Our brain makes us who we are. It determines every aspect of our life. It allows us to sense, think, feel, remember and move. Without the brain there is no self. Our brain works hard, all day, every day; even when you are asleep and because of that it requires constant supply of fuel. That fuel comes from the foods you eat, and what you eat can have direct effect on the structure and function of your brain, and ultimately your mood. When our nervous system is not working as well as it should be, our social and emotional wellbeing can be affected as well as our day-to-day performance and productivity.
For many years, the food-mood connection hasn’t been fully acknowledged by the medical field, but now the findings of nutritional psychiatry clearly show that what you eat can affect how you feel and how you ultimately behave. The field of nutritional psychiatry is relatively a new field which has emerged to uncover more about the possible benefits of nutrition on mental health. Its focus is on how nutrition can improve mood, enhance cognitive function, protect from cognitive decline and reduce symptoms of certain neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism.
What can affect our mood?
Past experiences and situational factors, work-life imbalance, reduced live social interactions, overwhelm and overstimulation from our busy lives, oxidative stress, lack of natural light, reduced time spent in nature can all be disruptive to our mood and motivation. However, inadequate nutrition to support our neurotransmitters and nerve cells, also might predispose us to low mood, lack of motivation and withdrawal. Like an expensive car, your brain works best when it gets high-quality fuel. A diet rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from free radicals, which are a natural by-product of our metabolism.
Mood is also dependent on certain neurotransmitters like serotonin (feel-good chemical) and dopamine (motivational brain chemical). When the levels of these neurotransmitters are low we can experience low mood, depression, lethargy. Around 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut, which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells. This means that your digestive tract does not only help you digest the food you eat but it also guides your emotions. Moreover, the function of these neurons and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, are strongly influenced by the bacteria you host in your gut. Diverse microbiome plays a great role in your health. Amongst other “jobs” your gut bacteria activate natural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain (the brain-gut axis) .
When you consume a healthy diet, your microbiome thrives, which in turn affects the production of neurotransmitters. On the other hand a diet based on processed and sugary foods promotes inflammation which hampers the production. Consumption of low quality, processed diet can also lead to insufficiencies in nutrients which can further drive the inflammation. Your brain receives these signals loud and clear which is reflected in your mood. A 2017 study has found that eating a diet high in red meat, refined grains, refined sugar and high-fat dairy products was linked to higher risk of depression.
Food for your mood.
Brain function and mental health might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about foods and drinks we consume. Food has classically been perceived as a way to provide energy and building blocks for the body. Consuming a healthy diet may mean fewer mood swing and overall a happier outlook and a greater ability to focus. Studies show that eating healthily can help with symptoms of depression and anxiety; consuming typical Western diet that is high in processed and refined foods and sugars increase the risk of depression from 25-30% when compared with Mediterranean or traditional Japanese diet3. Mediterranean style diet has been shown to be protective against developing mental disorders.
- Increase your intake of healthy fats which contribute to the fluidity and sensitivity of your brain cell membrane and have a key role in conductivity of neurotransmitters. Omega-3s are key for sharpening memory, improving mood and protecting your brain against cognitive decline. They are found in foods like fatty fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil,
- Consume plenty of green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, collards, broccoli. These are rich in vitamin k, lutein, folate, beta-carotene and magnesium which are crucial for brain health,
- Include foods rich in tryptophan which helps make serotonin: turkey, eggs, cheese, salmon, nuts, seeds, tofu
- Include foods rich in tyrosine, a pre-cursor to dopamine: turkey, fish, nuts and seeds, avocado, bananas, tofu
- Include turmeric – curcumin, which is the active compound of turmeric, has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action and may be protective against cognitive decline
- Berries which are packed with antioxidants and phenolic compounds may help manage inflammation and combat oxidative stress.
- Reduce or eliminate sodas, added sugars, and any processed foods which can impair brain function and worsen mental health symptoms. Sugar, in particular, is considered a major culprit of inflammation and it feeds “bad” bacteria in your gut. Even though sugar can cause a temporary spike in “feel good” neurotransmitters it is then quickly followed by a “crash” which is not so good for your mood.
An integrative approach.
This is a complicated area of research and more studies are needed to understand these complex connections. Even though diet is important to our mood and mental health, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a part of a picture, just like balanced lifestyle, good psychological and medical care, adequate sleep and interaction with nature. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University says that “when people make efforts to care for themselves and adhere to a belief system they feel good is good for them, their mental health is going to improve”. Below are some ideas that might be a great starting point.
- Try to “reframe” your thought process – notice the small things in life that make you smile and write them down.
- Maintain an active social life – there’s nothing better than meeting and laughing with friends and family.
- Keep your mind active – reading, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing board games or cards, drawing are all great and easy ways to stimulate your mind and relax the body
- Ensure that you are getting enough vitamin D – ask your GP to check your vit D levels and aim to spend at least 20 min a day out in the daylight
- Take short walks in nature
- Try some gentle yoga or meditation to calm your mind and the stress response
- Create a sleeping routine and limit exposure to electronical devices which can drive anxiety
How a Nutritionist can help?
The right nutrition will support the function of your brain and digestive system. Nutritional therapy which takes into account your individual needs can complement other therapies and approaches you are using to manage your mental health.
It’s worth noting that if you are taking any medication for mental health you should consult with your health provider as some foods may interact with certain medication.
In this TED talk, nutritionist, microbiologist and neuroscientist Ruairi Robertson discusses the link between our gut and our brain.
- L. Owen and B. Corfe (2017), “The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing”, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 76(4), pp. 425-426. Available: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/role-of-diet-and-nutrition-on-mental-health-and-wellbeing/372284768DB78DB02EB199E277AABF79
- 2. Jacka, FN, Mykletun, A& Berk, M(2012) “Moving towards a population health approach to the primary prevention of common mental disorders”. BMC Med 10, 149. Available:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3534562/
- E. Selhub (2020), “Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain food” Available: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
- F. Gomez-Pinilla (2008), “Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function”, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9(7) pp.568-578. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/
- Y. Li, et al. (2017), “Dietary patterns and depression risk: a meta-analysis”, Psychiatry Research 253, pp. 373-382 Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178117301981?via%3Dihub
- A. Aubrey and R. Chatterjee (2019), “Changing your diet can help tamp down depression, boost mood”. Available: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/10/09/768665411/changing-your-diet-can-help-tamp-down-depression-boost-mood?t=1643108800180
- R.A.H. Adan, et al. (2019) “Nutritional psychiatry: towards improving mental health by what you eat.” European Neuropsychopharmacology, 29(12), pp.1321-1332. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924977X19317237?via%3Dihub