Eating Clean and Working Out is Good for you Body and Mind!


By: Stacy McClain, CPT, CHC

It’s no secret that our sedentary lifestyle and diet of processed food is taking a toll on the physical health of many Americans. These poor health habits have been shown to double the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, as well as increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and lipid disorders.

What’s the solution? Eat your greens and exercise 30 minutes a day.

At the same time, mental health disorders continue to rise, with a reported 16 million Americans suffering from depression and 40 million with anxiety disorders. Mental health alone results in $125 billion in lost productivity and healthcare costs annually.

What’s the solution? Eat your greens and exercise 30 minutes a day.

Yes, you read that right. The solution to improve both physical and mental health is to eat clean and move your body. Oftentimes we only think of these solutions in terms of weight loss and physical health, but in doing so we’re ignoring one of our body’s largest organs – the brain!

Working Out for the Mind: You’ve heard of endorphins, right? They’re the reason you feel so good about 20-30 minutes into your workout. You feel good because aerobic exercise causes your brain to release chemicals called neurotransmitters that make you feel happy and reduce pain. Exercise has even been shown to generate new neurons and to increase neuroplasticity by creating new connections that improve mental health. Aside from specific changes inside the brain, working out can also change the way you think. For example, engaging in a hard workout mimics the physical symptoms you get when having a panic attack (shortness of breath, heart racing, etc.). Experience with these sensations in a controlled situation will help to desensitize you to the physical symptoms of anxiety. Working out also encourages mental and physical endurance and allows for the formation of healthy techniques that can be used to calm yourself. The toughness you develop through working out can help you to develop the toughness you need in dealing with anxiety or bouts of depression.

In addition, working out and achieving physical goals, increases self-efficacy which leads to a belief that you can achieve other personal goals in your life. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, here are a few variables that have been proven to work:

 Duration: 30 minutes (for treatment of mental health), 10 minutes (for prevention)

 Intensity: Mild to moderate

 Type: Both strength and cardio are effective, although cardio may specifically benefit those with depression given that it will naturally bring the individual from lower to higher energy. And to be most effective, it is important to find an exercise that you enjoy.

Eating for the Mind: You are what you eat…literally. Food is the fuel that keeps your body and mind functioning. You don’t put low grade fuel into a car and expect it to run like it does on premium. Your body is the same way. It requires a variety of nutrients, and if we don’t get those nutrients, our brains won’t function in the way they should. The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in people with mental health disorders are Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

Amino Acids: Necessary neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are synthesized from specific combinations of amino acids and enzymes. Our body needs 20 different amino acids to function correctly, but 10 of those are essential amino acids, (essential means that we can only obtain them through our diet, our body can’t produce them on its own). Tryptophan, 5-HTP, and tyrosine are 3 amino acids linked to mental health. L – tryptophan and 5-HTP are both immediate precursors to the synthesis of serotonin in the body. In a double blind, randomized dose experiment, it was proven that daily consumption of 50mg of 5-HTP resulted in higher serotonin levels in just 12 days. It was also found that when consumed alone on an empty stomach, tryptophan can induce sleep and tranquility. L-tryosine is another useful amino acid that acts as a precursor to dopamine. If there is a lack of any of these essential amino acids, the body will not have the building blocks it needs to synthesize the necessary chemicals necessary for proper mental health.

Foods high in Amino Acids: We ingest these 10 essential amino acids through proteins in our diet from both animal and plant sources. For animal sources, lean meats and fish are high in protein, especially tuna, salmon, and halibut. Good dairy options include eggs, yogurt, parmesan and Swiss cheese. When selecting dairy products, low or non-fat options usually contain more protein per gram. You can also obtain amino acids through plant-based proteins such as quinoa, beans, and nuts. However, plant-based options are usually missing a few essential amino acids. It is also important to note that we must eat these foods each day, as our bodies do not have the ability to store the excess as they do with carbohydrates and fats.

Vitamins B’s: Vitamins and minerals are essential for the body to be able to function and perform. They aid in healing, convert food to energy, and help in creating the necessary chemicals for proper brain function. Vitamins and minerals, just like some of the amino acids above, are essential. Our bodies do not synthesize them on our own. There are multiple Vitamin B’s. The ones that have been shown to make an improvement in mood regulation include Vitamin B6, B12 and B9 (folate). All three play a role in producing the necessary neurotransmitters for mood regulation, serotonin and dopamine. Vitamin B6 directly helps in the construction and deconstruction of amino acids while Vitamin B12 and B9 help to form substrates needed in production of neurotransmitters. Vitamin B12 has also been found to support a process called myelination which is the wrapping of cells in the nervous system in a myelin sheath. The coverings help brain signals to travel through the brain effectively and efficiently. When there are not enough nutrients for myelination to occur, pathways weaken, and it shows up as white matter in the brain. Larger areas of white matter in the brain may be a component to depression.

Foods high in Vitamin B’s: Although there is still research to be done, it is important for people experiencing depression to make sure they are taking in adequate amounts of Vitamin B’s. Vegetables like potatoes and dark leafy greens (kale, chard, etc), and chickpeas are high in B6 as well as fruits like oranges and cantaloupe. Organ meats, such as liver, are very high in both B6 and B12 vitamins. We also see some overlap from the amino acids list in fish, poultry, yogurt, and eggs. It is recommended a person get 400 mcg of folate per day. While it’s best to obtain B9 through whole fruits and vegetables like asparagus, spinach, and avocados, it can also be found in fortified breads, breakfast cereals, and in folic acid supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, necessary to cognitive functioning, that make up about 18% of the brain’s weight. We mainly consume eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which the body converts into docosahexanoic acid (DHA).  Omega-3s affect the cell receptors and have the ability to reduce inflammation in the brain. Much of the fats we consume today in the Western diet are comprised of Omega-6 fatty acids which work to convert to molecules called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids created from Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation in the body while Omega-3 fatty acids promote anti-inflammatory molecules.  An ideal ratio for Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids should be 1:1. When Omega-6 eicosanoids begin to overpower the Omega-3 eicosanoids, problems start to occur. Inflammation in the brain can be extremely problematic in that it can interfere with cellular pathways and how nerves communicate, which then affects the transport of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. If there are not enough Omega-3s to counteract the Omega-6s, one may start to experience symptoms of depression.

Foods high in Omega-3s: In addition to reducing your intake of Omega-6 fatty acids in processed food, it is recommended to obtain Omega-3s through wild caught fish such as salmon, leafy greens, walnuts, and flaxseed. It is also an option to supplement using fish oils. In supplements, Omega 3s are often found in the EPA or DHA form. In a study, participants with mild to moderate depression were given 1g of EPA or 1g of DHA. The results of the study show that EPA was found to be more effective.

Keep in mind, there is still a lot of research to be done in regard to mental diseases. Causes can be complex and multifaceted, and there is no such thing as one simple fix. However, there are patterns emerging between an individual’s nutrient intake/exercise and mental health. Nutrition and exercise get to the root of the problem and focus on a long term solution rather than simply alleviating symptoms temporarily. The research shows that consuming the correct amount of essential nutrients in your diet paired with exercise can directly and indirectly influence the chemicals and neurogenesis in your brain, thus making it an effective strategy in both prevention and improvement of mental health diseases.