Emerging research suggests your dietary choices can have a profound impact on your mental wellbeing.
We all know that food and drink can affect our mood. Ever had a sugar high after eating a chocolate bar? A buzz after your third cup of coffee? And what about alcohol? The impact of a boozy night on our cognition and emotions is undeniable.
These are dramatic, immediately noticeable effects, but our food also affects us in more profound ways. This is because the nutrients in food play a key role in our biochemical functioning, thus affecting our day-to-day mood from a cellular level.
Nutritional psychiatry is a new area of research, but the evidence base is rapidly building. In fact, one study found that dietary counselling was as effective as psychotherapy at stopping depression from getting worse .
So what do we know so far?
How does food affect your mood?
Your body is a dynamic, hyper-connected entity. This means that everything you put into your body affects its functioning to some degree.
Although we don’t yet know all the mechanisms, we know that food and emotions interact through several pathways:
Your immune system. The gut is the seat of your immune system. This means that both diet and the integrity of a person’s gut are often implicated and in chronic, low-grade inflammation—a known risk factor for depression and low moods .
Your gut microbiome. The mass of bacteria and other microorganisms that lives in your intestines regulates many of the messages that travel between your gut and your brain. The food you eat is key to determining the ‘shape’ of your microbiome, which determines the nature of these messages—and therefore your mood .
Your hormones. There are lots of hormones involved in the digestion process, but a key player is insulin. Foods that cause a spike in insulin (and a subsequent drop in blood sugar) lead to the release of adrenalin and cortisol, which can make us feel stressed or anxious .
Your brain. Your brain is a very demanding organ. It needs a regular supply of energy and micronutrients in order to function appropriately . On a very simple level, your brain function affects your thoughts, which in turn influence your emotions.
Of course, all these pathways interact as well (i.e. your gut microbiome also affects your immune system; your brain affects your hormonal function), so the interplay between food and mood becomes even more complex.
However, the good news is that these multi-faceted pathways can be influenced by very simple approaches.
Which foods can improve your mood?
The key thing to remember is that your entire body needs a steady supply of nutrients (vitamins, minerals and also phytochemicals) in order to function at its best. These are found in abundance in any diet that’s based on whole, natural foods.
When it comes to boosting your mood, it’s helpful to pay particular attention to some foods or food groups:
Oily fish. These are a rich source of omega-3 fats, particularly EPA, which have been found to elevate mood . A therapeutic dose is just 1.5–2g of EPA daily, which is the amount found in a single serving of mackerel or salmon.
Protein. Along with fish, it’s a good idea to eat a regular supply of protein-rich foods: meat, poultry, eggs, pulses, legumes and dairy if you tolerate it. Your body use the smallest units of proteins (known as amino acids) to make neurotransmitters. Turkey can be a good choice as it’s particularly rich in tryptophan, the amino acid that’s used to make the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter serotonin . Your digestive health is important here too, as the majority of serotonin is actually made in the gut.
Nuts and seeds. These tend to be good sources of minerals, such as zinc, which play a supporting role in the production of neurotransmitters. Brazil nuts also contain the mineral selenium, which has been found to affect mood .
Vegetables. They influence your mood in several ways:
- They contain fibre, which helps to slow the digestion of food. This in turn prevents those insulin and cortisol surges that can lead to low moods .
- This fibre also feeds the good bacteria in our intestines. The bacteria turn this fibre into short-chain fatty acids—special substances that helps to dial down that mood-zapping inflammation .
- The phytonutrients in vegetables can also have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. These work through a variety of mechanisms, even affecting DNA expression .
- They are also rich in many B vitamins, which are essential for creating and sustaining a positive mood .
- Green, leafy vegetables are rich in magnesium. A deficiency of this mineral has been linked to depression .
As you can see, eating a wide variety of colourful vegetables is one of the most powerful things you can do for your mental wellbeing—and your health in general. Aim to eat at least two heaped handfuls with every meal.
Probiotic foods. Research here is in its early stages, but initial studies have suggested that certain probiotics can help to reduce feelings of anxiety . For specific applications, you’ll need to take supplements, but for a general approach you can also include fermented foods in your diet. Good choices include sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir.
Which foods can worsen your mood?
Just as some foods can have a positive effect on your mood, others can detract from it. In order to maintain a contented, balanced state of mind, it’s best to limit your consumption of the following:
Sugar. Too much sugar can lead to hormonal chaos, which has a dramatic impact on your feelings and emotions . Take an honest look at your diet, and see where you could reduce your sugar intake. For many people, reducing sweet drinks and products made with white flour is a good place to start. You can also experiment with healthier treats.
Trans fats. These are artificial fats that the body can’t process properly, and they’ve been found to induce inflammation . They’re typically found in processed foods such as biscuits, pies and cakes (especially those with icing).
Caffeine. While some people tolerate caffeine well, for others it can lead to low yet persistent levels of anxiety . Keep an eye on your coffee and tea intake, and opt for sparkling water instead of caffeinated fizzy drinks.
Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol puts a huge burden on your detoxification function, as well as causing hormonal disruption. It can also affect gut integrity, which has a knock-on effect on your immune system. As you’ve learnt, all these factors come together to influence mood over the long-term. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy a glass of wine again—but you should know your limits.
Food intolerances. If a person is sensitive to a particular food, such as gluten, regular consumption of that food may contribute to ongoing inflammation and a low mood . These will differ from individual to individual. You may wish to work with a Functional Medicine Practitioner to find out to tailor your diet.
There’s no denying that the food we eat can have an enormous impact on our mood—but it’s not the only factor. Many of the foundational habits for good health will contribute to a contented mood: prioritising sleep; exercising appropriately; making time for relaxation; cultivating good relationships and getting the correct exposure to sunlight. The more of these we can incorporate, the better we’ll feel.
For personalised support, please feel free to get in touch.
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The London Clinic of Nutrition is a multi-disciplined health practice offering personalised nutritional medicine and naturopathy using the functional medicine approach.
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