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Food and mood: can we improve our mental health through good nutrition?

Looking after and prioritising our mental health has never been so important, particularly as depression and anxiety are the number one cause of disability. We all know that eating too much fast food, which often contains high levels of saturated fat, sugar, and processed ingredients can result in negative physical changes like weight gain and bad skin, but did you know that it can also have a negative effect on mood too?

Food, mood and energy

We need food as a basic fuel source for energy and optimal functioning (macronutrients), but we also need food to provide the micronutrients that are required to synthesise various hormones linked to mood. Two of the major ones are:

  • Serotonin = our happy hormone
  • Dopamine = our motivation and reward hormone

In order to make these hormones, we need to consume foods containing two amino acids called tryptophan and tyrosine, so it’s really important that we ensure these are in our diet in adequate amounts. Tryptophan in particular is very important, as we cannot create this ourselves.

If we make poor diet choices or skip meals, we can find ourselves on an energy rollercoaster which can negatively impact our mood and emotions. We’ve all heard of the term “hangry”, right? Well, this can leave us feeling low in energy, anxious and having brain fog, so it’s important to eat regularly and have foods that will provide consistent energy sources, such as complex carbohydrates and protein.

The gut – key to a happy mood?

Our gut microbiome is made up of all sorts of things – bacteria, yeasts and fungi to name just a few. These have a vital role in our overall health as they are able to digest food for us, produce vitamins, produce hormones and communicate with other systems in the body.

Have you ever been nervous before an exam or presentation at work and had butterflies in your stomach? Or had that ‘gut-feeling’ about something that just doesn’t sit right? Those feelings come from your gut-brain-axis, which is a remarkable bidirectional connection between the gut and brain, via the vagus nerve.

The key to a healthy gut is having lots of diverse bacterial strains – think of the gut like a lush garden with lots of different flowers (bacteria) growing. People who have depression often have significantly less diversity, which could make their symptoms worse. Studies show that a disrupted gut microbiome also increases the risk of anxiety. This is because the good bacteria in our guts produce molecules such as serotonin (90% is made in our gut!) and short-chain fatty acids that have a positive impact on our mental health.

A diet high in processed/fast foods foods can often lead to a decrease in bacterial diversity. We need to nourish our good bacteria by eating more unprocessed plant foods, as this provides the fibre that they need to thrive on. Aim for 30 different types of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs etc. each week – it sounds difficult, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you reach that number!

Key nutrients to boost our mood

Although there is no magic nutrient to make us feel better, there are certainly some nutrients that we need to support our mental health. There are 3 main ones to focus on:

  • Tryptophan: this is required to make our happy hormone, serotonin
    • turkey, bananas, fish, eggs, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, tofu and soy, milk
  • Vitamin D: this is vital for enhanced energy and neurotransmitter release of dopamine and serotonin
    • fatty fish, mushrooms, egg yolks, red meat, liver, fortified cereals, sunlight (or supplements depending on where you live during fall and winter!)
  • Omega 3: this is important for cognitive function and mood, it is also anti-inflammatory
    • oily fish such as salmon/mackeral, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, soybean, avocados

The Mediterranean diet

If you’re looking for that fabled diet to support mental health, look no further than the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to protect and support our mental health. The SMILES trial even showed that this diet could form part of a treatment plan for depression!

The Mediterranean diet is traditionally more of a way of life followed by people living in Greece and Italy. It is a predominantly plant-focused diet consisting of:

  • Lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Wholegrains (a source of complex carbohydrates to maintain sufficient energy levels)
  • Regular fish consumption (especially oily fish due to its omega-3 fatty acid content)
  • Extra virgin olive oil and other healthy fats such as nuts and seeds
  • Small amounts of lean meat and dairy
  • Moderate alcohol consumption, with red wine being particularly beneficial (yay!)

This diet is thought to be particularly good for our mood as it contains high levels of polyphenols which act as anti-inflammatories to protect the brain from damage and inflammation, as well as high amounts of fibre, which is of course is what we need for good gut health.

The bottom line

Scientific studies have given us mountains of evidence that make the link between what we eat and how we feel. It is a good idea to have an understanding of these effects so that we can make the right choices to support our mental health.

However, we should also remember that eating “treats” such as going out for dinner with friends, sharing a dessert with a loved one or eating popcorn at the cinema are also good for our mental health and contribute to a positive mood, just in a slightly different way to eating a plate of veggies! As with everything, it is all about striking the right balance.

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