How Diet and Exercise Improve Mental Health

10:26 AM, May 10, 2019

If you think of your body as a machine, it’s pretty obvious that operating the machine properly is good for all parts of the machine. Why should your stomach, lungs, muscles and heart benefit from the proper fuel and regular use, but not your brain?

Research has demonstrated with remarkable consistency that a good diet and regular exercise promote good mental health. Indeed, this has produced the new mental health discipline of nutritional psychiatry.

This is an important breakthrough, as an estimated one-quarter of the adult population of the US suffers some form of mental illness. Half of those illnesses begin before the age of 14.

Here are six ways diet and exercise improve mental health: 

1. Brain Development Requires the Right Building Blocks

Real food that nourishes protein-building in the brain; junk food does not. The brain is a complex organ that requires the constant production of enzymes, neurotransmitters and other tissues required for proper function. For example, research has found that omega-3 fatty acids are critical to the membranes that encase nerve cells critical to brain function. Consumption of omega-3s facilitates good mental health and wards off depression and brain fogginess, particularly as we age. 

2. Gut Health Affects Brain Health

High-fat and high-sugar diets cause metabolic dysfunction for the entire body and clog arteries that carry blood to all the cells in the body, including the brain. Less blood means fewer nutrients required for good cellular health. In addition, a healthy microbiome in the stomach promotes the growth of healthy bacteria that reduce inflammation and aid the development of brain-powering Vitamin B. 

3. Exercise Boosts Endorphins

Regular exercise appears to fend off depression and anxiety by releasing the happy chemicals — endorphins – responsible for “runners high.” Exercise also spurs growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that shrivels when we’re depressed. Of course, exercise also has the ability to take our mind off the negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. Exercise is now being prescribed regularly by psychiatrists for patients with mild and moderate depression. The accepted benchmark is about 150 minutes weekly, or five half-hour sessions. 

4. Poor Food Choices Make Us Feel Bad – About Ourselves

Eating junk – which comprises much of the American diet – makes us feel bad in so many ways. You might feel sluggish, fatigued, fat and unhealthy, for example. A poor self-image is associated with depression and other mental illnesses. In fact, studies have found that depression and poor diet are highly correlated. 

5. Nutrition and Exercise Help Us Sleep

We sleep better when we feel better, which requires a good diet and sufficient exercise. We also sleep better when our mind is clear, which is supported by exercise, and when we are physically (not emotionally) fatigued, again facilitated by exercise. Sleep is an essential building block for mental health, as it allows our brains to consolidate memories, process fears and disappointments, and regenerate cells. Sleep is the time during which the brain closes the factory floor and cleans up for the next day’s work. 

6. The Evidence is Clear

Eleven major, large-scale, peer-reviewed epidemiological studies have demonstrated a strong relationship between eating a healthy, balanced diet and good mental health. Those diets are rich in fruits and vegetables and low in sugar and processed foods.

“Not a single study has shown that the Western diet of processed foods is good for our mental health,” said researcher Julia Rucklidge during a TedX Talk.

The team of mental health professionals at South Texas Mental Health Associates develops trusting, professional relationships with their patients. They take an open and frank approach, making sure patients understand their condition and what they can expect from different treatment modalities. For more information, call (361) 356-6441 or visit

Our Location

6625 Woodridge Rd, Suite 101

Corpus Christi, TX 78414
Phone (appointments): 361-210-7745
Phone (general inquiries): (361) 356-6441

About South Texas Mental Health Associates

At South Texas Mental Health Associates in Corpus Christi, Texas, the patient comes first. The team at South Texas Mental Health Associates provides comprehensive patient-oriented care to address mental health issues including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, mood disorders, ADHD, schizophrenia, and more.

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