Food & Mood: Nutrition and Mental Health
What comes to mind when you think of the connection between nutrition and our mental health?
Although a very complex relationship, when it comes to nutrition and mental health, the main point I try to make is that nutrition and mental health are highly intertwined. When one is compromised, it is likely that the other is as well.
As an example, when we feel depressed or anxious, our appetite is usually decreased, so our intake goes down. We are usually less motivated to cook & prepare food, so when we do eat, we are likely to choose more convenience foods and make poor food choices such as more convenience foods, more stimulants (such as sugar and caffeine), and take-out foods. But these foods tend to be less nutrient dense and can make us feel less than optimal, and so this can lead to a vicious cycle.
In today’s article, let’s discuss the key nutrition factors for good mental health, and review why what we eat and how we eat has a major impact on our mood, mind and overall wellbeing.
What is mental health?
According to the World Health Organization, “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Getting the right type and amounts of nutrients supports our mental health because:
1) Support brain health, and prevent damage to our brain (damage can cause loss of memory, slower processing and thinking)
2) Build neurotransmitters (aka brain chemicals) and help to keep them in balance and working properly
About the brain….
The brain is made of billions of nerve cells, called neurons. Communication between neurons allows the brain to work – communication occurs through an electric or chemical signal between brain cells.
The chemicals that carry the signals are called neurotransmitters, such as:
Serotonin: Sleep, calmness & relaxation. Known as the “happy chemical” – low levels are associated with depression.
Dopamine: "feel good hormone', supports attention, alertness, pleasure & motivation
GABA: regulates anxiety & stress, calmness, sleep
Nor-epinepherine: A stress hormone; involved in “fight or flight” response. Aids in attention & focus.
Endorphins: Comfort, well-being, pleasure & euphoria.
And many more!
In order for our body to build these neurotransmitters, we need adequate nutrition to supply the building blocks (protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals) and have them work properly.
Further, we need adequate nutrition to support the structure and integrity of our brain.
So what do we need to focus on to support this?
Protein is the building block for so many different parts of our bodies; muscle cells, hormones, enzymes, and yes, neurotransmitters. Protein foods such as lean meats (skinless turkey, chicken), dairy (yogurt, milk, eggs, cheese), and certain plant-based foods (almonds, nuts, seeds, lentils, chickpeas, beans) contain high levels of the amino acid tryptophan, which is used to make the neurotransmitter Serotonin (2). Serotonin is the “happy hormone” which helps us to maintain a positive, good mood.
Protein is also essential for cell and muscle building and maintaining overall health. Simply ensuring you are consuming good quality, protein rich foods throughout the day can go a long way in terms of mental and physical health. Aim to include a protein rich food with every meal and snack.
B vitamins are some of the essential nutrients that help with brain and nerve health, and are also involved in making neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, and melatonin (4).
Can you name them all? The B-Vitamins include B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate) and B12 (cyanocobalamin).
The role of the B vitamins in mental health and brain functioning is most clearly displayed when there is any sort of deficiency (aka clinically low levels) of these vitamins. Often, neurological symptoms like depression or reduction in cognition (thinking, memory) are the first to appear. Thiamine deficiency often presents with irritability and poor memory. Niacin deficiency can result in disorientation and apathy. Research even suggests a correlation between folate/B12 deficiency and the incidence of depression (5).
So are you getting enough? Food sources of B-vitamins include whole grains, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and lean meats. The key here is variety: having a mix of fruits and veg, nuts and seeds, and different grains (quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, etc.) every day can help you to get enough of the different B-Vitamins.
Note: I generally recommend food first for the B-vitamins, rather than purchasing a supplement such as a B-complex. However, if you are vegan or vegetarian, have restricted food choices, are over the age of 50, or taking medications that reduce absorption, you may need a supplement for vitamin B12. You may require a supplement for the other B-vitamins depending on your needs, but this should be something (as with other nutrients) to be discussed with your dietitian to see what you might be lacking in.
Support your Gut Health
Did you know that the brain and gut are highly connected? The gut is referred to as our “second brain”. Our gut (digestive tract) is closely connected and constantly communicating with our brain, known as the “gut-brain axis”.
Our gut is full of bacteria - what we eat over a long period of time influences the type or cluster of bacteria we have – ideally we want a diverse and robust gut microbiome. Evidence has shown that a healthy gut and diverse microbiome is associated with better mental health. The relationship is fascinating - the brain and the gut are in constant communication through blood vessels and neurotransmitters. Over 90% of serotonin (our happy hormone) is produced in the gut, and our intestinal cells contain receptors to usher serotonin to the brain. In regards to our gut bacteria, there are theories emerging that our gut bacteria can produce beneficial or harmful byproducts depending on what we feed them. These byproducts can actually travel to the brain and impact our mental health. On the other hand, stress and anxiety can cause changes in our digestion which may negatively impact gut bacteria.
But what is a healthy gut? Though not a well-defined term, it essentially refers to a wide diversity of beneficial bacteria, an intestinal lining that is free from damage, and a strong ability to absorb and digest nutrients. The best way we can support the health of our gut is to consume enough fiber by having a mix of different plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes) in our daily diet. These foods help to keep waste moving through, and support the proliferation of our good bacteria. Probiotics can also help promote the health of our gut flora and are found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Drinking lots of water to help foods move through, limiting caffeine intake (no more than 2-3 coffees/day) (3), and managing stress are other ways to practice good gut hygiene.
Did you know brain is made up of about 60% fat? 20% is from “essential fatty acids” meaning we have to get these fats from food we eat – our body cannot produce them. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fats – key for structure of brain cells and & smooth communication In today’s diets, most get plenty Omega-6 fats, but not enough Omega-3 fats to support a healthy brain.
Omega-3 fats, specifically EPA and DHA, help to reduce inflammation and prevent damage in the brain. DHA is important for structure of brain cells (neurons)– if we don’t have enough, other fats can take its place, a problem if they are unhealthy fats (eg. trans fat). EPA omega-3 fats are key for neuron function, which helps with blood flow so brain can get the oxygen & nutrients it needs easier. EPA fats also help to regulate inflammation.
The best sources of EPA and DHA fats are cold-water fatty fish (salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, herring). Seafood also contains some omega-3, as well as fortified foods such as eggs. We can also obtain these fats from marine algae, in the form of supplements.
It has been found that the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in the body is important for the formation of neurotransmitters and the proper functioning of the brain. One study showed that severely depressed patients were more likely to have higher concentration of omega-6 fatty acids and a lower concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the body (6). Lower intakes of omega-3 fats have also been linked with neuropsychiatric conditions (such as Alzheimers, dementia, mood disorders) and adequate omega-3 may help reduce anxiety.
For brain health, we recommend at least 1g per day of omega-3 (EPA and DHA) per day, or with food this would be at least 3 servings (3 oz = 1 serving) of fatty fish per week,Vegans or vegetarians, or those who may benefit from higher intake (history of depression, risk for dementia/Alzheimer’s, inflammation), may consider a supplement (algae or fish-based). *
Not only what we eat, but how we eat is important for our mental health and well-being.
Our eating patterns can also have a very important role in our mood, energy levels, ability to cope with stress, and more.
Eat regularly throughout the day
Simple but so true… What happens when you go too long without eating? You become hungry, irritable, and often more likely to make poor food choices. Sticking to a pattern of eating every 3-4 hours (and include a source of protein when you do!) can help to keep blood sugar levels stable and prevent dips in energy.
When you eat, do you set aside time to sit down and enjoy your food? Taking the time to slow down and chew your food can help you to digest it better (which means, yes, a healthier gut and better absorption of nutrients). Further, taking time out when we eat can be a major stress reliever. Instead of rushing to eat your meals and/or eating with distractions (ie. TV, social media, checking emails), practice mindful eating; put the distractions away, slow down, and savour your food.
Diet and eating patterns play a major role in our mood and mental health. Of course, there are many more complex factors that influence mental health; stress, financial status, family upbringing, the environment, and other social determinants of health all play a role. Further, it is easier said than done to purchase healthy foods, eat lean proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, drink clean water, etc. when budget, time, and access are limited.
At the end of the day however, I always preach that food is essentially our best means of self-care. What you choose to put into your body will influence how you feel both physically and mentally. If you prioritize consuming enough fruits and vegetables and eating regularly throughout the day, you may be amazed by the difference proper nutrition can make for your health and wellbeing.
Hope you enjoyed today’s post!
Until next time,
*Please consult with your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.
Edited by Yumi Chow, Nutrition Student