May is Mental Health Awareness Month

— By Kayla Parsons, RDN, PhD Student, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Did you know that 1 in 20 adults in the United States are experiencing mental illness, but more than half of those individuals did not receive treatment? There is a need to advocate for an equitable mental health care system to improve access and affordability of these services. On a personal level, research tells us that our mental health can be impacted by everyday habits, including our diet, physical activity, and our social health. Keep reading to learn about small adjustments you can make throughout the day to boost your mental health.

Nutrition’s Role in Mental Health

Our mental health has a bidirectional relationship with our dietary choices – what does this mean exactly? All of our emotions (stressed, happy, depressed) may influence what we choose to eat. Think about the types of foods people are drawn towards when they’re stressed from work and limited on time. Now compare that to what someone would likely eat on a relaxing day off. Simultaneously, the foods we eat can contain nutrients that either promote or decline our brain health. This process can be explained by the vagus nerve, which is a part of the brain-gut axis.

The vagus nerve relays important signals from organs to the brain, prompting the secretion of hormones. These hormones play a role in different processes in our body, such as digestion, immunity, heart rate and mood regulation. To keep things (aka hormones) running optimally, researchers suggest maintaining a healthy gut microbiota.
This can be done through consuming a nutrient-dense diet (check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 or MyPlate) and having foods higher in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat in moderation.

Below is just a glimpse of nutrients that have been found to be to support brain and gut health:

  • Omega-3s – Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. You can find omega-3s in fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, walnuts, and flaxseed. This nutrient helps maintain cell membranes in the brain.
  • Probiotics and Prebiotics – Probiotics and prebiotics are found in various nutrient dense foods and have been found to regulate hormone secretion within the brain-gut axis. For full definitions, check out the Spoonful Blog’s article, Prebiotics and Probiotics. My rule of thumb is that anything filled with fiber probably also contains prebiotics. This includes apples, whole grain bread, and bananas. Probiotics on the other hand are found in fermented foods, such as kimchi, yogurt, and sauerkraut. Both probiotics and prebiotics play a role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiota.
  • Phytonutrients – Phytonutrients are natural chemicals found within many nutrient-dense food groups, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Phytonutrients promote health throughout the whole body, but like probiotics, can help promote gut health.
  • Magnesium – Magnesium, found in pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, and beans, promotes health through various regulatory processes in the brain. Magnesium is needed to create neurotransmitters in the brain. A lack of magnesium has been associated with various mental health conditions, including depression, high levels of stress, and anxiety.

We also recognize that it can be difficult to focus on nutrition when our mental health isn’t thriving, so below is a short list of recipes that will have you feeling your best, while also avoiding being time and energy intensive.

Movement Helps your Mind

Physical activity can regulate our stress and be beneficial to our mental health. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in a gym for an adrenaline rush or mood boost. Incorporating activities you enjoy, such as biking, hiking, or swimming, can help you manage your stress. Even as an avid gym lover, there are days that I need to opt for a nature walk instead to conserve my physical and mental energy. Don’t have access to a walkable area? Try stretching or doing yoga in a dimly shaded room instead.

Community Matters

Social support can make a world of difference when you’re dealing with stress, anxiety or other tough emotions. Even if seclusion may seem easier, reaching out to supportive friends or family for a quick facetime or phone call can be comforting. Not only will you feel more at ease, but you’ll likely brighten up the day of whoever you’re talking to. During the height of the pandemic, I remember missing my parents, but thankfully, would have weekly video calls to vent, catch up, or just to say hi. Looking for new social connections? EFNEP offers a variety of classes that can be the basis of new friendships and a sense of community. Go to the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program’s (EFNEP’s) webpage to sign-up for a nutrition class.

Tips for Stress Management

I’ll also leave you with a few tips for stress management as you embrace mental health awareness month.

  • Talk to a professional – If you are looking for a professional to talk to about your mental health, I recommend checking out 211 Maine. Here there are multiple resources that will help you find professional help in your area.
  • Practice mindfulness – Practicing mindfulness can help you have a non-judgemental viewpoint of the world around you. Being mindful can also help you ground yourself in stressful situations. For more information on mindfulness, check out the Stanford Health Library.
  • Prioritize tasks – We’re human. Some days our mental health will prevent us from completing our to-do list. Our health, including access to food, sleep and shelter are more important than getting an hour of exercise per day or eating a perfect diet. As more of our needs are being met, we can shift to accomplishing more in both our personal and professional life.

The author of this blog is a registered dietitian nutritionist, and not a mental health professional. The purpose of this blog is for informational and educational purposes only. Please consult a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist for specific advice or treatment regarding mental health.