It is generally accepted that how we feel can influence what we choose to eat or drink. For some this may involve food cravings or comfort eating at times of stress. For others, it may be food aversion or loss of appetite that arises as our body deals with feelings of anxiety or low mood.
What is less well known in terms of reliable evidence is how what we eat can affect our mental functioning. Evidence is growing that supports improvements in many aspects of mood when we change what we eat. Certain foods may be beneficial in managing the following:
- mood swings
- panic attacks
- concentration and memory
- behavioural disorders
- seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
I am not claiming the suggestions I make and the nutrients I mention will ‘cure’ mental health disorders like depression but they can be a step to improving mood and well-being. Hearing that mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers almost £35 billion last year, it’s something we can’t ignore.
We know that low levels of certain vitamins and minerals can affect mental health, and we know that these vitamins and minerals are found in everyday foods, particularly fruit and veg, nuts, fish and meat.
The problem is that our diet is not as healthy as it could be – we rely more heavily on processed foods so our intake of fresh, nutritious produce is much lower, whilst our intake of fat, sugar, alcohol and additives is much higher. It has been estimated that the average person in the UK will eat more than 4 Kg of additives every year.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, over the last 60 years there has been a 34% decline in UK vegetable consumption with currently only 13% of men and 15% of women now eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
People in the UK eat 60% less fish than they did 60 years ago – decreasing our consumption of essential omega-3 fatty acids. Food security is a real issue in today’s society and in the current financial climate we continue to struggle to afford to eat healthily.
Food and mood is very much an emerging area in nutrition science. As much as research is helping us join the dots, we do not yet fully understand all of the mechanisms involved. For some nutrients we can only say that a certain level of consumption is associated with a rise or fall in selected mood disorder.
If it just involves eating more of the good stuff, it sounds a no brainer. What complicates this is the emotional connection to food and the stress in our lives. When the chocolate muffin makes you feel happy, what's the benefit of taking it away? This is why many of us find it hard to make dietary changes - we can't see the benefits of doing so. Therefore health is much more than food and nutrition. It's about what makes us happy (or not), what makes us tick, get up in the morning or hide under the duvet. Our quality of life, relationship with food, ability to love and heal ourselves comes when we find out what we really need. I think this is what makes me different from many 'nutrition advisors' because this is central to my work.
Back to food for the moment, here is my list of the most important vitamins and minerals that have been implicated in mood and mood disorders.
Vitamin D - can help with low mood and depression
We have always associated Vitamin D with bone health. Vitamin D now appears to be linked to our mood; it appears to affect the amount of serotonin in the brain. Many antidepressant medications work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain so researchers have suggested that vitamin D may also be implicated in low mood and depression.
Found in a limited number of foods (oily fish, cheese, egg yolks, special mushrooms, fortified cereals and non-dairy milks) we rely heavily on our ability to make our own Vitamin D through exposure to uv light; hence we call it the sunshine vitamin! As our exposure to decent quality sunshine is a bit hit and miss, we are all encouraged to consider taking a 10-25µg vitamin D3 supplement in the winter months (from September to March). Another option to compete with the ‘winter blues’ is to use a SAD (seasonal Affective Disorder) light box that emits UV at the correct frequency to stimulate Vitamin D3 production in the skin - phototherapy has been shown to provide fantastic results for patients that spend a lot of time indoors or have a poor digestion / absorption.
Folate – can help with anxiety & depression
Folate (Vitamin B9) has been shown to have an ‘anxiolytic’ effect, which translates to "anti-anxiety", particularly when combined with B6 and B12 . The B vitamins often play key roles in the production of serotonin and dopamine, both of which have been implicated in mood disorders. Boosting levels can help promote the feeling of pleasure and makes us look forward to enjoying things and activities. Choose more of the following:
- Veg: spinach, lettuce, asparagus, beetroot, savoy cabbage, bok choi, broccoli, green peas, fresh parsley, brussels sprouts, avocados, cauliflower
- Fish: cod, tuna, salmon, halibut, shrimp
- Meat: calf’s liver, turkey
- Nuts and seeds: peanuts, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts
- Beans and pulses: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans
- Fruit: oranges
Magnesium – can help with anxiety & depression, irritability, stress and insomnia
Magnesium is another factor needed in the production of numerous chemicals and hormones in the body. Magnesium has been shown to interrupt the production of Adrenalin which is responsible for increasing our level of alertness and is central to our stress response.
Other hormones such as Melatonin, Dopamine again and GABA are all dependent on Magnesium and hence is responsible for inducing a state of calm. Magnesium supplements are being extensively researched in the battle to combat insomnia for example. Choose more of the following:
- Veg: spinach, watercress, avocado, peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, green cabbage, watercress
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts, macadamias, pistachios, walnuts, pecan, pumpkin, sunflower and poppy seeds
- Wholegrains: oatmeal, bran, long grain rice, buckwheat, barley, quinoa
- Dairy: plain yoghurt
- Beans and pulses: baked beans
- Fruit: banana, kiwi, blackberries, strawberries, oranges, raisins
- Sweet: chocolate
Vitamins B3 – can help with depression, PMT and stress
B3 and B6 are needed for conversion of the amino acid tryptophan to serotonin which we know helps to lift and balance mood. A higher B3, 6 and 12 vitamin status has been linked to less severe symptoms of PMT and interestingly this was true for women who got B-vitamins from real food, but not from supplements. Choose more of the following:
- Wholegrains: brown rice, rice bran, wheat germ
- Veg: broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, brussels sprouts, courgette, squash
- Nuts: peanuts
- Meat: beef liver, beef kidney, pork, turkey, chicken
- Fish: tuna, salmon
- Seeds: sunflower seeds
- Wholegrains: brown rice, oats, bran, barley
- Fruit: bananas, mango
- Fish: tuna, trout, salmon
- Veg: avocado, watercress, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, squash, asparagus, bok choy, potatoes
- Meat: chicken, pork loin, turkey
- Beans and pulses: butter beans, soy beans, chickpeas
- Seeds: sunflower seeds
Selenium – can help with depression and irritability
Selenium is a trace mineral so we only need it in small amounts – this is where more is not necessarily better as we don’t need to go mad with Selenium. It is involved in the production of thyroid hormones so can help with the regulation of our metabolism and more recently studies in older adults (using supplements) have shown increases in self-reported mood. Choose more of the following:
- Wholegrains: wheat germ, marmite
- Meat: calf liver, turkey breast
- Fish: cod, tuna, halibut, salmon, shrimp
- Veg: mushrooms, garlic, spinach
- Nuts: brazil nuts
- Beans and pulses: tofu
- Wholegrains: barley, rye, oats, long grain brown rice
- Dairy: mozzarella cheese
- Seeds: mustard, sunflower
Zinc – can help with depression, loss of appetite and loss of motivation
We don’t have the ability to store Zinc so regular intake is beneficial. It is essential for our immune system but the highest amounts in the body are found in the brain so that means it must be there for a reason! High levels of stress drain our zinc levels and we know that Zinc is used in 100’s of pathways in the brain. Zinc supplementation has been shown to have antidepressant effects in humans, and successful treatment with antidepressants will increase zinc levels. Choose more of the following:
Seafood/fish: oysters, mussels, shrimp
- Cereals: fortified breakfast cereals
- Nuts: cashews, walnuts, almonds
- Dairy: mozzarella, Swiss cheese, cheddar cheese, low-fat yoghurt
- Beans and pulses: chickpeas, kidney beans, baked beans, butter beans, lentils, miso
- Meat: chicken (dark meat), turkey, lamb, pork, mince beef
- Seeds: pumpkin, sesame
- Veg: spinach, mushrooms, squash, asparagus, broccoli
- Fruit: blackberries, kiwi
The findings I have mentioned have shown benefits in mild to moderate cases only.
It's also interesting to note that healthier people are often happier. A sweeping statement perhaps but did you know that people who eat more highly coloured fruit and veg tend to be more optimistic? Is it the vital nutrients in said foods that lift mood or perhaps adopting more healthy behaviours means we feel more positive and motivated? There is a definite transfer effect going on when we make healthy choices; eating better means we are more likely to be more active, smoke less, drink less, speeding up the rate of benefits gained.
The other plus is that you can kill a flock of birds here with one stone - notice the overlap of foods and the nutrients they contain?
What are you going to do today?
If you'd like to contact me directly about this, please do.....