Food and mental health are closely related. Mood boosting foods for depression are known to improve mental health for being rich in nutrients that boost the chemical process that produce wellness hormones in our brains.
There’s a common little saying that “you are what you eat.”
Food is our major way of getting essential nutrients and energy into our bodies, so that our cells can carry out the essential functions that keep us alive and healthy.
We all know that a good, balanced diet rich in various fruits and vegetables is important in promoting good health. On the contrary, we also know eating nutrient-poor, fatty, greasy, or poorly balanced diet can lead to poor health.
But there are known links between mood and food – our diet impacts on our mental health and cognitive functioning.
Food and mental health are closely related
One of the obvious links between our diet and mental health is our self-esteem. A poor diet, rich in fried or fast foods, tends to lead to weight gain and obesity. It can also lead to poor skin, either in the form of oily skin and pimples, or as dry, flakey skin.
These can all have an impact on our self-esteem and our sense of self-worth. However, it should be noted that this link is not always black and white, and our concept of self-esteem is much broader than our perception of appearance or attractiveness.
First and foremost, food is our major energy source. The foods that we eat contain a combination of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, which are broken down by the cells of the body to provide energy.
Carbohydrates in particular are the primary energy source, and are broken down slowly to release sugars. Surprisingly, our brain is responsible for around 20% of our energy expenditure at rest. Therefore, it is essential we give ourselves the right forms of energy to assist healthy cognitive and mental functioning. The neurons found in the brain prefer to use glucose, a type of sugar, as an energy source.
You may have heard about the glycemic index (or GI). In essence, it is a scale of how quickly sugars are released into the bloodstream. Pure sugars are released quickly, leading to a spike in blood sugar concentration. In contrast, carbohydrates such as starch, are broken down slowly, and don’t lead to this spike.
Our body is the master of balance, and always has a method of keeping it in balance. When our blood sugars rise rapidly, insulin is release from the pancreas, which instructs cells to absorb sugar and store it, dropping the amount of sugar in the blood down again.
You can feel this when you eat a lot of sugar, such as lollies. When blood sugar rises, we tend to feel giddy and excited, a sensation known as a “sugar high”. But when our sugar levels drop once more, we feel exhausted and unable to focus.
A diet rich in simple sugars also leads to “oxidative stress” and inflammation throughout the body. Multiple studies have shown diets high in processed and sugary foods are strongly correlated with impaired brain function and mood disorders.
Eating foods with complex carbohydrates (bread, starchy vegetables like potato and pumpkin) provides sustainable energy that helps your brain function optimally throughout the day.
Another significant aspect of diet is nutrition. We talk a great deal about vitamins and minerals, and although most of us understand they are important, we don’t always know why. Vitamins are organic compounds that act as co-factors for a number of biological processes.
The B-group vitamins are important co-factors that help our cells extract energy from the fats, carbohydrates and proteins that we eat. In particular, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are essential for our brain cells to function normally. When we run low on B-group vitamins, we often feel lethargic and irritable, but can also experience depression and anxiety.
B-group vitamins come from a range of foods, but are generally found in green leafy vegetables, eggs, dairy products, chickpeas, wholegrain and cereals, and meat. Importantly, vitamin B12 is found only in meat products (red meat, fish), eggs, and dairy products. Anybody on a vegetarian or vegan diet is at risk of developing a B12 deficiency.
Our dietary minerals are a group of inorganic ions, like iron and magnesium, that are used by the body in various ways, often incorporating them for use in enzymes. When it comes to mood and mental health, magnesium appears to have an important role to play.
There is a well-documented link between low magnesium levels and depression, although the specific mechanism involved isn’t properly understood yet. A diet rich in nuts and legumes, (almonds, cashews, peanuts), and spinach can help restore our proper levels of magnesium, and may help to alleviate depression.
Similarly, our omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in oily fish, flax seed oil and olive oil, can contribute to mental health. These fatty acids are well known for their anti-inflammatory properties that contribute to cardiovascular and joint health, but it is proposed they can also help reduce inflammation around the brain, that may in turn alleviate symptoms of depression.
Our moods and emotions are regulated, in part, but a group of neurotransmitters called monoamines. This group contains well-known compounds like serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline.
Serotonin, our “happy hormone” is produced in the brain (also in the gastrointestinal tract, although it doesn’t have any mood effects there) from an amino acid called tryptophan. This particular amino acid isn’t produced by the human body, and need to be consumed in food.
Low tryptophan can lead to reduced serotonin, which in turn can result in depression. Tryptophan is particularly plentiful in meat, eggs, dairy products, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and peanuts. It should be noted that while increasing tryptophan from low to normal levels can improve mood, there is no evidence that consuming excess tryptophan increases the amount of serotonin in the brain.
Finally, you’ve probably heard about antioxidants by now. These are complex compounds that help mop up free radicals, which are a byproduct of cellular energy production. Free radicals can damage cells, creating “oxidative stress” which can affect our mental functioning.
Antioxidants help to remove these free radicals before they become a problem, and allow the brain to operate efficiently. Antioxidants are found in most fresh fruits and vegetables, and in green tea.
Putting all of this information together, we can see how nutrition and mood are strongly linked.
A varied diet rich in different fruits, vegetables, dairy and eggs, with moderate amounts of meat and plant-based oils can help improve our mental health. In particular, the green leafy vegetables, like spinach, appear to be key “good mood foods”.
These types of food habits are typified in the Mediterranean diet and Japanese diet. Furthermore, both of these diets have a broad range of benefits for physical health, including cardiovascular health and reduced risk of certain cancers.
People who live on these diets are typically 25-30% less likely to have mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and usually live a longer and healthier life.
If you liked this article, keep reading the articles we have prepared for you about mental health.