Fueling your brain and body

Zara Rowlands, dietetics professor. Photo courtesy of Youngstown State University

By Lindsey Linard

Many college students suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, but are unaware that nutrition and diet can affect how they feel.

According to Don Martin, a counseling program professor at Youngstown State University, around 20% of college-aged individuals have significant mental health issues. While mental health problems can be triggered by a variety of elements, food can greatly impact brain function and mental well-being. 

“You can’t control a lot of things in your life,” Martin said. “But, you can control what you put into your mouth.”

Zara Rowlands, a registered dietician and dietetics professor, explained there’s an important connection between the brain and stomach which can affect how the brain works. 

The gut biome produces chemical compounds and processes amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters like serotonin, melatonin and dopamine. These chemicals greatly affect brain chemistry as they regulate stress, relaxation, sleep, blood pressure and coordination.

“Neurotransmitters are what really govern our brain function,” Rowlands said. “There are certain foods that can promote better brain function, and there are some that really promote a lot more anxiety and depression and stress.” 

Some of the most common ingredients that can negatively impact mental health are salt, refined sugar and carbs. These foods may raise blood pressure and can cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugars, which can trigger feelings of anxiety and leave one feeling tired and irritable. 

Fad diets such as Keto and intermittent fasting can also negatively affect brain function because they donʼt give the brain the energy it requires, leaving the body feeling weak and tired.

A majority of college students are also severely lacking in nutrients from fruits and vegetables, according to Rowland. Rowland said she recommends following the MIND diet, which consists of vegetables, berries, nuts, fish, poultry, healthy oils and limits red meats, solid fats, cheese, dessert and fried food. 

“We usually require students to do diet assessments, where they have to assess their own diet,” Rowland said. “Guess what they’re not eating — fruits and vegetables. Those are probably the most nutrient-dense. A lot of vitamins and minerals for the calories that they provide.”

Other important aspects that can be added to someone’s diet are nootropics and adaptogens. Caffeine is a common nootropic, and in small amounts, can help with short-term memory and learning.

Adaptogens are plant compounds that can help with stress management, such as mushrooms and holy basil, which contain compounds that can help with thinking, learning and memory.

Jake Protivnak, professor and counseling program director, said there’s also a psychological component to dieting. Individuals can often imbue food with power in their mind, feeling guilty or as if they should punish themselves when they make unhealthy choices.

Self-care and compassion are essential when it comes to diet and mental health, according to Protivnak. 

“It’s important to try to commit each day to love and accept ourselves for who we are, for the body that we have and to provide healthy foods to nourish our unique brain and unique body,” Protivnak said.