Woman with a bunch of healthy food around her representing Nutrition and Mood.

Healthy Body, Happy Heart

As a Denver therapist and online therapist, I have gained a healthy respect for the limits of traditional talk therapy over the years. The truth is that you are complex, and many things are a factor in how you feel day-to-day. Although “working through the past” or gaining insight into yourself is fantastic, it is not usually enough to actually change how you feel. Certainly, your thoughts impact your feelings, as do your life circumstances. When you make positive changes in either of those areas, you’re likely to feel better.

However, something that many therapists and life coaches miss (as well as physicians, and psychologists for that matter) is the dramatic interplay between physical and emotional wellness. The mind/body connection is not “new-age hocus-pocus”; it’s a fact. What is happening in your body on a physical level impacts the way you think and feel. Likewise, the way you think and feel impacts your health. (I could bore you with a detailed explanation of the fight-or-flight stress response and its impact on cognition, immunity, sleep cycles and more, but I’m going to restrain myself today). 

Nutrition and Mood

One big piece of the mind/body connection that has been largely overlooked in the past by the mental health community is the relationship between your nutrition and your mental and emotional wellbeing. Being deficient in certain vitamins and nutrients can have a significant impact on the way you feel. According to recent research, treating these deficiencies can relieve many “mental health” symptoms. [More: Natural Remedies for Depression]

This is big news, particularly because it is very easy to become nutritionally malnourished in America these days. Much of the standard, processed American fare that is consumed by most of us regularly such as pastas, sodas, fast foods, chemical sweeteners, or pretty much anything bread-based or with potatoes in it, has little to no nutritional value.

Even conventional fruits and vegetables can be nutritionally depleted if they’re grown on overworked, depleted soil supplemented with sub-par chemical fertilizers. Therefore they have less nutritional value for you than you might think. It’s easy as pie (eating pie, that is) to become deficient in important vitamins and minerals, which can lead to a multitude of health problems. Not only that, becoming nutritionally malnourished can create feelings of anxiety and depression. Strategic incorporation of foods high in vitamins and minerals, and/or vitamin supplements may be extremely helpful in lifting your mood or calming a worried mind.  Look at it this way: consuming the right foods can play a vital role in feeling happier and an important way to love yourself.  

I’ll go over a few vitamins and minerals that have been found to be linked with mood. My big disclaimer here is that I am not a nutritionist or dietician so I can’t offer any specific advice on supplements that you should or should not be taking, given your unique health situation. If you think that you may be nutritionally deficient and would like to get on a good nutritional plan, I would recommend sitting down with a registered dietician or a naturopathic doctor.

Nutrients That Are Known To Impact Mood

Iron and Depression

If you’ve ever been anemic, I don’t need to tell you that if you’re deficient in iron, you feel awful. See if you can relate to the following list of symptoms: Tired, lethargic, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in activities you once found pleasurable…. Does this sound familiar? In fact, this could sound like something from an antidepressant commercial, right? The effect of not having enough iron is similar to that of depression, particularly with the physical experience of depression. Physically, those suffering from depression can feel tired or withdrawn, but emotionally not having enough iron can also create the same experience of isolation, loss of pleasure, loss of energy, and an overall depressed mood. That is because anemia (iron deficiency) is associated with higher levels of depression. It’s not unheard of for someone’s chronic “depression” to finally lift when their nutritional deficiencies are addressed appropriately.

Fun facts about iron: Iron is more absorbable from natural food sources than it is from supplements, so it’s best to get it from dietary sources if you can. It’s also more absorbable when taken with vitamin C. There is lots of iron in red meat, but if you avoid red meat or are a vegetarian and not conscientiously eating other sources of iron like spinach and broccoli, you can easily become deficient in this mineral. Although iron supplements can be very helpful, you can also take too much iron. So a safe bet would be to find a high quality multivitamin with iron in it.

For more information on depression, check out: Is it Depression?

Magnesium and Anxiety

I recently found out something fascinating about magnesium. It’s often given to people in hospital emergency rooms because deficiency in this mineral is so widespread. Deficits in magnesium are associated with serious health problems like muscle cramps, heart spasms, high blood pressure, abnormal heart beats, and even seizures—as well as intense anxiety. Speaking generally, high amounts of magnesium are associated with relaxation, calm and “looseness” whereas low amounts of magnesium are associated with irritability, anxiety, and tenseness, both physically and mentally.  Making sure you have enough magnesium paired with mindfulness exercises can really increase your calm.  

Fun facts about magnesium and mood: You can take magnesium as a supplement, (but if you do, make sure to do your research, as some variants are more absorbable than others.) However, another good way to get magnesium in your system is through Epsom Salt (Magnesium Sulfate) in your bath. Not only can taking a fragrant Epsom Salt bath increase your magnesium, it can be a relaxing part of a self-care routine.  If you want to go the dietary route, add dark leafy greens and beans to your diet.

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B Vitamins, Depression, Anxiety and Energy Levels

These important vitamins play a role in the formation of neurotransmitters, which are the brain chemicals that mediate interactions between neurons and other structures in your brain. When your neurotransmitters are not in balance, people frequently experience a disturbance in their mood as well as in their overall energy. Antidepressant medications work by increasing the amount of available neurotransmitters you have via various mechanisms. It’s been found that people deficient in B vitamins often have symptoms of depression as well. There are a number of important B Vitamins, but the major players associated with depression are Thiamin, Folate, B-6, and B-12.

Fun facts about B Vitamins: Foods with the most B Vitamins tend to be animal products like fish, red meat, eggs, and dairy. Unless they are very conscientious about getting enough of these vitamins from other sources like whole grains, nuts and seeds, Vegans may be at risk of becoming deficient, especially in B12. However, there are plant based B12 supplements.

Vitamin D, Depression and Illness

Having low levels of vitamin D has been associated with depression, fertility issues, inflammatory responses and a less efficient immune system.

Fun facts about Vitamin D: Milk products are commonly fortified with vitamin D, but in addition to drinking milk, you have a fast, easy and free source: sunlight. Spending just a few minutes in the sun with bare arms and/or legs will give you more than enough vitamin D to boost your mood. Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight in cold, dark winter months may be one factor associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). People with darker skin living in northern latitudes and dairy-avoiders are even more vulnerable to this deficiency. Reason #374 to get some fresh air and exercise outside!

Fish Oil, Mood and Cognition

Helpful fats in fish oils contain molecules that help create the neurotransmitter serotonin, which also seems to make your cells more permeable to the neurotransmitters that regulate your mood. The recent evidence between the impact of fish oil on mental health symptoms has been enough that a forward-thinking psychiatrist may even prescribe them to you along with your anti-depressant medication.

Fun facts about fish oil: You can get your daily dose of omega-3, the active ingredient in fish oil, through natural sources such as fatty fish and flax-seed oil. However, if salmon burgers are not your thing, fish oil supplements are widely available now. Supplements vary in quality. Check labels to make sure that your selection has been tested for mercury and other contaminants.

Probiotics and Mood

We know that the neurotransmitter serotonin impacts mood. But did you know that the second largest serotonin-producing factory in your body, after your brain, is actually your gastrointestinal tract? Numerous studies have shown that the quality of gut bacteria in a healthy gut can have a significant impact on your serotonin production and consequently, your mood. Fascinatingly, one research study took gut bacteria from happy mice and sad mice and swapped them. The sad mice demonstrated more behaviors associated with happiness in mice (sniffing? running on their little wheels? the study did not elaborate, sadly), and the formerly happy mice became sadder. Poor mice. However, the takeaway for us is this: Probiotics impact mood.

Fun facts about probiotics: Natural sources of probiotics include fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut. Supplements are also available. High quality probiotics can be pricey. However, when you consider the impact they may have on your overall life satisfaction, they’re worth it. Other ways to support your gut health is by eating high quality, high fiber, plant based foods. Apparently, roughage supports the growth of healthy bacteria.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Friends, I could go on. (Want to talk about exercise and mood? Don’t get me started!) But the point is that the way you feel on the inside, the way you think, and the way you react are all impacted by the way you care for yourself physically, as well as emotionally. That’s just one of the reasons why the counselors and coaches of Growing Self are such strong advocates of self-care. If you’ve been feeling not-so-hot lately, it may be a good idea to take a look at how you’ve been eating and caring for yourself physically.

You are a WHOLE being. You have thoughts, feelings, behaviors, relationships, and you are involved in different systems to boot. All of these factors impact you. It’s always helpful to talk about your feelings in order to understand yourself and develop compassion for yourself. However, you may move forward faster when you partner with a coach or counselor who will also support you in taking action to make positive changes in all parts of your life. You’re worth taking good care of!

All the best to you,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Therapy Questions, Answered.

Our expert therapists have generously created an entire library of articles, activities, and podcasts to support you on your journey of growth. Please visit our “Happiness Collections” to browse our content collections, and take advantage of all the free resources we have for you. Or, if you’d like to educate yourself about the process and logistics of therapy, please help yourself to our “therapy questions” knowledge base below. It’s all for you!

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Not sure what to talk about in therapy? Here are some tips to ensure you get the most out of your therapy sessions.

How to prepare for your first therapy appointment, and learn what to expect in therapy sessions.

What’s the difference between coaching and therapy? Find out which approach is right for you.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the “gold-standard” of effective, evidence-based therapy. Learn about CBT.

How does talking about something help you make changes? Or… does it? Learn the pros and cons of traditional talk therapy.

Effective therapy is life-changing, but some therapy is a waste of time and money. Evidence-based therapy makes the difference.

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  1. Spot on Dr. Lisa! Might I add another nugget to this sublime blog post. Carving out time to shop for and prepare these healthy foods can also be a cathartic act of self love… As well as making your kitchen smell heavenly.

    Also, the oft maligned russet potato is an excellent source of magnesium.

  2. Spot on Dr. Lisa! Might I add another nugget to this sublime blog post. Carving out time to shop for and prepare these healthy foods can also be a cathartic act of self love… As well as making your kitchen smell heavenly.

    Also, the oft maligned russet potato is an excellent source of magnesium.

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