Food for your mood: nutrition’s role in mental health

The Vitl Nutrition Team / 4 May 2022

Our in-house nutritionist gives tips on how to use nutrition to improve and balance our mood.


The link between nutrition and mood

Have you heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’? Well, there is more truth in that than you may expect. In order to be fit and healthy, we need to eat a balanced diet, rich in micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, but also macronutrients like protein, carbs and healthy fats to help our body function optimally. For example, to repair and maintain our muscles, we need protein (best sources are meat, fish, dairy, beans & pulses) and to produce certain ‘mood related’ hormones such as serotonin, endorphins, melatonin, dopamine (to name a few!), we need amino acids like tryptophan and nutrients like magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and others. 

Mental health is an important pillar in our wellbeing, however it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves in comparison to, for example, physical health. But these two are inseparably linked; the body is an intricate machine working holistically, that works optimally with the right fuel (read: nutrition!).

Gut health and mood

Further to the micro- and macronutrients we ingest from our diet, which play a key role in the synthesis, activation and increase of our ‘happy’ hormones, our gut’s health can also affect our mood. Our intestines house many millions of gut-friendly bacteria known as microflora that have an impact on different functions in the body. Aside from digesting and breaking down our food, they help train our immune system (70% of our immune system is found in the gut) and can produce hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin which influence both our mood and our gastrointestinal activity.

The link between our gut and brain health is bi-directional. This phenomenon is known as the gut-brain-axis. If we feel stressed, our digestion will not function as well as it could. Clinical evidence suggests that our bacteria have a direct role to play here. Studies have shown that individuals with a gut dysbiosis (imbalance in their microflora) are more likely to develop mood disorders than those with a balanced microflora.

Key tips to help you improve and balance your mood:

Maintain a healthy microflora

By eating healthy nutritious foods full of fibre, you are providing food for your friendly gut bugs as they feed off vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses etc. You are ensuring that the population of the good bacteria keeps thriving, whereas by consistently eating foods that lack fibre, you are enabling the bad ones to overpopulate and cause issues such as inflammation. This is because your microbiome influences the balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses in your digestive system and throughout your immune system. Opting for products that contain those live friendly bacteria like yogurt, kefir, kimchi or other fermented foods is also highly recommended to keep the balance in your gut in check.

Control your blood glucose levels

If you are experiencing frequent energy drops throughout the day which can potentially affect your mood, it might be a sign that you need to control your blood glucose levels. Try to prioritise Low Glycaemic Index (LGI) carbohydrate foods over highly sugary foods that you might turn to for a quick energy fix. LGI foods such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables and lentils provide you with a slow release of energy throughout the day, instead of energy peaks and then crashes. Furthermore, as glucose is the main fuel of our brain, poor blood sugar control has been shown to cause irritability, anxiety, and worry - in other words, it will make you feel hangry!

Consume those healthy fats

Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts are vital for normal brain function and development. They are involved in the regulation of your serotonin system, and seem to enhance serotonin secretion and the activation of the serotonin receptors in your brain. There is also evidence suggesting that they can help alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions, so topping up your diet with those essential fats is key to help your brain function optimally!

Get enough B vitamins

Make sure to follow a diet rich in B vitamins. B vitamins are involved in a number of physiological functions, from normal energy release from foods, to reduction of tiredness and fatigue and normal mental and cognitive performance. B vitamins can be found in a variety of foods, from meat and poultry to green leafy vegetables and fruit, but vitamin B12 can only be obtained from meat. If you are vegan or vegetarian, supplementation is often recommended. 

Top up your diet with magnesium

Being involved in more than 300 processes in the body, magnesium plays a key role in energy production and the regulation of certain mood-related neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin, melatonin and cortisol (our stress hormone). Magnesium can be found in abundance in nuts, spinach, avocados and soy.

Eat foods that increase your serotonin levels

Known as the ‘happy hormone’, serotonin is a brain chemical involved in the regulation of sleep, appetite and mood. It is produced by using tryptophan which is an essential amino acid found in turkey, chicken, tuna, salmon, oats, sesame and chia seeds as well as a few nuts. 

Key takeaway

More research is needed to understand the mechanisms that link food and mental wellbeing and to determine how and when nutrition can be used to improve mental health. Although ‘we are what we eat’, the state of our mental health is a reflection of many different factors; from our diet and nutritional choices to our genetic, hormonal make-up and various psychological and environmental factors that can affect our mood and welfare. Be mindful of that, and never hesitate to reach out for help if you feel the need to. 

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