK HERE to download a table that outlines the food items, their nutrients, and now those nutrients impact blood sugar, the brain and gut in nourishing your mental health. 


Explore recipes that contain the nutrients outlined on the table. CLICK HERE to download the Mind Health: Shop Talk menu.