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The Role of Nutrition in Psychological Resilience: Mood Food

May 21st 2020 | By Jannell Baez MS, RDN, LD/N

Good Food Good Mood Gourmet Cuisine Catering Culinary Concept

As most of us still find ourselves sheltering in place to some extent, it can be difficult to maintain a positive attitude that is hopeful and patient. Many people may have tried to find comfort from food and have indulged in high sugar foods, highly refined starches, and other processed foods. Most of these processed foods have been chemically engineered to hijack our taste buds causing us to overeat while offering very little nutritional value in terms of vitamins and minerals needed to maintain the biochemical reactions our body needs to work best

Choosing Foods to Promote Psychological Wellbeing

Avoiding processed food such as fast food, convenience food and junk food and replacing them with whole foods is a great start to improving your nutrient intake and feeding your brain to promote psychological wellbeing. Choose leafy green vegetables (contain Magnesium, B vitamins), nuts and seeds (contain Magnesium and Selenium), organic pasture raised animal protein or wild caught seafood (Zinc). Avoid processed flours, sugars most of the time. These cause glycemic fluctuation in the blood that can affect your brain causing a “high” right after you eat them but then setting you up for a crash in energy and mood after a while. Instead opt for whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice or oats. Choose fresh natural foods that contain fiber, eat a variety of colorful vegetables and fruit, and try to get out into the sun for a few minutes daily ( without sunscreen but not long enough to get a sun burn) for vitamin D and other mood enhancing effects

Tasty but Empty.

Processed and convenient foods have been a mainstay of what is known as the Standard American Diet (SAD) for decades. These foods are low in vital nutrients needed for our immune system to function properly, our capacity to detoxify our bodies, as well as the proper functioning of our brain. For
example, low Magnesium, Zinc and B vitamin levels have been correlated with anxiety and depression.
This appears obvious if we look at the chemistry of our brains. Magnesium acts to regulate neurotransmitters in the brain while B vitamins such as folate and vitamin B6 are needed for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. Inadequate nutrient intake from foods can result in inadequate brain function leading to a higher risk for depression and anxiety.

Gut Health is Related to Brain Health.

Mood and Gut Bacteria

Scientists have found that having a healthy gut is critical for a healthy brain. Your gut and brain are in constant communication triggered by food we eat, gut microbes and emotions. Ever feel stomach discomfort when you feel anxious? The brain and gut are connected via the vagus nerve and this connection is known as the gut brain axis. There are beneficial microbes in our guts that can influence brain health via the byproducts they produce when we eat nutritious whole foods that are high in fiber. Did you know most of the serotonin in your body is produced in the gut? The gut is often referred to as the second brain because of its influence on the body. Research into the influence of certain gut microbes on mental health has developed the term “psychobiotics” which describes probiotics and prebiotics that improve mood by their production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. The types of microbes in our gut are influenced by the foods we eat and eating low fiber processed foods that have low nutrient value results in undesirable microbes taking over which can affect our mood in a negative way. Eating fiber-rich whole grains and a variety of vegetables and fruit will provide nutrients for your gut microbes and your brain. Gut health is also improved by avoiding foods that may impair your gut lining such as alcohol, gluten, and any other food you may be sensitive or allergic to. Including fermented foods to provide natural probiotics also promotes a healthy balance of gut microbes that may positively influence one’s mood.

Food for good mood and happiness.

Nutrients Associated with Psychological Wellness

To ensure that our brain chemistry is in balance, we need to consume enough nutrients to support it. Nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin B6 and folate are needed for serotonin production and metabolism. Low Vitamin D levels have been correlated to people suffering from depression. Being aware of your Vitamin D status and correcting it if you are deficient is helpful to optimize many bodily functions. Sunlight can also be therapeutic. Spending 10 minutes in the sun daily can have therapeutic benefits
beyond Vitamin D status that researchers are learning more about.

Magnesium is an important mineral in brain metabolism and low levels have been associated with anxiety, depression, migraines and other mental illnesses. With 48% of Americans having a low Magnesium level, it is no wonder why the prevalence of depression is so high among us. B Vitamins are extremely important in brain metabolism and supplementing these vitamins is essential in treating cognitive impairment and have been shown to slow the rate of brain atrophy. Zinc is also an important mineral in the brain but can often be deficient in people with the Standard American Diet. Zinc modulates synaptic function and is necessary for
the production of BDNF, the protein in the brain responsible for building neurons. Selenium and other antioxidants are also vital to brain function. Selenium is needed for neurons to utilize the neurotransmitter GABA which is important to keep in balance for calming and relaxation in our brain.
Selenium deficiency has been correlated with motor abnormalities such as seizures, cognitive impairment and difficulty learning.

Lifestyle Habits Beyond Diet

Beautiful woman sleeping in white bed

Depression and anxiety have been found to be improved with regular physical activity. Despite being under quarantine it is very important for us to make time to be physically active. The benefits of moving your body extend from improving overall metabolism to decreasing feeling of depression in anxiety. There is plenty of research showing that physical exercise improves depression and anxiety more than pharmaceutical therapies alone. Try going out for daily walks to get sunshine and fresh air along with your daily recommended steps of 10,000 per day. You can work up to this 10,000 step goal slowly if needed and can monitor progress by using a pedometer to keep track of your movement. Lastly, do not forget the healing and mood boosting properties of adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation has been correlated to overeating and choosing unhealthy foods as well as higher levels of depression. Aim for 7-9 hours of restorative sleep every night to set yourself up for a positive mood as well as the ability to
choose and prepare healthy meals.

Brain Healthy Salad with Grilled Honey Soy Wild Caught Salmon

For the Red Wine Vinaigrette:

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons honey, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the salad:

  • Dark leafy salad greens, such as baby spinach, baby kale, or other superfood greens
  • Blueberries
  • Walnut pieces, toasted or raw


  1. To prepare the Red Wine Vinaigrette, measure oil, red wine vinegar, grape juice, lemon juice, honey, salt, and pepper into a mason jar. Tightly screw on lid and shake vigorously until everything
    is thoroughly combined. Alternatively, you may briskly whisk the ingredients together in a medium bowl or blend them in a blender or mini food processor.
  2. Fill a bowl or salad plate with a big pile of leafy greens. Sprinkle blueberries and walnuts over the top. Drizzle with dressing and toss to combine.
  • For the Salmon:
  • 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoons honey (Option to use sugar substitute such as Stevia if strictly avoiding sugar)
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 4 salmon fillets (6 ounces each)
  • Optional, for serving: fresh lemon slices or chopped fresh parsley


  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Place salmon in a greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish or on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Pat salmon
    dry with paper towels and season liberally with salt and pepper.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together soy sauce, honey, orange juice, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic powder.
  4. Brush soy sauce over the fish. Reserve remaining soy sauce mixture for basting.
  5. Roast salmon in the 450 degree F oven for 10-12 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Baste with
    additional sauce halfway through the baking time.

Kirkland AE, Sarlo GL, Holton KF. The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients. 2018;10(6):730. Published 2018 Jun 6.doi:10.3390/nu10060730

Bourre JM. Effects of nutrients (in food) on the structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 1:micronutrients. J Nutr Health Aging. 2006;10(5):377‐385.

Tarleton EK, Littenberg B. Magnesium intake and depression in adults. J Am Board Fam Med. 2015;28(2):249‐256.doi:10.3122/jabfm.2015.02.140176

Szewczyk B, Szopa A, Serefko A, Poleszak E, Nowak G. The role of magnesium and zinc in depression: similarities and differences. Magnes Res. 2018;31(3):78‐89. doi:10.1684/mrh.2018.0442

Lai J, Moxey A, Nowak G, Vashum K, Bailey K, McEvoy M. The efficacy of zinc supplementation in depression: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2012;136(1-2):e31‐e39. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2011.06.022

LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World Journal of Psychiatry, 8(3), 97–104. doi:10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97

Kennedy, D. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68. doi:10.3390/nu8020068

Andrea Rosanoff, Connie M Weaver, Robert K Rude, Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated?, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 70, Issue 3, 1 March 2012, Pages 153–164,

Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Estwing Ferrans, C. (2010). Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 31(6), 385–393. doi:10.3109/01612840903437657

Kennedy, D. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68. doi:10.3390/nu8020068

Prasad A.S. (1997) The Role of Zinc in Brain and Nerve Functions. In: Connor J.R. (eds) Metals and Oxidative Damage in Neurol logical Disorders. Springer, Boston, MA

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