Food & Mood: What's the Connection?
What comes to mind when you think of the connection between nutrition and our mental health?
This is one of the first questions I ask when I teach my nutrition group in the addictions treatment program at CAMH. If you didn’t know, I currently work at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health when not doing private practice. The theme for the lesson is Nutrition for Recovery, and we discuss the role of adequate nutrition in supporting the addiction recovery process by restoring both physical and 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 (fast foods, junk food, too much coffee / sugar, etc). But these foods can make us feel “crappy”, and the so the negative cycle continues.
For today’s article, I will cover the key nutrition factors for good mental health, and discuss 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 for two main reasons:
1) 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
A bit about brain chemistry….
The brain talks to itself by sending chemicals known as “neurotransmitters” from one neuron to another. Neurotransmitters are special brain chemicals that influence our mood and health. The main ones that are involved in our mood are (1):
Serotonin: Sleep, calmness & relaxation. Known as the “happy chemical” – low levels are associated with depression.
Dopamine: Energized, attention & alertness. Responsible for pleasure & motivation.
Nor-epinepherine: A stress hormone; involved in “fight or flight” response. Aids in attention & focus.
Endorphins: Comfort, well-being, pleasure & euphoria.
GABA: Relaxed, calm, reduced stress.
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 ensure this?
1) Protein-rich foods
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). As mentioned, 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. As a rule of thumb, include at least one protein rich food with every meal and snack.
2) B Vitamins
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.
3) Probiotics & Fiber
What do these foods do for us? Yes, support a healthy digestive tract!
Did you know that the brain and gut are highly connected? Evidence has shown that a healthy gut is associated with better mental health. The relationship is fascinating - the brain and the gut are in constant communication through blood vessels and neurotransmitters. 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”.
4) Omega-3 fats
Omega-3 fats, specifically EPA and DHA, help to reduce inflammation and prevent damage in the brain. Food sources of omega-3 include salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds.
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).
Aim to have at least 2 servings of omega-3 rich fish per week (listed above), or consider taking a supplement to meet your needs.
Lets Talk about EATING PATTERNS
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. Here is what I recommend:
5) 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.
6) Time out
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,
Edited by Yumi Chow, Nutrition Student