Can Dairy’s Nutrition Benefit Mental Health?
This article was reviewed by Megan Maisano, MS, RDN
Life have you feeling stressed? It might be time for a snack break — a dairy snack break.
Dairy can help address more than hunger. It can help you reset physically and mentally. Just as there’s a connection between dairy and physical health, thanks to the essential nutrients found in milk and other dairy products, there may be a connection between dairy and mental health.
Understanding Stress and Mental Health
Stress isn’t fun. As your body’s reaction to pressure, stress can result in physical, mental or emotional symptoms, including headaches, difficulty sleeping or anxiety. Because of this, stress can have an unwanted impact on our mental health, and therefore our ability to cope with the stresses of life and our potential to learn, work and live well. When unaddressed, long-term stress can lead to panic attacks, mood swings, depression and other mental health concerns.
For better or worse, stress and mental health often go hand in hand, impacting overall well-being.
Exploring the Link Between Diet and Mental Health
The link between diet and physical health is rather visible. The link between diet and mental health is less so, making it easier to overlook. But that doesn’t mean this link is any less important.
Poor diets — often high in refined foods, added sugars, fried foods, and processed meats — are linked to inflammation, depression and anxiety. In contrast, nutritious, balanced diets can help reduce risk or improve management of depression and anxiety.
Part of this has to do with the gut-brain axis. High-fat, high-sugar and ultra-processed foods can lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiota, which may in turn cause harmful inflammation for the brain. This may also serve to worsen psychological stress, which in turn reduces digestive function and immune response, creating a damaging cycle.
Fortunately, a more positive cycle can also exist. Fermented foods, vegetables, foods high in fiber and other gut-healthy foods can help maintain healthy gut microbiota, promoting positive mental health that in turn helps with proper digestive function and immune response.
Altogether, dairy can be a key part of a healthy diet that can help foster a healthy mind.
How Dairy's Nutrition May Impact Mental Health
Containing nutrients that support the immune system, protein that boosts energy and live active cultures that promote gut health, there are many reasons dairy can be a key part of a healthy diet. Here are some dairy components that can positively impact mental health in particular.
Dairy Nutrient: Calcium
How It Impacts Mental Health: Higher calcium intakes have been linked to lower perceived stress and anxiety scores and higher positive mood and resilience scores. This may be due to calcium’s role in regulating neurotransmitter function.
Dairy Nutrient: Vitamin D
How It Impacts Mental Health: Studies show there may be an association between vitamin D deficiency and increased risk of mood disorders.
Dairy Products With Vitamin D: Milk
Dairy Nutrient: Probiotics
How It Impacts Mental Health: Supports a healthy gut microbiome and can bolster the gut-brain axis connection.
While mental health can be complex, dairy offers a unique package of nutrients that may be able to help alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle
Acknowledging Potential Dairy Dilemmas
While dairy nutrition may help with our mental health, not everyone can consume dairy in the same way. Dairy conditions like lactose intolerance and dairy allergy can directly impact the type and quantity of dairy foods someone can tolerate.
For someone who has a dairy allergy, it’s best to avoid dairy products. Alternatively, people who are lactose intolerant might not have to give up dairy entirely and may benefit from using lactose-friendly tips to enjoy dairy products in a way that doesn’t cause any uncomfortable symptoms. Either way, these dairy dilemmas don’t prevent someone from indulging in a healthy diet — it just might take a little more effort.
Dairy and Mental Health: A Relationship Summary
The connection between dairy’s nutrition and mental health shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are some key takeaways to keep in mind going forward:
- Stress and mental health often go hand in hand, impacting overall well-being.
- Poor diets are linked to inflammation, depression and anxiety. Nutritious, balanced diets can help reduce risk or improve management of depression and anxiety.
- Dairy can be a key part of a healthy diet. And dairy nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and probiotics can help foster a healthy mind.
- Dairy dilemmas like lactose intolerance and dairy allergy may affect someone’s relationship with dairy, but they don’t stop someone from having a healthy diet.
Mental health conditions are complicated. While lifestyle changes are important and can make us feel better, they are just a few options in a growing field of potential treatments. For some folks, tweaking a diet or exercise regime cannot replace specialized treatment or medication. If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to your health care provider or mental health professional. To learn more and find helpful resources on mental health, you can visit the Centers for Disease Control a Prevention.