|Dr. Jyoti Patel, MD
Functional Medicine Doctor
Gut Health & Wellness Expert
In our last article, we talked about the connection between the gut and our mental health, and the key role that diet plays in supporting both. But, what is the ideal diet that can help improve the gut brain axis and emotional health?
While there is no specific diet that works best for everyone, a plant-based whole food Mediterranean-style diet can be a great starting point for optimizing mental well-being. This diet is based on the traditional eating pattern of people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It has been well documented for its positive impact on mental health, cognitive function and overall health.
In this article, we will take a deeper look into some of the key dietary concepts that may help support the gut brain axis, cognitive function and emotional wellness. Use this information to educate yourself and speak with your doctor to see which options may be best for your diet.
The Best Diet for Mental Health
For years, researchers have examined the relationship between the foods we eat and their effects on our health.
The traditional eating habits of those who live in Mediterranean countries have stood out in multiple studies as beneficial for mental health, cognitive function and overall health. Other popular diets for cognition you may have heard of such as the MIND diet, are also based on many of the principles of the Mediterranean diet.
So what exactly is the Mediterranean diet? It’s a style of eating that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, whole unrefined grains, and healthy fats from nuts, wild fish, and olive oil. This type of diet has shown to be very helpful in controlling inflammation and balancing blood sugar. Numerous studies have found that a Mediterranean diet is linked to a reduced risk of both mental and physical health issues.
Foods to Eat for Gut & Mental Health
A Mediterranean-style eating is well known for its rich deep colors, exotic aromas and exciting flavors. While the actual plan should always be tailored to the individual, here are some of the more common foods to eat:
- Colorful fruits, vegetables & greens: try to eat organic as much as possible to avoid pesticides found in non-organic produce. When not possible, pay attention to the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of twelve fruits and vegetables that are typically exposed to the most pesticides. For the twelve on this list, always choose organic.
- Probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, Kombucha, kimchi, miso, tempeh, fermented tofu, sauerkraut to support the growth of the good gut bacteria.
- Wild caught fish. High in omega 3 fatty acids that helps balance emotional health and control inflammation. Avoid farm-raised fish as they are often fed with foods that are not meant to be consumed by fish and contain dioxins, PCBs and other chemicals.
- Healthy fats such as avocado, olives, olive oil, avocado oil
- Nuts & seeds are great source of healthy fats. Walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds are particularly high in omega 3 fatty acids.
- Beans & Legumes provide fiber needed to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, as well as plant-based proteins, minerals and other essential nutrients.
- Unprocessed whole grains. Many grains are altered, sprayed, or processed. These are very different from the natural whole grains that were consumed traditionally as a part of the Mediterranean diet.
Quinoa, barley and oats are still good options that are commonly available.
- Meat (in moderation): make sure to choose meat that is free of pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics and hormones that can disrupt the gut bacteria. Some people with poor gut health or absorption issues may benefit from eating organ meats.
Organ meats are concentrated in minerals and vitamins in a form the body can better utilized.
- Get enough fiber: Whole plant-based foods such as the ones listed above are a great source of fiber that is essential for a healthy gut. Most people, however, do not get enough fiber from their diet. The general recommendation is 19-38 grams per day, depending on gender and age. Work with your doctor to determine your daily intake.
- Diversify and rotate your foods: Eating the same foods every day, even healthy ones, can overtime lead to a reaction to the antigens in the foods, leading to inflammation.
- Choose organic as much as possible: Modern foods are heavily sprayed with pesticides which can kill the good bacteria in the gut. Always read the label and question the source of your food.
Foods to Avoid
As you can imagine, a diet that is inspired by many generations of healthy eating across the Mediterranean includes almost no processed foods. Modern diets, on the other hand, are packed with chemicals, toxins, additives, and processed foods that can disrupt the gut microbiome and affect our mood and cognitive function.
To make the most of your diet, you need to do both: eating the foods that help your body heal, but also, avoiding the foods that we know damage our body and lead to disease.
Foods to avoid include:
- Processed, canned and packaged foods
- Sugars, sugary drinks and sodas
- Processed meats and low-quality/commercial animal products.
- Artificial food additives: many diet foods or low-carb products use artificial sweeteners, chemicals and preservatives that can be harmful to the gut. Watch for these additives in your protein bars, protein powders and other meal replacement foods.
- Hydrogenated fats and modified vegetables oils
- Fried foods.
These tips can help you get started with a healthier diet, but for some people it may not be not enough to improve all their health concerns. Sometimes an elimination diet is needed in order to heal the gut.
The Elimination Diet
Transitioning towards a Mediterranean style of eating to support health and emotional wellness may be a good fit for many people, although just like any diet, it is not perfect.
You may have for example, sensitivity to some of the foods that are included in the Mediterranean diet. Eating them can cause more inflammation and worsen your symptoms. So initially you may have to eliminate them from your diet.
Known as the elimination diet, this dietary protocol is designed to identify and address individual food sensitivities.
For a few weeks, you stop eating common inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn and proceed grains, as well any foods you think you might be sensitive to. It is best to do an elimination diet under the supervision of a trained practitioner to make sure you don’t eliminate too many foods at once or develop nutritional deficiencies.
The reason you need to avoid these foods for a period of time, is that after eating these foods, it may take three to four weeks for the inflammatory processes in the body to eventually calm down. As the inflammatory response settles down, you may notice improvements with your mood, anxiety, sleep, digestion and other concerns.
The fact that you feel better after eliminating these foods may be a strong indication that some of them caused a negative reaction in your body. So how do you know which ones to avoid long term out of all the foods you eliminated? You reintroduce one food each time and see if the symptoms reoccur. It may take up to 72 hours for some of the symptoms to come back if you are sensitive to these foods.
The elimination diet is a powerful tool that can help you know how your own body reacts to different foods. Additionally, avoiding inflammatory foods can play a key role in your body’s ability to heal, especially when it comes to the gut brain axis.
Making dietary changes isn’t about perfection or a quick fix; it’s a journey to a better health and wellbeing, where you transition into an eating plan you enjoy that agrees with your body and lifestyle.
Supplements for Mental Health and Gut Brain Axis
While you can’t out supplement a bad diet, there are times where supplements can be helpful. For example, to restore nutritional deficiencies or in cases of malabsorption. Due to gut issues, some people have a hard time absorbing nutrient from their diets and without supplements they can develop severe nutritional deficiencies that can impact their mental health.
With that said, the idea is not for you to keep taking supplements all your life, but to use them temporarily, until the root cause of your issues is resolved.
Specific to mental health, low levels of certain vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids can affect your brain function and emotional health. So it is important to test your levels and consider taking supplements when needed.
Some of the key nutrients that play a role in mental health include:
- Vitamin D: shown in studies to regulate mood and promote a healthy cognitive function.
Vitamin D also plays a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Since vitamin D deficiency is very common in North America, always work with your doctor and make sure your levels are within normal range.
- Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA): help stabilize emotional health and support cognitive function.
- B vitamins: especially B12, B6, B9
- Minerals such as magnesium, potassium, selenium, iron, zinc and copper are all essential for healthy cognitive function and emotional wellness. Many diets are often low in these, so it is important to test your levels and make sure you are not deficient.
Since many supplements can interact with medication (or other supplements), always consult with your doctor before you take a new supplement.
Herbal Support for Stress & Digestive Issues
In our previous article, we talked about the devastating effect modern life stressors have on our health and well-being, and some of the lifestyle options to balance stress.
Adaptogen herbs such as holy basil (Tulsi), valerian, lemon balm, hops, passionflower and chamomile have the ability to naturally calm down and regulate stress hormones. This can help to balance the mood and the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal).
Not everyone responds the same to adaptogen herbs, so always work with a qualified health professional to determine if these are good options for you.
Holy basil (Tulsi) for example, has been shown in studies to help reduce the occurrence of panic attacks. It’s a plant that you can even grow yourself and one of my personal favorites to cope with stress and relaxing the nervous system.
If you experience digestive issues, some common herbs you may see at your local grocery store can help. Good examples include ginger (may help for nausea), licorice, fennel, and dill (may help for acid reflux). You can enjoy them either as a tea or as spices with your meals.
Dealing with mental health challenges can be devastating and sometimes discouraging. It important however, to always have hope! Our body is a self-repairing unit with an amazing ability to heal. When we give it the proper attention and the nutrients it needs, it can get better.
I hope you find this information helpful. Share these tools with your doctor and partner together to create a path to optimal health and wellness.