Healthy Tahoe: Better mental health through diet

Joseph Hibbeln, MD

We have all been under a great deal of stress in the last year. Understanding the role of food and nutrition in brain health can help us cope with stress better and even reduce symptoms of depression, irritability and anxiety.

Joseph Hibbeln

Foods and nutrients can greatly influence our brain health. Our brains have a unique and complex metabolism and need specific foods and nutrients to function optimally. Many of these nutrients cannot be made by our bodies; they only come from our diets.

Have you ever noticed a change in your mood after eating junk food? It tastes good, but shortly afterward, you may have noticed that your mental energy got worse, that you became more irritable, more vulnerable to stress and maybe even felt depressed.

When we switch over to healthy foods – like a Mediterranean style diet – with more fruits, vegetables, healthy meats, and seafood, we introduce omega-3 fats that increase neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. The reaction occurs at a cellular level, but often results in improvement of mood and vitality; it promotes better mental energy, more life enjoyment and increased resilience to stress.

Foods that are rich in omega-3 fats include fatty fish like albacore tuna, halibut, herring, mackerel, lake trout, salmon, and sardines.

Studies have confirmed that taking supplements of omega-3s containing EPA – another essential fatty acid – and DHA can markedly reduce aggression and depression. In countries where little seafood is consumed, rates of major depression are 50 times higher and homicide deaths are 30 times higher.

In the 20th century, industrialization of food increased consumption of vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fats – like junk food – and overtook the levels of omega-3 fats in our brains and bodies. When released in the body, omega-6 fats are transformed into molecules that cause inflammation, pain and cause greater perceptions of pain. Lowering omega-6 fats and raising omega-3 fats in diets has reduced psychological and physical distress in people suffering from chronic pain.

Food and nutrients have life-changing benefits for your brain and body. You may be able to reduce stress, anxiety and improve your overall health and life on many levels by simply changing the fats in your diet.

Dr. Joseph Hibbeln is a board-certified psychiatrist at Barton Health in South Lake Tahoe and Stateline. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Hibbeln will host a free Wellness Webinar, “Nutrition & Brain Health” at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 13. Register in advance, or view previously recorded webinars at

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