Believe it or not, what and how you eat can positively affect your mood, helping to calm anxiety, balance mood swings and allay anger. It can even help improve symptoms of depression.
The link between food and mental health is not a new one. Indeed, it has been explored for many years. Nutritionists and naturopathic doctors preach that vegetables, particularly greens rich in folate and other beneficial nutrients, stimulate the release of serotonin, dopamine and other compounds which help our body and mind relax.
Fermented foods which regulate intestinal flora can also help us better deal with stress, while offering protection against neurotoxicity and reactive oxygen species.
In this article, we'll summarise the best foods to eat and avoid for improved mental health.
What foods to avoid
Anything that floods your bloodstream with sugar, encouraging blood sugar spikes, mood swings and ‘hanger’ is a no-go.
It doesn’t just affect your moods and energy in the short term, but eating this way in the long-term can lead to depression and chronic anxiety, as well as conditions such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, cellular ageing, poor skin and weight gain.
When your blood sugar spikes, it then rapidly drops. You get a quick burst of energy, then suddenly feel zapped, cranky, moody, less tolerant and less able to deal with stressful situations. You also start to crave the same carby, sugary foods that made you feel that way in the first place, as your body wants an energy hit – fast.
The more sugar you eat, the more you need, and before you know it, you’re in an energy burst/crash loop which over time becomes less energy and more crash as your hormones are thrown into chaos. (Following a diabetic diet sheet can help.)
Foods that cause sugar spikes include processed, refined carbohydrates, sugary foods such as breakfast cereals, crisps, chips, fries, pizza, muffins, cakes, biscuits, cereal bars, sweets, pastries, pasties, syrups and jams.
Anything made with white grains like white rice, bread, pasta and crackers should be avoided as well as condiments containing hidden sugars including tomato ketchup, brown sauce, relish and hoisin sauce.
Drinks like fruit juice, fizzy pop, energy drinks which are loaded with sugar and caffeine, coffee and tea can upset your blood sugar levels too.
As well as giving you a sugar rush, alcohol can disturb your sleep, compounding low mood and depression.
To help combat high-sugar levels, stick to a natural whole food diet including plenty of fibre, brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables, healthy fats and proteins, trading simple carbohydrates for complex ones.
This will also provide nutrients to feed your brain, nourish your nervous system and balance hormones – all helping with cognitive function and mood.
Don’t buy anything with a long list of ingredients. Scrutinise food labels and be suspicious of words you don’t understand. Simply put, it’s not real food.
Here are eleven helpful foods and habits to feed your brain, keep your blood sugar balanced, and keep you and your mood on an even keel.
1) Drink plenty of water
Did you know that our brains are made up of 80% water? So when we’re dehydrated, it negatively affects our brain function clouding our judgement, concentration and focus.
If you’re dealing with chronic stress, low mood or depression and not drinking enough water, you’ll most likely find it much harder to deal with life’s challenges.
Research has shown that increasing water intake can positively impact your sleep/wake moods as well as generate feelings of calmness and satisfaction while boosting positive emotions.
Studies also show that drinking adequate amounts of water can reduce your risk of depression and anxiety. It can also enhance your memory, cognition and concentration, and decrease headaches.
We are all different, and there is no set amount of water that we should drink. However, as a general guide, aim for 2 litres or 8 x 8oz glasses a day.
The quality of water you drink is incredibly important too, as these days our water can contain a surprising number of contaminants like oestradiol, a type of oestrogen from the oral contraceptive pill, other pharmaceutical residues, lead, and fluoride.
Tap water also has a higher pH, meaning it is less alkaline. Alkaline water is more hydrating and helps to neutralise the acid in our bodies. It is also rich in antioxidants and minerals.
Check out our top-notch range of alkaline water filters.
2) Healthy protein
Proteins are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of life. We need protein to survive, and it is a critical component of every cell in the body. It helps to grow and maintain muscles, bones and connective tissues, providing the structure and framework of our bodies.
Protein also contributes to several bodily functions including energy production, immune support, the making of hormones and enzymes, muscle contraction and digestion.
Proteins balance blood sugar by slowing the breakdown of carbohydrates. They also keep you feeling satiated, staving your appetite and curbing sugar cravings.
Ensure you’re eating healthy protein such as fish, lean meat, eggs, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds with every meal and snack. If it’s a struggle to meet your daily recommended intake, consider using a protein powder.
3) Oily fish and other healthy fats
Omega-3 fats are crucial for brain function. They are considered essential for feeding the brain and boosting mood, with low levels leaving you more susceptible to depression.
Omega-3 fats can increase dopamine levels, improving mood, alertness and concentration, and they can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain.
There’s much research supporting the role of healthy fats in depression and anxiety, particularly the EPA and DHA found in oily fish. It’s best to eat fatty fish three times a week to ensure you’re getting enough.
Alternatively, you could consider taking a good quality fish oil.
Omega-3 rich foods include as shellfish, walnuts and other nuts, seeds such as linseeds, chia, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables, seaweed and algae.
4) Swap white grains for brown whole grains
One of the best things you can do is exchange ‘simple carbohydrate’ white grains for brown ‘complex carbohydrate’ whole grains, such as brown bread, pasta, and rice.
These contain plenty of fibre and have a lower glycaemic load than white grains, helping to balance blood sugar, providing a slow, steady energy release, which in turn helps to balance mood and discourage energy slumps.
Because these are whole grains which haven’t had their outer layer stripped, they are higher in fibre and more nutrient-dense, they ‘feed’ your body and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Some other excellent complex carbohydrate choices would be oats, quinoa, beans and lentils.
5) Eat foods high in soluble fibre
Scientists examining data on 46,000 people found that meals which were high in vegetables and fibre were key to reducing “depressive symptoms”.
Food sources of fibre include beans, legumes, oats, nuts, seeds, pears, apples, avocados and most vegetables.
Soluble fibre slows digestion, helping to regulate blood sugar balance and mood.
6) Eat foods containing tryptophan
Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. It also aids sleep and regulates mood.
Eating foods containing the amino acid tryptophan can help to increase this happy hormone.
Regularly include foods like nuts, seeds, organic tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, oats, beans, lentils and eggs.
7) Feed your gut
Did you know that your gut health affects your brain health and vice versa? This is known as the gut/brain axis. So looking after your gut health is essential if you want to maintain healthy brain function and improve mood.
It is commonly believed that depleted serotonin levels in the brain are linked to low mood and depression but, interestingly, there is more serotonin in your gut than your brain!
Early research suggests that gut-based serotonin may also have an impact on mood. One of the best ways to nurture your digestive serotonin is to look after your gut health: consume plenty of fibre, and eat both pre and probiotic foods every day to encourage lots of healthy gut bacteria.
Prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, leeks (raw as well as cooked), asparagus, apples, underripe bananas, sweet potatoes, oats, chicory and legumes. Probiotic foods include raw fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, kefir, kombucha, full-fat natural yogurt, organic tempeh and miso.
You might also consider taking a high-strength probiotic.
8) Eat foods high in zinc
Zinc is one of the most abundant trace minerals in the brain, and low levels have been linked to depression.
It’s also vital for healthy brain function, memory and learning, and regulating your mood. We can easily become deficient in zinc as our bodies don’t store it, so we need to stock up regularly.
Foods that contain zinc include oysters and other seafood like mussels, shrimp and crab, beans including butter beans, almonds and pine nuts, leg meat from chicken and turkey, lean red meat, hemp seeds, lentils, eggs, oats, quinoa and whole wheat.
9) Prioritise magnesium
Nature’s tranquilliser, magnesium calms the nervous system, helps you to relax, buffers the adverse effects of stress, balances your mood and relieves the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Your body uses magnesium for a multitude of functions, and it’s not uncommon to have insufficient levels as a result of poor diet and depleted minerals in the soil due to industrialised farming methods.
If you’re stressed or depressed, your body will pull on your magnesium stores more intensely, so it’s vital to stock up every single day by eating foods such as dark leafy greens, avocado, almonds, pumpkin seeds, beans including broad beans, tuna, mackerel, brown rice, dried figs, natural yoghurt and bananas.
If you’re under chronic stress, have low mood, poor sleep, anxiety or depression, it may be beneficial to take a magnesium supplement.
You can also absorb magnesium through your skin by having a lovely soak or foot bath in Epsom salts. Try doing it a few nights a week as a relaxation practice before bedtime. It will also help you to drift off to a peaceful sleep.
10) Stock up on B vitamins
B vitamins help you to cope better with the effects of stress, improve energy and help to balance low mood. Eating a balanced and diverse wholefood diet should provide you with adequate levels of all the B vitamins: think dark leafy greens, eggs, avocado, shellfish, chicken, beef liver, beans, salmon, mackerel, sweet potatoes and asparagus.
If you are vegetarian and particularly vegan, you may struggle to get enough vitamin B12 as it is mainly found in meat, animal liver and kidneys, seafood, fish and milk. Some foods are fortified with it, such as nutritional yeast, but taking a supplement could be advantageous.
11) Take a vitamin D supplement
Several studies have revealed that depressed patients can have significantly low levels of vitamin D, and high doses have also been shown to help improve depression symptoms.
It’s hard to obtain vitamin D from food, and we mostly make it ourselves from sun exposure. It’s wise to spend lots of time outside during summertime (although take care not to burn), exposing as much of your skin as possible for short bursts.
During the autumn and winter, it’s necessary to supplement with it. If you are concerned that your levels are low, get tested by your GP. Otherwise, Public Health England recommends adults and children over the age of one take over 10mcg of vitamin D daily during the winter months.
The Vitamin D Council, meanwhile, suggests supplementing with 5,000 i.u. daily.
So there you have it – food really can improve your mood. If this article seems overwhelming, choose one or two things from the list and see if you notice a difference.
It’s not unusual to make a small number of significant changes and notice a substantial upturn in your moods, sleep, stress response, concentration and focus.
If you don’t have enough of it, just drinking more water could revolutionise the way you feel.
This article is written by Rebecca Rychlik-Cunning, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
One of the best ways to nurture digestive serotonin is to look after your gut health: consume plenty of fibre and eat both pre and probiotic foods every day. #guthealth #brainhealth