The link between food and mood has FASCINATED me since I began learning about nutrition. Mainly because I have felt the effects massively myself. I no longer make food choices
But how does what you eat effect how you feel?
I’m under no illusion that if I tell you to eat more broccoli then suddenly all your anxiety and low points will disappear into a puff of (most probably) flatulence, BUT healthier food choices can help your body, and more specifically your brain, get what it needs to fire properly.
When it comes to mental health issues there are MANY risk factors – it’s almost impossible to
One MODIFIABLE risk factor, an evidence-based key player in mental health that CAN BE CHANGED is…. (drumroll)…. diet.
There is now strong evidence to show that an unhealthy diet is directly correlated with mental health issues. More over, one study found those on poor diet had a smaller hippocampus – the part of your brain associated with emotional regulation. Furthermore, the groundbreaking SMILES trial conducted by the legend that is Felice Jacka, had participants following a healthy diet as well as taking part in cooking and nutrition classes – the results? After 12 weeks the dietary support group demonstrated significantly greater improvement than the control group with 32% going into complete remission from Major Depressive Disorder… incredible.
So which foods specifically?
Well there’s the thing – there is no ONE food that’s going to magically improve your mood. Although certain foods are attributed to supporting brain health (Medicinal Mushrooms I’m looking atchu) it’s really a combo – an overall ‘lifestyle’ if you will. First of all it’s fundamental to understand your brain requires a helluva-lot-a fuel. Crucially, the ‘fuel’ you choose directly impacts your brain – tell me; what happens when you put petrol into a diesel car? Disaster. So why would you expect anything different if you don’t give your brain the fuel it NEEDS TO FUNCTION. What you leave out of your diet (like crap) is equally as important as what you put into it.
Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood. Including many whole-foods such as a range of colourful vegeatbles and a few fruits, play a major role in supporting your gut (the bodies second brain) and your immune system – both of which are intrinsically linked to your brain. Reducing inflammation (believed to be a root cause in many cases of depression) is also important – this can be achieved through eating anti-inflammaroty foods such as veggies, berries, turmeric and ginger and most importantly reducing processed highly refined sugary foods.
Oily fish is one food researched well when it comes to mood and studies indicate that people who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to be depressed. Omega 3 fats are found in these fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and not only play an anti-inflammatory role but are also a key componant to EVERY cell in our body. Very basically, they help cells to communicate better – super important when regulating emotions. Adding olive oil to foods (especially veg like dark leafy greens – packed with polyphenols) can also help you to up your healthy fats and support brain health.
Another KEY factor is your gut health (yes I’m obsessed but it’s all about the gut man). Let me break it down. Firstly your gut contains 500 million neurons, which are connected to your brain via nerves – the biggest being the Vagus nerve. This means they are constantly communicating with each other. A ‘gut-feeling’ is really a real thing.
What’s more, around 90% of Serotonin; a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain is produced in your gut. Simply put, the function of these neurons — and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin — are highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome.
Bacteria (good or bad) play an essential role in your health. The good guys protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.
A whopping 90% of our bodies are living organisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi… and this community are supposed to live in harmony within us. The other 10% of our cells are almost like a shell, a habitat, for these guys! We have microflora all over our body; in the womb, on our skin, in our blood vessels, in our lungs… but the bulk of them live in the gut. When the microbes are out of balance, well that’s when we get problems. There is substantial evidence that intestinal bacteria interact with stress hormones and some researchers are even pointing to poor gut diversity as a main contributor to children’s behaviour – Terrible Two’s – could it be all down to gut microbes?!
You keep your gut bacteria healthy in many ways including; a DIVERSE diet of fibre, whole-foods and plants, limiting constant snacking, eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and natural yogurt and avoiding artificial sweeteners and frankenfoods. Probiotics are also a great way to give your gut more support – it’s not a quick win though – you can’t cheat a shitty diet by taking a probiotic. Just like you can plant a flower in a tub of cigarette ash and hope it grows. You gots to nourish that soil yo.
There could be so many more underlying causes affecting your mood health; heavy metal toxicity, thyroid issues, vitamin D deficiency, B12 deficiency, SIBO, hormonal imbalances, leaky gut/leaky brain… the list really does go on. To help you unpick these and truly understand what is going on for you personally it’s no surprise I’d recommend seeing a Nutritional Therapist – look for someone with an accredited qualification.
I’m in no doubt that making healthy choices when you’re struggling with your mental health is hard – let’s be real, it can be a challenge to even feed yourself, let alone opt for a kale salad over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s – but if each mouthful is an opportunity to feel happier and healthier then use that as the motivation. Start small – add in an extra portion of goodness here and there – buy one new & different veg/fruit from the shop each week and make it rain with olive oil and see a professional if you need support.
There’s more to say about this ENDLESS area of food and mood (and there are more blog posts to come) but what’s important is you CAN help yourself. It’s not the only answer, but it is a certain quick win.