Lots of things can potentially affect our mental health and one of these is your diet.
There’s a lot of evidence linking mental health to nutrition and it’s now believed that what you eat affects not just how you feel but also how your brain functions.
If you’re experiencing mental health issues or have done in the past, it’s definitely worth looking at your diet and including more of the foods that are good for well being (and cutting out those that aren’t!).
With that in mind, this blog post is all about the strong link between nutrition and mental health.
What to Eat for Better Mental Health
The brain is very sensitive to what we put into our bodies and needs a mix of essential fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to function at its best.
Generally speaking, our consumption of fresh, nutritious and local produce is decreasing in favour of processed foods that contain lots of fat, sugar, salt and additives. A lot of us don’t eat the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables and less fish. This change in our eating habits can have a detrimental effect on mental health and wellbeing.
Some of the foods that are known to be good for well being and mental health include:
The brain contains around 60 per cent fat, and this means that the fats we eat on a day-to-day basis have a direct impact on the structure and make up of the cell membranes in the brain.
In particular, 20 per cent of the brain is made up of essential fatty acids – notably omega-3 and omega-3 fatty acids. Both of these are important and omega-3 fatty acids in particular have been linked to better mental health. Research has suggested that women who consumed higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids have lower levels of depression. Another study found that the symptoms of some depressive disorders go hand in hand with low blood serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have linked bipolar disorder to low levels of omega-3 and research has shown some promising results so far for treating patients with this condition, even in those who haven’t been responding to more conventional medications.
You can find omega-3 fatty acids in oily and cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring. The levels of omega-3 fatty acids needed for affecting mood go far beyond the amount you’d get from eating fish several times per week and supplements would be needed. Speak to your doctor if you feel that you might benefit from taking a relatively high dose of omega-3 fatty acids but it’s not advisable to do this without checking with them first.
We also need some omega-6 fatty acids but these are not as important as omega-3 fatty acids. These tend to promote inflammation whereas omega-3 fatty acids reduce it. It’s therefore vital that you don’t consume more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids as you’ll encourage inflammation, which can be bad for well being. In the Western world, we tend to fall into this trap and experts think this is one of the reasons why more of us are experiencing mental health issues these days. An imbalance has been linked to depression, poor memory and lack of concentration.
Vitamins and Minerals
As well as being necessary for overall health, some vitamins and minerals are thought to have an effect on mental health by helping the brain to convert amino acids. Some of the vitamins and minerals that are important for mental health include:
Lots of B vitamins are good for mental health and well being. Vitamin B1 is needed for the nervous system and helps to improve mood. Vitamin B3 can be used to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia. Vitamin B12 is linked to mood. Good sources of B vitamins include liver, turkey, whole grains, potatoes and legumes.
Magnesium helps to keep the nervous system working well. In theory, we should be able to get all of the magnesium that we need from our diet but in reality, many of us are actually deficient in it. Magnesium has a big role to play in a lot of aspects of mental health so any deficiency can be quite significant. Good sources include leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach and chard, and bananas.
Vitamin D is needed for general health but it is also strongly linked to mood and mental health. Vitamin D deficiency is believed to contribute to low mood and this is quite common during the winter months when our bodies don’t get vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. Good sources of vitamin D are eggs and fatty fish such as salmon.
What Not to Eat for Better Mental Health
On the flip side, these foods are believed to have a negative impact on mental health and well being.
Consuming lots of sugar has been linked to depression and can make schizophrenia worse. It’s thought that sugar suppresses a protein known as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is key for brain function and the nervous system and tends to be low in people suffering from conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.
A diet rich in sugar doesn’t actually cause anxiety but it can make anxiety symptoms worse and make it harder for the body to cope with stress. A 2008 study on rats found that sugar binges resulted in anxiety. Cutting out sugar or significantly reducing it won’t “cure” anxiety but there’s good reason to believe it can reduce the intensity of symptoms.
We’ve talked about the importance of essential fatty acids on brain health but eating a balance of these still may not be enough if you’re also consuming trans fats. These are found in a lot of processed foods, and are of concern from a mental health viewpoint as they effectively replace essential fatty acids in the brain and block nutrients from doing their job.