Nutrition and Mental Health: Many of us are well aware of the benefits that eating a balanced diet has on our physical health, but do you know how it benefits our mental health? More and more research is coming to light on the impact food has on both our overall mental wellness, as well as specific mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
Here we’ll take a closer look at how food and mood are related, what role our gut health has and how a nutrition professional can support you.
Food and mood – what’s the link?
Eating a diet that is well-rounded and nutrient-rich can help to improve mood, increase energy levels and help you think clearer. There are several elements at play here, from the amount of carbohydrate you eat to the way deficiencies in vitamins and minerals affect mental health. Let’s start by looking at the importance of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates and eating regularly
In order for your brain to be able to concentrate and focus, it needs energy (20% of all energy needed by the body is used by the brain). This energy comes from blood glucose, and the glucose in our blood comes from the carbohydrates we eat.
When we don’t have enough energy for the brain, we can feel weak, tired and unable to think clearly. Ensuring you eat regular meals containing some carbohydrates will help with this. Alongside starchy foods like pasta and rice, sources of carbohydrates include:
- lower fat dairy
When your blood glucose rises and falls rapidly, it can have an impact on mood, making you feel irritable, low and even triggering symptoms of anxiety. Keeping your blood glucose levels steady throughout the day is key. Try foods that release energy slowly like oats, cereals, nuts and seeds, and aim to eat smaller portions spaced out throughout the day.
Proteins and fats
Alongside the energy it gets from carbohydrates, your brain needs amino acids to help regulate thoughts and feelings. As protein contains amino acids, it’s important to get enough of this in your diet. Protein is found in lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, cheese, soya products and legumes.
Some people may be under the impression that all fat is bad for us, but this isn’t the case. Fatty acids, like omega-3 and omega-6, are essential for our brains to function well. Healthy fats can be found in nuts, seeds, oily fish, poultry, avocados, dairy products and eggs.
Our focus on low-fat diets may have also inadvertently affected our mental well-being. The brain is around 60% fat and omega 3 fatty acids are important for neurons to communicate effectively.
Vitamins and minerals
When we don’t get enough of certain vitamins and minerals, both our physical and mental health can suffer. The best way to ensure you’re getting enough of the vitamins and minerals you need is to eat a varied and balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables. For some, a supplement may be needed, but be sure to check this with your doctor or a nutrition professional.
Iron: A lack of iron can lead you to feel weak, tired and lethargic. Foods rich in iron include red meat, poultry, fish, beans and pulses and fortified cereals.
B vitamins: Not getting enough B1, B3 and B12 can make you feel low, tired and irritable. Animal protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and fortified cereals are rich in B vitamins.
Folate: When you don’t get enough folate you can be at a higher risk of feeling depressed. Folate can be found in green vegetables, citrus fruits, liver, beans and fortified foods like marmite.
Selenium: A selenium deficiency may increase the chance of feeling depressed and other negative mood states. Good sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, seeds, wholemeal bread, meat and fish.
A helpful way to make sure your diet is nutrient-rich is to ensure you’re getting at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
A note on caffeine – Caffeine is often a go-to when you need a burst of energy, but its stimulating properties can disturb your sleep and even trigger anxiety and depression symptoms. If you drink a lot of coffee, tea, cola or other energy drinks, you may want to try swapping them out for non-caffeinated drinks like herbal teas or enjoy decaf versions.
Hydration and nutrition go hand in hand, but the vast amount of information available can often overwhelm us and cause feelings of anxiety. For some, these feelings can be severe. Dehydration anxiety is a fear that you aren’t drinking adequate amounts of water. You may fear going anywhere without your water bottle. This fear can lead to high consumption of water – more than your body requires – which can lead to illness. The fear stems from not giving your body sufficient hydration to perform at its best. This chronic form of anxiety is closely linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and orthorexia.
Signs of dehydration anxiety include:
- monitoring your daily intake to the litre
- feeling a sense of dread when you don’t have your water bottle
- worrying about where to get water from, e.g. when shopping or travelling
- experiencing panic attacks when water isn’t immediately available
Nutritional therapy and hydration
The recommended six to eight-glasses-a-day advice (approx two litres) can be used as a general guideline for your water intake, alongside consideration of your individual dietary needs. The specific amount of hydration needed varies from person to person, so it’s important to tune into your whole lifestyle when considering how much water is sufficient hydration for you.
Other than listening to your thirst, another way to judge your water needs is via urine colour. Ideally, you want pale yellow urine – be aware that if you are taking Riboflavin (vitamin B2) this can make urine bright yellow. Many vegetables contain high water content and can be counted towards your daily intake including most fruit, cucumber, celery, lettuce, courgette, tomato, potato, cabbage and even foods like salmon and eggs if not over-cooked. If your intake of vegetables and fruit is low you will need to drink more to ensure you are getting enough.
If you are concerned you’re drinking too much water, or too little, it can be helpful to speak to a nutritional therapist who can work through your hydration needs.
Gut health and mental health
The link between our gut health and our mental health is becoming clearer. Often dubbed the ‘second brain’, our digestive system produces over 90% of all serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) in our body. Our gut can also affect immunity and resilience to stress, which can both have an effect on our mood. Having a healthy digestive system, in general, ensures we’re able to absorb vitamins, minerals and nutrients our brains need to thrive.
Often, when we’re feeling stressed or anxious, we’ll feel it in our gut. Digestion may speed up or slow down, depending on how we’re feeling. To keep your gut happy, ensure you eat plenty of fibre and get lots of fluid and regular exercise.
Fermented foods can give the good bacteria in our gut a boost, so try to incorporate these into your diet where possible. Other gut-friendly foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and pulses.
How diet affects mental wellness
There is a strong connection between nutrition and mental wellness but it is often overlooked. It seems strange to some people that their nutritional status could affect the way they think or feel. The brain is not an island and that which impacts physical health can also affect mental wellness.
With declining diet quality due to busy lifestyles, food manufacturing techniques and increased consumption of processed foods we are generally eating less nutrient-dense foods. Our focus on low-fat diets may have also inadvertently affected our mental well-being. The brain is around 60% fat and omega 3 fatty acids are important for neurons to communicate effectively.
Food quality is not the only factor influencing our nutritional status and affecting our mental well-being. Your current diet is important, but so is the composition of your gut flora and even your mother’s nutrient status during pregnancy. How well you are able to digest and absorb nutrients is a major factor in determining both physical and mental health.
Nutrient deficiencies can play a role in the development of depression and anxiety disorders. Tangible benefits are seen where deficiencies and imbalances are identified and corrected using personalised nutrition. Key nutrient deficiencies have been observed in patients with schizophrenia and major depressive disorder, these include omega 3, vitamin D and B12.
More recent research has looked at the role our gut flora play in mood issues. Our understanding about how our the gut flora and mental health are linked is beginning to grow.
Certain strains of gut bacteria have the capacity to create inflammation and could influence mental health via the vagus nerve. Current research is pointing to a strong relationship between chronic inflammation and depression.
High homocysteine levels have been identified in people diagnosed with schizophrenia. High homocysteine can be a consequence of poor methylation, a biochemical process that relies on specific nutrients and is affected by specific lifestyle issues. Poor methylation can also be a factor in depression.
Medication and your diet
It’s worth noting that if you’re taking a certain medication for your mental health, there may be some foods you need to avoid. Be sure to speak to your doctor about any medications you’re taking and ask about any dietary changes you may need to make.
How a nutritionist can help
Mental health and wellness require a holistic approach. Eating a balanced diet that contains the nutrients your brain and gut needs can complement other therapies and approaches you’re using to manage mental health.
To ensure you’re getting the right foods for your particular circumstances, it can help to seek professional support from a nutritionist. They will be able to talk to you about your needs, take into account your individual requirements and tailor a diet plan to suit you.
On the face of it, our diets may seem to be sufficient but our digestion, absorption, health history and inherited health traits can affect the amount of nutrients our body needs. One or more of these factors can tip the balance towards poor mental health. A personalised approach to diet and lifestyle can also help you regain physical and mental well-being.
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