Serotonin and Diet: Does Nutrition Really Affect your Mood?

text "serotonin and diet" in white script on a dark blue background, along with a collage of pictures of sunshine, flowers, fruits, and nuts

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

Ever had those days when you wake up feeling a bit off, as if the world decided to paint itself in shades of gray? Well, you’re not alone. We’ve all experienced those moody mornings and stressful afternoons.

But what if I told you there’s a fascinating connection between the food you eat and the way you feel?

In this blog post, we’re going to explore the incredible link between your diet and your mood.

You see, serotonin is like your brain’s personal happiness hormone, and what you put on your plate can significantly impact its levels.

We’ll unravel this connection, breaking it down into plain language so you can harness the power of your food to boost your spirits.

Understanding Serotonin

Serotonin is one of our 4 “happy hormones,” along with dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin.

It is a neurotransmitter produced both in your brain and your gut. Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced by your body to carry messages between your brain to the rest of your body.

Serotonin plays a number of different roles, depending on where it is in your body:

  • Mood regulation – this is what most people think of when they hear about serotonin. It plays a large role in promoting feelings of happiness.
    • When serotonin levels are normal, people feel focused, calm, and emotionally stable
  • Digestion – serotonin regulates how quickly your gut moves your food through the digestive tract.
    • When you eat a food that is irritating to your gut, serotonin is released rapidly, causing you to speed the digestion process to get rid of it. This can also cause feelings of nausea
    • Serotonin, along with the hormone leptin, also plays a role in feelings of fullness while eating.
  • Sleep – Serotonin can be further processed in your brain to become melatonin.  Melatonin and dopamine both play important parts in your sleep duration and quality.
  • Wound Healing – when you have a wound, serotonin causes your blood vessels in the area to stop bleeding, the first part of the wound healing process.
  • Bone Health – adequate levels of serotonin, meaning not too high or too low, maintains a normal bone density which can prevent the development of osteoporosis.
  • Sexual health – serotonin and dopamine both influence your desire for sexual activity.
  • Learning and memory – High levels of serotonin has been shown to boost an adult’s ability to learn quickly and store this knowledge in long term memory.
  • Blood sugar regulation – serotonin is part of a team of hormones and neurotransmitters that directs your pancreas to release insulin.
    • when insulin is not released adequately, you will crave sugar, further complicating your glucose control

How is Serotonin Made?

Serotonin is made both in your brain and your gut.  This is important because serotonin has very important functions in both places, but cannot cross from the blood into your brain they other nutrients and messengers can.

Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan. Amino acids are basically the building block of protein.  We can actually create some amino acids ourselves, however, tryptophan has to come from our food.

Through a series of reactions, our body uses B vitamins to transform tryptophan into serotonin, and then later melatonin.

And although we typically associate tryptophan with turkey, there are actually quite a few foods that contain tryptophan.  More on that in a bit.

Importantly, tryptophan cannot travel into the brain on its own. It requires a carbohydrate “carrier.”  This is why people on very low carb diets often experience irritability, bad mood, and difficulty sleeping.   Though often, it’s only the people around them that recognize this!

Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780124059337000135

Serotonin in the Brain

Serotonin in the brain is what we are primarily concerned with today.  This is the serotonin source that affects our mood.

It is also the region of the body and the particular chemical that many anti-depressant medications target.

Serotonin in the Gut

Approximately 90% of your body’s serotonin is actually produced in your intestinal tract. There are some differences in the function of serotonin in and out of the brain, though they are structurally identical.

There’s a reason the gut is often called the “second brain.” 

At this time science does not support the idea that serotonin produced by the gut directly affects our mood.   This is because serotonin cannot travel into the brain. It must be made in the brain to affect our mood.

However, there may be some mental health benefits to gut-produced serotonin in a more round-about way. The going theory right now is that serotonin positively affects the gut microbiome in other ways that does communicate to the brain via the Vagus nerve. 

I cannot stress enough that we have a lot more research to do in this arena.

What happens when serotonin levels are chronically low?

Low serotonin levels have been linked to a number of behavioral health complications, including mood disorders (such as bipolar disorder and depression), anxiety, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Can You Have Too Much Serotonin?

You can, and it can actually be quite dangerous! However, does NOT happen when you eat a diet that promotes serotonin production.

Serotonin Syndrome occurs as aserious drug reaction and can have symptoms that range from mild shivering and diarrhea to severe muscle rigidity, seizures, and fever.  This can even lead to death if not treated in a timely manner. 

Serotonin syndrome can occur when more than one medication or supplement is given that increases serotonin activity.   However, this can also happen when illicit substances and/or dietary supplements are combined with medications. 

This is why it is absolutely imperative that your doctor and your pharmacist are aware of all medications and all supplements or drugs you may be taking.

The Serotonin-Diet Connection

As discussed above, several nutrients are required to produce serotonin:

  • Tryptophan – an amino acid that is the main building block of serotonin
  • Vitamins B6 (pyridoxine) and B3 (niacin) – metabolic factors in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin
  • Vitamin D – activates an enzyme involved in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin
  • Carbohydrates – helps carry the materials for serotonin synthesis into the brain.

When looking at overall dietary patterns, traditional diets have shown to be better for mental health than western style diets. While the Mediterranean diet is often cited, other traditional diets also show promise. 

There is a small body of evidence that suggests the traditional diet of our own culture may be the diet that is best for us.  This could be due to inadequate research, genetic variations impacting nutrient metabolism, and differing microbiomes (as these first pass from mother to baby).

Foods that Boost Serotonin

While the following foods are high in nutrients that aid in adequate serotonin production, we need to think of these as foods to include in a varied diet. This is not meant to encourage you to exclude other foods!

Foods high in tryptophan:

  • Milk/dairy
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Oats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Some fruits – particularly pineapple, plantains, bananas, kiwis, plums, and tomatoes

Foods high in Vitamin B6:

  • Chickpeas 
  • Beef liver
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Fortified Cereals
  • Potatoes
  • Bananas
  • Most other fruits and vegetables also have B6 in smaller amounts as well

Foods High in Vitamin B3:

  • Beef Liver
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Pork
  • Rice
  • Beans
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Whole Grains

You’ll notice a lot of crossover in these foods!

Foods High in Vitamin D:

  • Fish
  • Mushrooms
  • Fortified Milk
  • However, sunlight is the best source of natural vitamin D.  Most people should consider wearing sunscreen and taking a Vitamin D supplement.

What about carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates aren’t involved in the metabolic process of synthesizing serotonin. However, carbs are required to get the ingredients into the brain.   

Choose complex carbs from whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, and legumes more often when possible.

Foods to Avoid or Limit

Excessive alcohol:

When you first start drinking, you’re body will actually increase serotonin, accounting for that initial feeling of calm and happiness. However, long-term, alcohol use reduces both the amount and the action of serotonin.

Meaning you’ll have very little serotonin, and what you do have doesn’t work very well.

Caffeine

This one is tricky.  Coffee seems to actually improve the efficacy of serotonin. So our serotonin levels don’t change, but it works better.

It appears this happens because caffeine prompts the brain to increase the number serotonin receptors.  This also appears to be why caffeine withdrawal makes us feel “a bit” crabby. 

On the other hand, caffeine inhibits the absorption of iron and b vitamins, potentially making serotonin production more difficult.

Because caffeine is consistently indicated in increasing anxiety and interfering with sleep, I recommend you keep your coffee intake reasonable, and in the morning!

Fructose

But only in very few of us!  Fructose malabsorption is a medical condition in which you do not breakdown fructose properly. When fructose levels rise in the gut, tryptophan absorption suffers as well.

As a result you do not have enough tryptophan available to produce serotonin, even if you ate enough of it.

If you have fructose malabsorption, make sure to follow the diet prescribed by your dietitian to avoid gastrointestinal distress and potential mental health concerns. 

Trans fats

It appears that trans fats interfere with functioning of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil and those in nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. 

Since these anti-inflammatory conditions can no longer do their job when your diet contains a lot of trans fats, you can experience a cascade of inflammatory conditions that challenge your ability to produce serotonin.

Luckily, food manufacturers were compelled by legislation in the US to eliminate the use of trans fats. And these fats only occur in very tiny amounts in the natural food supply.

The Importance of Meal Timing

There is some evidence that those that work shift work have up to a 40% higher risk of depression and anxiety.

A VERY small study simulated shift work in participants and found that those that only ate during “normal” meal times (during the day) reported less symptoms of depression and anxiety than those that at both during the day and during the night.

This is the exact type of study that demonstrates the importance of comparing “the literature” to real life people. There is no way I would advise someone working a 12 hour overnight shift to avoid eating because of this study.

I would wager a larger study that is better done would oppose these results. Because lack of consistent intake causes wide swings in blood glucose, which contributes to unstable moods.

And restricting a person’s ability to eat has a high likelihood of causing micronutrient deficiencies which is STRONGLY linked to mental health struggles, even if serotonin production wasn’t a concern.

Intermittent Fasting

A different type of time restricted eating, Intermittent Fasting (IF) has also been really popular lately, particularly for weight loss.   Proponents  like to throw around words like ‘autophagy’ to make them sound more authoritative. 

Big words are impressive, right?

However, there isn’t really any definitive evidence that IF is beneficial to overall health, let alone mental health. 

And risks associated with IF include potentially triggering eating disorder behaviors for those that are predisposed, compensatory overeating, and low blood sugar (definitely not good for mental health).

In scouring for research on IF and mental health, I came across a study done on 10 rats that indicated fasted rats had higher levels of serotonin and no change in dopamine.  There’s so much wrong with this, the most obvious being that the study was done on rats. And only 10 of them.

Another article mentioned that ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”) seems to increase neuroplasticity and “stimulates serotonergic neurons.”

However, you don’t have to fast to increase ghrelin. That’s literally a normal response to your brain wanting more fuel. And you already fast every night…

Lifestyle Factors and Serotonin

Other than diet, there are a few lifestyle factors that you can include that help encourage normal serotonin production, including adequate hydration, pro and prebiotic foods, regular exercise, and regular exposure to sunlight.

Not that you should attempt to incorporate all of these factors right away.  Choose 1 thing we’ve discussed here to get started. And as that becomes a cemented habit, you can work on the next thing.  

Sample Serotonin-Boosting Meal Plan

Here’s a sample 3 day meal plan that provides all the nutrients needed for normal serotonin production in the brain.

I’m not really a proponent of following meal plans to the letter. Instead, use this to get ideas that you can fit into your routine.

Day 1

Breakfast 

Greek yogurt parfait (1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup granola, 1/2 cup mixed berries, 1 tbsp honey)

Lunch

Mediterranean Salad (2 cups mixed greens, 1/2 cup chickpeas, 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, 1/4 cup feta cheese, 1/4 cup olives, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Dinner

Grilled Chicken with Quinoa and veggies (4 oz grilled chicken breast, 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1 cup steamed mixed veggies dressed with 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp lemon juice)

Snack 1

Hummus and veggie sticks (1/4 cup hummus, 1 cup raw veggies such as carrots, celery, and bell peppers)

Snack 2

Almonds and dried apricots (1/4 cup each)

Day 2

Breakfast 

Smoothie Bowl (1 cup almond milk, 1/2 cup frozen mixed berries, 1/2 banana, 1 scoop protein powder, 1/4 cup granola)

Lunch

Tuna Salad Wrap (1 whole grain wrap, 3 oz canned tuna, 1/4 cup chopped celery, 1/4 cup chopped red onion, 1 tbsp mayo, 1 cup mixed greens)

Dinner

Shrimp and Vegetable Stir Fry (4 oz cooked shrimp, 1 cup mixed stir-fry vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp soy sauce)

Snack 1

Cottage Cheese (1 cup)and Pineapple Chunks (1/2 cup) 

Snack 2

Dark Chocolate (1 oz) and Almonds (1/4 cup)

Day 3

Breakfast

Oatmeal with Fruit and Nuts (1 cup cooked oatmeal, 1/2 cup mixed berries, 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, 1 Tbsp honey)

Lunch

Caprese Salad (2 cups mixed greens, 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, 1/2 cup fresh mozzarella, 1/4 cup fresh basil, 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar)

Dinner

Lentil and Vegetable Curry (1 cup cooked lentils, 1 cup mixed vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp curry powder)

Snack 1

Cheese (1 oz) and whole grain crackers (1/2 cup)

Snack 2

Celery Sticks (1 cup) with Cream Cheese (2 Tbsp) and raisins (1/4 cup).

Remember that I created this meal “plan” for a fictional person without any specific health conditions or needs.  You may need more or less, at any given meal or snack. 

Look for ideas in the sample above, and practice your mindful eating. Respond to hunger and fullness to ensure that your brain is getting adequate nutrients and fuel throughout your day.

Also, spice it up! This is a very simple write up, meant to be easy to read. Feel free to add more spices, sauces, or other flavors to make it enjoyable.

Can Supplements Help?

There are a few supplements that may improve depression in general or serotonin specifically. ALWAYS tell your doctor about any supplements you are taking, or considering.

Here’s a super quick review:

Tryptophan: if you’re eating enough protein from dairy, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, and oats, you likely won’t need further supplementation of tryptophan.

5-HTP: this is the precursor to serotonin, and does seem to help alleviate mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, potential serious side effects can include anxiety, shivering, and serious heart problems.

Mild side effects can include drowsiness, digestive issues, and sexual dysfunction.  If you are taking an anti-depressant medication it is strongly advised to avoid taking 5-HTP due to the risk of Serotonin Syndrome. 

St John’s Wort: St John’s Wort is often recommended for depression, and it is in fact an SSRI, just like many common anti-depressant medications. It can be pretty effect in mild cases of depression. 

Side Effects can include agitation, dizziness, diarrhea or constipation, dry mouth, fatigue, insomnia, headache, or increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Again, never take this supplement if taking prescription anti-depressant medication.   Do not take if pregnant or breastfeeding.

SAMe (S-Adenosyl Methionine): this is another amino acid that, when supplemented, appears to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, as well as increasing the activity of serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain.

For some reason, studies indicate this supplement may be more effective in males.

Stomach upset is the most commonly reported side effect of SAMe. However, it can trigger manic episodes in individuals with bipolar disorder and worsen symptoms in individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder or struggle with addiction. 

And again, tell your doctor if you are taking this supplement, especially if you are considering prescription anti-depressants.

I strongly encourage, my clients to be cautious with supplements for a few reasons. Supplements are not as strictly regulated as medications are and there is profound variability in the accuracy of the labels.

They are not as strongly research either, so potential side effects, medication interactions, or other problems may not be as evident or well-known. 

If you want to try the supplements listed above, I would strongly encourage you to speak to your doctor and/or pharmacist. And try one, not all of them.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it, folks! The serotonin-diet connection isn’t just some scientific mumbo-jumbo; it’s a real thing that can make a big difference in how you feel day-to-day.

Whether it’s adding more bananas and turkey to your plate or getting out for a stroll in the sunshine, you’ve got the power to give your mood a little boost.

Remember, it’s all about balance and making small, sustainable changes to your eating and lifestyle habits. And if you ever need some extra guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out and schedule an appointment with me!

So go ahead, take care of your serotonin, and let your good vibes shine. Your plate, and your brain, will thank you for it!

A Nutritionist Specializing in Mental Health

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

Good nutrition is essential for overall health, but did you know that it also plays a crucial role in mental health?

Proper nutrition can improve mood, reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression, and enhance cognitive function.

As awareness of the link between nutrition and mental health grows, more people are seeking the services of a nutritionist specialized in mental health.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of nutrition in mental health and discuss the role of a nutritionist in supporting mental health.

We’ll also provide tips for finding a qualified nutritionist specialized in mental health and explain why it’s essential to prioritize nutrition for optimal mental wellness.

What is a Nutritionist Specializing in Mental Health?

A nutritionist is someone that utilizes food and dietary patterns to help manage health and medical conditions.

If a nutritionist does extra training or education on mental health, they are considered a specialist in that area.

Not all nutritionists are the same though, so you want to make sure you find someone with the education and training to back up their claims of expertise.

Definition and Qualifications

The truth is the term “nutritionist” is not protected. This means that someone could have spent a few minutes on Wikipedia researching “nutrition” and then call themself a nutritionist.

As long as this fictional person doesn’t slide into the very vague practice of “medical nutrition therapy,” there wouldn’t be much recourse against them if they gave untrue or damaging advice. 

So when looking for a nutritionist that specializes in mental health, first make sure they have adequate nutrition education and training. In particular, look for a Registered Dietitian. 

These nutritionists are obligated to provide education and treatment that is scientifically backed, is not harmful, and is individualized based on every aspect of each patient or client.

You’ll sometimes hear the term “nutritional psychiatry” or “nutritional While not technically a specialty, this term describes psychiatrists and psychologists that incorporate nutrition in their treatment plans.  These doctors should still be utilizing dietitians in their practice.

Dietitian’s Role in Treating Mental Health Disorders

Treatment from a dietitian should always be considered an adjunct (or supplemental) therapy to treatment from a psychiatrist/psychologist and a therapist/counselor. 

Nutrition should never be considered the primary therapy for a mental illness or other disorder.

How Nutrition Affects Mental Health

Nutrition plays a major role in your body’s inflammatory response.  These inflammatory responses are normal but should decrease when the source of inflammation goes away. 

Unfortunately, in some situations, inflammation becomes chronic and can lead to other conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and worsening mental health, including unstable mood and poor stress or anxiety management.

In nutrition for mental health, we identify foods and food patterns that can reduce inflammation, in a scientific matter, free from the influence of common fad diets you’ll find on social media.

In addition to using nutrition to lessen the severity of symptoms of mental illness, targeted nutrition techniques can actually improve your response to primary behavioral health therapeutic techniques.

The Relationship Between the Gut and the Brain

Nutrition and food choices also have a major impact on the health of your gut and the microbiome that resides there.

These beneficial bacteria, fungi, and viruses help our mental health in a variety of ways, including producing some feel good hormones and neurotransmitters that were previously thought to only be produced in the brain.

It is no coincidence that patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome often also experience depression and anxiety, and vice versa.

The Impact of Sugar and Ultra-Processed Foods on Mental Health

Over-emphasis in the diet of sugar and ultra-processed foods can lead to chronic inflammation and worsening gut health. 

This leads to symptoms of mental health conditions becoming more severe and more difficult to manage.

The Importance of a Balanced Diet on Mental Health

We must remember the importance of balance in our food patterns.

Obsessive restriction of foods considered “bad” can lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety and can eventually lead to an eating disorder.

Instead, we need to find a way to incorporate all foods in a way that manages our health and allows us to live a happy life.

The Role of a Dietitian Nutritionist in Mental Health

A registered dietitian nutritionist can help an individual choose foods 80-90% of the time that is actively health-promoting but also fit in those foods that we eat purely for the joy and enjoyment of eating them.

Health promotion and food enjoyment are both important in achieving balance and improvement in our health.

What Does Treatment Look Like?

Every nutritionist will run their sessions a bit differently. However, there are some similarities as there are key pieces of information about each client that is required to be successful. Think of the work of a dietitian as nutrition counseling rather than just information giving.

Initial Assessment of a Client’s Diet and Lifestyle

In my practice, my initial assessment of a client starts before I even sit down with them. My clients fill out a New Client Questionnaire that allows me to learn the basics of their medical history so that when I do meet them, we can head straight into getting to know each other on a more personal level.

For me, these questions range from the boring family medical history, medical and mental health diagnoses, medications and supplements, and the frequency certain foods are eaten to the more abstract such as your relationship with food and body image.

During our first session, we delve more deeply into those questions, particularly those regarding my patient’s relationship with food, the symptoms they are most concerned with, and their short and long-term goals.

Micro and Macro Nutrient Recommendations

Macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) each have a role in food satiety as well as hormone and neurotransmitter production, including estrogen, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin, serotonin, melatonin, adrenaline, and dopamine.

Various micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) have been shown to have potent effects on mood and mental health. Some worsen mental health when we are deficient, and others improve mental health when taken above our normal intake levels. 

I use a client’s food frequency descriptions, their attitudes and beliefs about foods, and a 3-day sample of their food intake to determine which nutrients might be a concern for them.

Gut Health Support

Individuals with chronic intestinal distress (bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhea), with or without a diagnosis, have even more to consider.

We have to identify what foods, if any, are causing the symptoms and what steps, if any, the person is willing and ready to take. 

Elimination diets, particularly low FODMAP, are very good at identifying food triggers for IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) but may not be appropriate for some patients.

Monetary concerns, lack of time to cook, lack of kitchen skills, difficulty with decision-making, poor food and nutrition education, and disordered eating patterns can all make these elimination trials ineffective or dangerous.

Other times, a lack of variety in the diet can be a cause of poor gut health, and that needs to be addressed in a way that is sustainable for the individual.   

All of these factors, and more, are important to the assessment and nutrition treatment plan for a dietitian nutritionist that specializes in mental health.

Lifestyle Modifications

In addition to food and nutrition, other lifestyle factors should be addressed.

This includes but is not necessarily limited to sleep, physical activity, time spent outdoors, dedicated stress management, social activity, smoking, and alcohol or other substance use.

Creation of a Customized Meal Plan Based on Individual Needs

This is where it is important to seek a credentialed RDN rather than just anyone who calls themselves a nutritionist. Any individualized meal plan, rather than generalities, requires education and training in nutrient analysis.

I don’t write specific meal plans for my clients. There is no way I can create a meal plan for an individual that encompasses everything there is about them.

Factors such as culture, family meals, food preferences, allergies and intolerances, kitchen skills, grocery budgets, and more all go into the food choices that we make.

Instead, we make goals that incorporate the nutrition we need without dictating that the client eat exactly what I chose for them.

Monitoring and Adjusting the Meal Plan as Needed

For me and my clients, this looks like re-evaluating the goals that set during the last session.  Did they find the goals too easy? Too difficult? Did they meet their goals but still struggle to do so? 

Because we’re looking to create sustainable behavior changes and not partaking in a temporary diet, we want to not only meet our goals but sustain them long enough that they are habits before moving on. 

Providing Education on the Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health

My first session tends to be the heaviest on education. There is a lot of misinformation regarding health and nutrition on the internet, especially on social media.

A lot of my clients have internalized poor diet information and have trouble separating nutrition “facts” they learned from their parents, health teachers, fad diets, and bad websites from actual nutrition science.

For example, did you know that a sweet potato and a regular old “white” Russet potato are almost identical in carbs, fiber, and calories? Few clients believe me the first time we talk about this. 

Sometimes, education isn’t so much nutrition-focused in the beginning. Instead, we talk about mindful eating, evaluating hunger and fullness cues, why it’s important to chew your food, or other food topics such as grocery shopping, budgeting, and basic cooking skills. 

Everyone has a different starting point. And it’s my job to help bridge where you are and where you want to go.

Finding a Nutritionist Specializing in Mental Health

In the world of science, research on nutrition and mental health is pretty new. 

Additionally, outside of dietitians that are eating disorder specialists, there aren’t any certifications or other specialist criteria for dietitians that want to specialize in mental health. Making these nutritionists hard to find. 

Ultimately, don’t be afraid to ask where a dietitian nutritionist learned and practiced nutrition science for mental healthcare.

Research and Recommendations From Healthcare Providers

A search of the web should net you some options.  You could search for something like “mental health dietitian”.  You could also try to narrow it down by adding “near me,” though this may limit you some. 

Evaluate the websites of the search results and see if anyone resonates with you.   

Another option is to ask for a referral from your primary care physician, therapist, or PsychMD for a dietitian recommendation. They would be more in tune with dietitians with this specialty. 

The Importance of Credentials and Qualifications

As already mentioned, the term nutritionist doesn’t really mean a lot all on its own.  Look for someone that has a degree to back up the information that they’re sharing.

Even better, look for someone that has had an apprenticeship or internship to train to use that information in a real-life setting.  Dietitians and Diet Techs (RD, RDN, or DTR) have this type of training.

There is no specific certification or specialty designation for a dietitian that specializes in behavioral or mental health, outside of an eating disorder specialist.

When seeking nutrition care for a mental health disorder don’t be nervous to ask how your potential dietitian learned the information and techniques utilized, because unfortunately, they didn’t learn it in school. 

You want to look for someone that has had empathy and harm reduction training, experience working within behavioral healthcare with other specialists, and that has learned how to deliver information and interventions in a trauma-informed and individualized way.

The Role of Insurance and Financial Considerations

Unfortunately, we live in a society with a shit healthcare system. And an even worse mental healthcare system.  Even worse, Texas is ranked the worst state in the US for mental healthcare.

All that to say: financial considerations of nutrition care are important to consider. Dietitians, even those that specialize in mental health, fall under medical health insurance coverage, not mental healthcare.

Insurance coverage for medical nutrition therapy varies by state, by company, and by individual plans. That being said, most cover at least 3 sessions.  Medicare ONLY covers MNT for diabetes and kidney disease, and only with a doctor’s referral. 

If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have medical insurance, your insurance won’t pay, or your chosen practitioner doesn’t accept insurance, make sure to get a “whole picture” idea of what the costs could be.

Every practitioner has their own rates based on a variety of factors.  But just knowing their per-hour rate may not be the whole story. How long, or how many sessions, can you expect?  Do they offer a sliding scale or equity fee for patients in need?

Make sure to get all the information before going in.  

Conclusion

Nutrition is a critical component of mental health, and a nutritionist specializing in mental health can play a vital role in supporting optimal mental wellness. 

Recap of the Importance of Seeking a Nutritionist Specialized in Mental Health

By addressing nutrient deficiencies, promoting a balanced diet, and supporting gut health, a nutritionist can help improve mood, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and enhance cognitive function.

If you’re looking for a nutritionist who specialized in mental health, it’s important to do your research and seek out a qualified professional with the right credentials and experience.

Prioritize Nutrition for Optimal Mental Health

 By prioritizing nutrition and seeking the support of a qualified nutritionist, you can take an important step toward achieving optimal mental wellness.

Final Thoughts and Additional Resources for Seeking a Nutritionist

 If you think that nutrition intervention may improve your mental health, there are some resources. 

  • Dr. Drew Ramsey’s Book “Eating to Beat Depression and Anxiety” is a decent attempt at dispersing the evidence in a non-sensational way. It’s actually one of the few nutrition books written by a doctor that isn’t totally biased crap.  However, the 6-week plan at the end is a bit accelerated compared to how people could actually implement his ideas.
  • The Psychobiotic Revolution is a fantastic overview of the state of research on the link between gut health and mental health.
  • Felice Jacka is the premier researcher on this topic. Her book is Brain Changer. I have it, but haven’t read it yet.  With that said, I’ve heard her speak a few times, and she’s fantastic.
  • If you like podcasts, do a quick search for Drew Ramsey, Felice Jacka, or John Cryan. They’re all great and have done multiple interviews on various podcasts. 

However….

All the information in the world doesn’t necessarily make you implement any changes.  Seek a dietitian that is trained in helping with behavior changes.  You’ll likely need a series of sessions to start making meaningful changes. To find a dietitian:

  • Search the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Provider Search. 
    • They’ll probably have their areas of interest listed in their profile
  • Use your insurance company’s Find a Provider search function.
    • You’ll have to go through each one to determine their specialty.
  • Use your favorite search engine to find “dietitian near me”
    • Again, you’ll have to look through them to find who is qualified for your situation.
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