How the Foods We Eat Impact Our Mental Health

There has been a lot of research that shows our diet affects both our physical and mental health: our moods, symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other conditions. 

Our brain works 24/7 even when we are asleep, and it needs nourishment to keep it going at an optimal level.  A recent article by Dr. Eva Selhub of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital stated “Your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.” 

The Link Between Our Gut and Our Brain

The plethora of bacteria living in our guts (gut microbes) helps produce many of our body’s chemical neurotransmitters.  One of the transmitters is Serotonin which regulates our sleep appetite, mediates our moods, and inhibits our pains. 

It is associated with happiness, focus, and calm. As a neurotransmitter, serotonin (also a hormone) carries messages between nerve cells in your brain (central nervous system) and throughout your body.  90%-95% of serotonin is found in the cells lining our gastrointestinal tract, and it is released into our blood circulation and then absorbed by the platelets.

Serotonin not only plays a major part in mood regulation, but it also limits inflammation and improves how we absorb the nutrients from the foods that we digest.  We can increase the production of serotonin in our guts by being on a balanced and healthy diet.

Unfortunately, a diet that includes a lot of processed foods laden with fats, sugars, and other chemical contents not only inhibits the production of the good bacteria that we want in our guts but also inhibits the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and increases the possibility for inflammation.  There are numerous studies, articles, and research that show the direct correlation between diets that consistently include processed foods and worsening symptoms of mood disorders and physical ailments.

Your Pantry and Kitchen

One way to “reboot” your gut-brain is to look at what you currently have in your kitchen and pantry.  A balanced kitchen and pantry include whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins while limiting highly processed snacks and packaged foods.

Omega 3 fatty acids – eating seafood such as wild salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, olive oils, soybean oil, canola oil, etc.) a few times a week consistently may improve your moods.

Fermented foods feed your healthy gut microbes, which in turn can increase the production of serotonin. Yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi are examples of fermented foods that help your gut

Spices are rich in antioxidants and contain anti-inflammatory components that improve metabolism, which may boost mental health.  Spices such as clove, peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, saffron, and estragon (dried and grounded) have high levels of antioxidants that can be included in your pantry. 

This study indicated that the dried version of certain herbs and spices may have elevated levels of antioxidants than the fresh samples.

Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, watercress, radishes, arugula, Brussels sprouts, and collards) are rich in nutrients, including several carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin); vitamins C, E, and K; folate; and minerals.  According to this 2022 article, the nutrients in cruciferous vegetables can reduce inflammation, which is directly linked to a range of health issues as well as anxiety and depression.

Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and salad greens are also rich in vitamins and antioxidants (like their cruciferous cousins) low in carbohydrates, sodium, and cholesterol, and help with the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Nuts and legumes can be a wonderful addition to raising the levels of your healthy gut bacteria which increases our dopamine (one of the “happy hormones”), and in turn, can keep depression at bay.


Set Realistic Expectations:

  • Consistently and slowly increasing the frequency of your intake of gut-friendly foods and decreasing processed foods may be easier and more realistic rather than eliminating all processed foods in your diet immediately
  • Including seasonal vegetables and fruits in your staple diet
  • Family involvement in compiling grocery lists
  • Encourage family members to look for simple recipes consisting of 3 to 5 ingredients and make cooking a family affair
  • Create a staple herbs and spice collection

Diversify Your Food Sources:

Photo courtesy of Historic Downtown Jersey City Farmer Market 2023

  • Jersey City also has a fantastic array of grocery stores besides the regional and nationwide chains.  Take the time to check out different types of culturally diverse grocery shops in the area for fresh food ingredients, and inspirations for recipes like herbs and spices.

Dining Out:

Jersey City has an abundance of restaurants and cafes that cater to those who are vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians and are on a gluten-free diet.  Here are a few more options:

The Cliff

Cafe Dolma

Subia’s Organic Cafe

Jersey City Fish Stand

Short Grain


And check out this list of gluten-free options that we compiled last year.

Don’t forget to consult with your family doctors, pediatricians, OB/GYNs, and APRNs for allergies and diet recommendations, and consider collaborating with nutritionists when recommended. Involve the entire family and reach out to friends on this journey so that you have a built-in support system for success.

Christina Kuo is a licensed therapist and a wellness advisor at NIH OITE where she creates and delivers mental health wellness programs and workshops. In her free time, she loves exploring local yarn and fabric shops for her love of anything textile-related and looks forward to trying local foods wherever she goes.

Christina Kuo
Author: Christina Kuo