The Food Mood Connection: are you missing out on some powerful mental health tools?

Man sits alone with body language to suggest he is unhappy

The Food Mood Connection: are you missing out on some powerful mental health tools?


The numbers of people in the UK with anxiety and depression are increasing – and figures also show that British diets are lacking in crucial mood health nutrients. This presents a useful opportunity to consider the mood impact of what we’re consuming. Research demonstrates there are many specific mechanisms where food affects mood, including sugar intake, common nutrient deficiencies, suboptimal diets and of course gut health. The Lancet calls this ‘Nutrition Psychiatry.’


1. Avoid the sugar – anxiety rollercoaster

Sugar has been shown to stimulate our fight/flight/freeze response – known as the sympathetic nervous system – leaving us ‘on high alert’. Sugary foods can also eventually lead to blood sugar ‘drops’ – which can be accompanied by fatigue, jitteriness and anxiety. Therefore, avoid snacking on high sugar / high carb foods, especially where those foods are also low in fibre. Instead, eat protein and fibre with each meal to enable the smooth delivery of energy. Snack ideas include: nuts + fruit, veg sticks + houmous, yoghurt + seeds, olives.


2. Increase healthy Omega 3 fats

Omega 3 fats may support mood health by reducing inflammation, understood to be one of the underlying causes of depression and anxiety.
Medical researchers have even discovered that inducing inflammation, in certain patients, is sufficient to trigger depression. Therefore, aim to include two portions of Omega 3-rich oily fish a week such as Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herring, Kippers and Trout. (Brussels, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts also contain a little).  Conversely, avoid fats containing sunflower or corn oil, often found in chocolate, cakes and crisps; these are Omega 6 fats which may promote low-grade inflammation.


3. B vitamins help produce so-called ‘happy hormones’

Restricting food groups – including vegetables! – can mean a low intake of the B vitamins that are crucial in the production of mood enhancing hormones known as neurotransmitters.

For example, a lack of green leafy vegetables and beans can mean a low intake of folate, which is used in the manufacture of serotonin, our optimism hormone, and dopamine – the hormone that allows us to feel reward and pleasure. It’s thought that serotonin might positively modulate mood via the gut bacteria. Low folate intake is a proven risk for depression in adulthood. Other folate sources incl black-eyed peas, peanuts, lentils, liver.

B12 is a vital nutrient found in meat, fish and milk, and it’s also responsible for aiding the production of serotonin and dopamine. B12 deficiency can potentially lead to depression, panic attacks, sleep problems and mania. B6, folate and B12 deficiencies are more common amongst vegetarians, those with a high alcohol intake, and those with digestive disorders. Vegans should consider supplementing with B12 to protect their nervous systems.


4. Magnesium

Magnesium increases the neurotransmitter GABA, which encourages relaxation and sleep, and low magnesium levels are linked with irritability, depression and anxiety. Magnesium absorption is impaired by stress, high alcohol intake and a lack of wholefoods. Magnesium consumption is often scant where a diet is low in vegetables. Good magnesium sources include kale, spinach, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, avocado and 70%+ dark chocolate. 


5. The sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D may increase precious dopamine levels. Indeed, low Vitamin D3 levels have also been linked to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and insomnia. Deficiency is common in Britain due to our latitude – the sun is insufficiently strong much of the year for our bodies to make Vitamin D – and the nutrient’s scarce availability in food. The NHS recommend most people supplement with 400iu / 10mcg of Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) daily, year-round. Safe midday summer sun exposure and eating frozen or fresh (wild) salmon, mackerel & sardines will also help boost Vitamin D levels.


6. A healthy gut – your gut has many connections to your brain

The gut is a diverse ecosystem of trillions of bacteria. It’s directly connected to the brain. Gut bacteria produce many of our neurotransmitters critical for mood, anxiety and motivation, and may be key players in our response to stress and anxiety. Evidence shows that if the gut is imbalanced (dysbiotic), it can negatively impact our mental and cognitive health. To look after your gut, eat plenty of fibre, reduce sugar and include fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi (fermented radishes) on a regular basis. Fermented foods may be associated with lower levels of depression. More research is planned in this area.


7. One last tip …

How we eat impacts our mood: have a screen-free mealtime and chew thoroughly to promote optimal nutrient absorption and to help your gut digest food.


This is just a snapshot of how food is thought to impact mood. To book a Nutrition Consultation or a Wellbeing Webinar, get in touch with Sarah using the contact form.


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