The Connection Between Protein and Your Mental Health

Contributed by: Jane Sandwood

Nutrition can play an important role in achieving better mental health; a recent study showed that in a group of adults with depression, ⅓ of participants who ate a diet rich in produce, fish and legumes experienced a remission of symptoms. The foods you eat impact the structure and function of your brain, playing a major role in emotional regulation and cognitive function. Foods rich in protein contain amino acids to help produce key neurotransmitters in preventing and treating depression and anxiety.  Protein packed meals and snacks help you avoid sugary, processed foods, which can trigger anxiety and depression. A diet rich in protein also helps improve energy levels, giving you the strength to get moving and feel better.

Protein Improves the Function of Neurotransmitters

Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals which allow brain cells to communicate with each other. For example, if you eat a piece of chicken, your body breaks down the protein and synthesizes the amino acid L-Tyrosine to produce dopamine. Low dopamine levels are associated with a whole host of disorders, including depression, addiction, ADHD, Alzheimers and schizophrenia. The amino acid L-Tryptophan, which can be found in poultry, fish, dairy and nuts, serves a precursor to serotonin. Eating foods rich in L-Tryptophan can help improve mood and help SSRIs and other antidepressants work more effectively.

Eating More Protein Helps You Eat Less Sugar

When you make protein-rich foods the focal point of your diet, you’re less likely to reach for sugary snacks. High sugar intake can have a number of adverse affects on all systems of your body, compromising both your physical and mental health. Researchers are exploring the correlation between sugar and depression, and have theorized that a protein called BDNF may be the link. BDNF plays an important part in the maintenance, growth and differentiation of nerve cells in the brain. Sugar suppress the activity of BDNF, which is typically already low in people who have depression. Increasing your intake of protein can help control your sweet tooth and stabilize blood sugar. Protein bars, for instance, can be an effective snacking strategy to keep you satisfied between meals, however, pay attention to the sugar content in protein bars, as some protein bars can contain as much added sugar as a cookie. 

Anemia Can Affect Your Mood 

Protein, as a macronutrient, includes foods that are typically high in iron. Low iron can cause anemia, and is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Anemia can leave you feeling fatigued, irritable and disengaged. You may feel unmotivated or unable to sustain physical activity for long periods of time, which can contribute to feelings of depression. If you have been diagnosed with anemia, it’s important to include iron-rich protein sources in your diet. Treating anemia will improve your mood and make it easier to function. 

Taking care of your mental health involves a variety of components, and nutrition can be an important part of it. Protein is an essential nutrient for all processes in the body, including the optimal functioning of your brain. Creating a menu plan that includes plenty of protein can be an important act of self-care that can mitigate depression and anxiety.