Although mental health disorders have many contributing factors, the role of nutrition shouldn’t be ignored. What you eat has a profound effect on how you feel, both mentally and physically, making dietary adjustments an important part of addiction recovery. If you’re ready to start the recovery process, keep reading to learn more about the link between food and mood as it relates to mental health.

Food and Mental Health

The foods you eat contain vitamins, minerals and other substances that can elevate your mood or make you feel sluggish and grumpy. Before you can understand why good nutrition is so important in addiction recovery, you must understand how the substances you consume affect your brain.

Carbohydrates and Mental Health

food and moodWhen it comes to nutritional value, not all carbohydrates are created equal. The same goes for the effects of carbs on your mood. You may have noticed that you crash after eating sugary foods and foods with large amounts of flour in them. This crash occurs because many foods with little nutritional value have high glycemic index (GI) values.

The glycemic index of a food corresponds to how fast your blood sugar increases after eating it.

Foods with low GI values result in slow, steady increases in blood sugar, while foods with high GI values cause rapid spikes. When your glucose level rises rapidly and then falls, you may start to feel tired and irritable.

Not all carbohydrates have the same negative effects on your mood. Whole grains, such as the ones found in legumes and brown rice, can improve your mood by increasing the amount of serotonin available in your brain. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters responsible for carrying messages in the nervous system. Lower-than-normal amounts of serotonin have been linked to depression. Therefore, it’s important to follow a healthy diet that includes plenty of complex carbohydrates.

Protein and Mental Health

Consuming protein can also improve your mood, especially when you eat plant-based proteins, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Protein consumption may result in higher levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in your brain. Like serotonin, these chemicals are classified as neurotransmitters. Dopamine plays an important role in your brain’s reward system, especially when you have an addiction to alcohol or other substances. Low dopamine levels have also been linked to depression. Abnormal epinephrine levels are associated with substance use disorders, PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Foods containing protein are also an important source of tryptophan, an amino acid. Your body uses tryptophan to produce neurotransmitters and other important substances, making it an essential part of a healthy diet. Your body can’t produce tryptophan on its own, so make sure your diet includes fish, egg whites, dairy products, soy beans, sesame seeds or pumpkin seeds.

Fat and Mental Health

It’s important to develop healthy eating patterns, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid fats entirely. Two types of omega-3 fatty acids, DHEA and EPA, are thought to reduce the risk of depression and help people with mood disorders. Researchers aren’t sure why omega-3 fatty acids are good for your mood, but they suspect it may have something to do with their ability to interact with chemicals in the brain. Good fats are also important for proper brain function. Increase your omega-3 fatty acid consumption by eating walnuts, fatty fish and flaxseed. 

The Importance of Vitamins and Minerals

If you’re concerned about the link between food and mood, you should examine your dietary patterns and make sure you consume enough vitamins and minerals each day. When you don’t get enough of these substances in your diet, you may be especially vulnerable to the mood swings that often occur during the addiction recovery process.

B Vitamins

vitamin b foodsSeveral B vitamins affect your brain function, including B6, B9 (folate) and B12. Vitamin B6 contains several chemical compounds, all of which are involved in regulating mood and brain function. If you don’t consume enough B6 from the foods you eat, you may feel moody and irritable. People with B6 deficiencies may also have higher levels of homocysteine in their blood.

High homocysteine levels are one of the risk factors for cerebrovascular disease, which reduces the blood supply to the brain. A lack of blood supply can also affect your mood, making the addiction recovery process more difficult.

Decades’ worth of research has shown that folate deficiency sometimes plays a role in the development of depression. If depression causes you to lose your appetite, you may eat even fewer folate-containing foods, making your deficiency even worse. Alcohol interferes with the absorption of B6, so it’s especially important to increase your folate consumption if you have alcohol use disorder.

Vitamin B12 deficiency has profound effects on a person’s physical and mental health. In one case report, a lack of B12 caused an older man to develop shortness of breath, severe joint pain and other worrying symptoms. According to researchers from Harvard Medical School, B12 deficiency has also been linked to depression, delusions, memory loss and paranoia. During the recovery process, it’s important to consume foods rich in B12 to support your mental health.

Although supplements can help you address a lack of B vitamins, they’re no substitute for natural sources of B6, folate and B12. Good sources of B6 include chickpeas, liver, poultry, salmon, tuna and leafy greens. To increase your folate intake, follow a healthy diet that includes eggs, beans, whole grains, fresh fruits, seafood and peanuts. Red meat, lean proteins, shellfish are good sources of vitamin B12.


Although calcium is a mineral, it also functions as a neurotransmitter. Therefore, it plays an important role in regulating mood and determining your risk for depression. In one study, women with higher levels of calcium consumption reported fewer symptoms of depression than women who didn’t consume as much calcium. Bony fish, dairy products and leafy green veggies are all good sources of calcium. If you don’t eat animal products, you can increase your calcium consumption by eating almonds, tofu, sunflower seeds and chia seeds.

Vitamin D

Many people in the United States don’t have enough vitamin D in their bodies. The lack of vitamin D has several physical effects, but it can also affect your mental health as vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency have been linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). They may also increase the risk for other mood disorders, highlighting the link between food and mood. Support your well-being during the recovery process by eating red meat, oily fish, egg yolks and fortified foods to keep your vitamin D level as high as possible.


Magnesium has mood-stabilizing properties, making it one of the most important minerals for anyone entering addiction treatment or working to stay sober. Furthermore, magnesium deficiency has been shown to contribute to major depressive disorder by reducing serotonin levels in the brain. Improve your mood during the recovery process by eating nuts, avocados, legumes and bananas.


Antioxidants are substances that can prevent cell damage, reducing the risk of certain health problems. For example, some antioxidants prevent cell damage that increases the risk of skin cancer. These substances have also been linked to improved mood, especially in people who already have depression. In one meta-analysis, researchers noted that antioxidants have been linked to fewer depression symptoms, making them an area of interest for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. Increase your antioxidant consumption by consuming a variety of whole foods, including dark chocolate, blueberries, beets, kale and strawberries.

Nutritional Psychiatry

An increasing number of medical professionals are focusing on the effects of nutrition on mental health. As a result, some of these professionals are now practicing what they call nutritional psychiatry. This new discipline aims to treat mental health disorders with food and nutritional supplements, creating a better balance between physical health and psychological health. Some practitioners use nutritional psychiatry as an alternative to traditional psychiatric treatments, while others use food and supplements in combination with antidepressants and therapy. 

Many medical professionals also believe your gut microbiome plays an important role in your psychological well-being. The gut microbiome consists of all the bacteria and other living organisms in your digestive tract. Bacteria are often harmful, but your body has several types of good bacteria that it uses to absorb nutrients and digest food. Some bacteria even help your body produce the vitamins it needs to function properly. If you visit a medical professional who practices nutritional psychiatry, they may recommend you take probiotics and other supplements to improve the health of your gut microbiome.

Planning Your Diet

Making major dietary adjustments can be daunting, especially if you’re dealing with the side effects of drug or alcohol withdrawal. If you want to use dietary changes to support your recovery, make an appointment with a registered dietitian. Working with a dietitian can help you develop reasonable nutrition goals, learn how to incorporate more vitamins and minerals into your diet and reduce your risk of obesity and other medical conditions. A dietitian can also help you compare eating plans and determine which one you want to follow. 

The Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean DietAlthough many diets emphasize the consumption of whole foods and lean proteins, the Mediterranean diet is especially effective for improving mood and preventing weight gain during recovery. This diet emphasizes daily consumption of some foods and limited consumption of other foods. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Plenty of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats
  • Limited consumption of red meat
  • Fish, poultry, eggs and beans each week
  • Moderate dairy intake

Although this eating plan includes olive oil, nuts and plenty of other healthy fats, it’s been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Lowering your risk of heart disease may also help reduce your risk of depression, making the Mediterranean diet a good choice for anyone recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

Low-Carb vs High-Carb Diets

Researchers have experimented with using low-carb diets and high-carb diets to help people with depression control their symptoms. Despite the many benefits of healthy fats, at least one study has determined that high-carb/low-fat diets are more effective for sustaining positive mood changes over a long period of time. Researchers aren’t sure why the high-carb diet is more effective, but they suspect it has to do with the increased serotonin levels that come with carbohydrate consumption. People on low-carb diets may also find it difficult to stick to their restrictive eating plans, making them preoccupied with limiting their carb intake.

Nutrition and Addiction Recovery

Good food choices are important for everyone, but they’re especially important for anyone in addiction recovery. Nutrition and addiction are connected for the following reasons:

  • When you’re actively using alcohol or illicit substances, you may stick to comfort foods or make poor decisions regarding your diet. Some people with substance use disorder eat very little, leaving them malnourished and lacking in key nutrients.
  • It’s difficult to control your glucose (blood sugar) level when you consume alcohol regularly, making your food choices even more important than usual.
  • Alcohol affects the digestive tract, which makes it difficult for your digestive system to absorb nutrients.
  • When you’re under the influence, you may forget to eat. Even if you remember you need to eat something, you may have trouble following a recipe or using cooking appliances safely.
  • If you have depression or another mental health disorder in addition to your addiction, you may lack the motivation to go grocery shopping and prepare nutritious meals.

Get Recovery Support

Changing Tides is just 30 feet from Kitty Hawk Beach, making it a restful place to focus on your sobriety and learn more about the connection between food and mood. Our compassionate staff members are ready to support you as you work to identify your addiction triggers and develop healthy coping mechanisms that can help you stay sober. To learn more about our drug rehab in North Carolina, visit our website or call us at 252-715-3905.

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