April 30, 2024

Mood & Food: How Nutrition Impacts Mental Health

As finals approach, the rise in stress levels and the pressure to maintain a competitive GPA can take its toll on mental health, contributing to anxiety and even depression. Research has shown that what you eat (or don’t eat) can play a role in exacerbating or alleviating these symptoms.

Our brains are incredibly complex organs that need a steady supply of specific nutrients for optimal functioning. Certain nutrients play key roles in neurotransmitter production, neuroplasticity, and overall brain health. For example:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, omega-3s are essential for brain development and function, and have been shown in studies to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as improve cognition and increase neuroplasticity 
  • B vitamins: B vitamins such as folate, B6, and B12 play a role in neurotransmitter synthesis and mood regulation. Deficiencies have been linked to depressive symptoms
  • Antioxidants: Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are rich in antioxidants, which help protect the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation. Diets high in antioxidants have been associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety.
  • Probiotics: Found in fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi, probiotics can support gut health and improve mood by modulating the microbiome, boosting beneficial bacterial and metabolites that regulate serotonin levels

Busy schedules, limited menus and tight budgets sometimes lead to reliance on processed foods, fast food, and sugary snacks. While these foods may be convenient, these foods are typically high in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and added sugars, which can negatively impact mood and cognitive function. Here are some practical tips for optimizing nutrition for mental health:

  1. Prioritize whole foods: Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats into your diet. Aim for variety to ensure you’re getting a wide range of nutrients.
  2. Cook at home if possible: Cooking your own meals allows you to control what goes into your food and ensures you’re getting nourishing ingredients. Look for simple, budget-friendly recipes that you can whip up in a dorm kitchen.
  3. Plan ahead: Take some time each week to plan your meals and snacks. Stock up on healthy staples like canned salmon, nuts, seeds, yogurt, and fresh produce to have on hand when hunger strikes.
  4. Stay hydrated: Dehydration can affect mood and cognitive function, so be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Limit your intake of excess caffeine as well as sweetened beverages such as soda and energy drinks.


In the hustle and bustle of the end of the semester, don’t overlook the importance of proper nutrition for your mental health. Taking the time to nourish your body with nutrient-rich foods will allow you to better support your brain and mood as well as help you tackle the academic challenges that await.