Did you know that the food we choose to eat on a daily basis can have a direct impact on our mental health? The neurons in our brain are continually changing and developing, part of which is a result of the nutrients they receive on a daily basis from the foods we eat, and the messages they receive from our gut bacteria.
Every time we eat we feed our gut bacteria. Our gut health has a fundamental role in not only our overall health but our mental health. Our microbiome is involved in making our neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, glutamate), making vitamins and supporting the normal inflammatory responses within our bodies. When our gut bacteria is unbalanced, it has a direct effect on our brain chemistry. Our gut sends messages through the vagus nerve which is like the nervous system superhighway that links to our brain.
Every time we eat we are either filling our body with vital nutrients it needs to thrive such as protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or, we fill it with foods which are low in nutritional value, which can cause inflammation and gut dysbiosis.
Studies have shown that refined sugar, and highly processed foods may not have the most positive effect on our mood. (1).
When focusing on clean and unprocessed wholefood we can feed our bodies at a cellular level. The nutrients found in fresh vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and good quality protein support optimum running biochemical processes within our bodies, which can positively influence our sense of wellbeing.
Wholefoods are loaded with essential macronutrients and micronutrient that affect our mental and emotional state. Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates and fats and micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.
How macronutrients affect our moods:
- Protein – provides our body with amino acids which are essential for neurotransmitters synthesis. The neurotransmitter dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine, and the neurotransmitter serotonin is made from the tryptophan (2). Protein-rich foods include organic eggs, meats, wild-caught fish, beans, legumes, lentils, tofu, tempeh.
- Carbohydrates – some studies demonstrated that complex carbohydrates can increase the level of a brain chemical serotonin which is associated with feelings of calm and relaxation (3). The best sources of carbohydrates to consume are complex carbs, such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, millet, potato, sweet potato, and pumpkin.
- Fats – healthy fats are essential for brain health. Recent research suggests naturally occurring saturated fats such as coconut oil may have a positive effect on mood and cognition (4). Some examples of good quality fats include coconut oil, MCT oil, avocado, coconut milk, coconut cream, nuts, seeds, and organic dairy products.
How micronutrients affect our moods:There are a few specific vitamins and minerals that may be helpful for moods, these include:
- B vitamins – are essential for our nervous system and supporting brain function. Deficiency in some B vitamins can be associated with anxiety (5). Foods rich in B-vitamins include wholegrains, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, organic meats, wild-caught fish.
- Vitamin D – is a mood-regulating vitamin and low levels have been associated with depression (6). The best way to increase vitamin D is by exposing a large area of your body into the sun for 15 minutes most days. Supplementation can be beneficial during winter months.
- Calcium – facilities the release of neurotransmitters (5). It can also be paired with vitamin D to help support mood fluctuations. The best food sources of calcium are organic dairy products, dark leafy greens, sardines, salmon, organic tofu.
- Iron – low levels of iron have been linked to feelings of fatigue and depression (5). Best food sources of iron include organic meats, lentils, dark leafy greens.
- Magnesium – deficiency can result in anxiety, irritability, mental confusion, fatigue (5). Best food sources can include nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate.
As you can see, there is a significant link between what we eat and how we feel. Reducing processed foods and consuming a wholefoods rich diet is the best way to ensure you get the right nutrients daily to feel your best!
Written by Natalie Brady
- Sanchez-Villegas A., Toledo E., De-Irala J., & Ruiz-Canela M. (2011). Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Publish Health Nutrition. doi: 10.1017/S1368980011001856.
- Rao TSS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KSJ. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2008;50(2):77-82. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391.
- Christensen L. The effect of carbohydrates on affect. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, California).1997 Jun;13(6):503-14. PMID 9263230.
- Van Oudenhove L, McKie S, Lassman D, Uddin B, Paine P, Coen S, Gregory L, Tack J, Aziz Q. Fatty acid-induced gut-brain signaling attenuates neural and behavioral effects of sad emotion in humans. J Clin Invest. 2011 Jul 25. pii: 46380. doi: 10.1172/JCI46380.
- Cornish S, Mehl-Madrona L. The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Psychiatry. Integrative Medicine Insights. 2008;3:33-42.
- Milaneschi Y1, Hoogendijk W2 Lips P3, Heijboer AC4, Schoevers R5, van Hemert AM6, Beekman AT1, Smit JH1, Penninx BW7.(2013). The association between low vitamin D and depressive disorders. Molecular Psychiaty: doi: 10.1038/mp.2013.36.