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Food and your mood

Can what we eat and drink affect our mental health? You bet it can. Here’s how you can harness the protective power of plants to feel your best. Article first published in Nourish Magazine.

Most of us know that when we are physically unwell or exhausted it can negatively impact our mental health – in the ways we think, cope, and act. And how we feel mentally also influences our physical self-care, such as eating well, moving, and resting. The connectedness of our physical and psychological state is undeniably intertwined and is particularly significant for several mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders. Because our physical health is greatly impacted by our diet, there are some protective actions we can take when it comes to what we eat and drink, which can also be beneficial for mental health.

The gut-brain connection

Our body can influence our psychological state through the gastrointestinal tract, or the gut. Our gut has the wonderful ability to communicate with our brain through the enteric nervous system and with chemical messengers (hormones) such as serotonin. Serotonin is produced by specialised cells within our intestines. Foods rich in tryptophan can help increase your production of serotonin, well-known for its calming effect as it works to reduce anxiety and improve depression. Choosing plant-based sources can simultaneously help you build a healthy gut microbiome and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases.

Our gut bacteria, or microbiome, is also capable of producing gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, another important chemical made in the brain and found in some foods. GABA works to reduce anxiety and improve mood and sleep. We know eating a wide variety of plants helps to promote a healthy gut microbiome, but are there foods of increased benefit? The science says yes! Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and soy yoghurt contain GABA and probiotics to nurture your microbiome. Consuming foods rich in glutamate and vitamin B6, the building blocks of GABA, is also beneficial for boosting GABA levels.

Foods that improve serotonin
Foods that improve mood

The simple act of eating is enough to release dopamine, another feel-good hormone. Unfortunately, high-fat and high-sugar foods are particularly good at causing a dopamine boost. Biologically, this is why a doughnut or ice-cream can feel so much more pleasurable than a less indulgent option. The reasons for this are rooted in human species survival and not longevity or good mental health. High-fat and high-sugar foods are addictive, and breaking the cycle of craving and consumption, termed ‘The Pleasure Trap’ by renowned psychologist and researcher Dr Doug Lisle, is important to gain control over your physical and mental health. Breaking up with these foods might be difficult at first but your taste buds will adapt quickly, your microbiome will improve, and you can continue to enjoy a normal dopamine boost from healthy plant-based foods.

Eating for optimal mental health

Studies have shown that diets rich in neuro-protective vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, Omega 3 DHA, iron, magnesium, and zinc are beneficial to our brain and mental health. Deficiencies in these various nutrients can affect your brain’s development, learning and memory, as well as increase the risk of feeling irritable, stressed, and fatigued. Fortunately, your nutritional needs can be easily met by eating a wide variety of plants. Here’s where to find these neuro-protective nutrients.

Dark leafy greens

Vitamin B6 – bananas, watermelon, peanut butter, almonds, sweet potatoes, peas, avocados, hemp seeds, chia seeds, beans, chickpeas, prunes, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, pineapple, pumpkin, green beans, pistachios, figs, nutritional yeast, baker’s yeast, garlic, kale.
Vitamin B9 – spinach, beans, lentils, asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, avocados, mangoes, oranges, most whole grains, nutritional yeast, baker’s yeast, basil, peanuts, artichokes, rock melon, walnuts, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, cauliflower, tahini, sunflower seeds, peas, okra, celery.
Vitamin B12 – supplementation is recommended and can easily be found in pharmacies. Also found in some fortified cereals, fortified plant-based milks, and nutritional yeast.
Omega 3 DHA – flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, dark leafy greens, seaweed.
Iron – legumes, dark leafy greens, broccoli, nuts, dried fruit, iron-fortified bread and cereals, oats, tofu.
Magnesium – kelp, oats, almonds, cashews, seeds, cacao, dark leafy greens, bananas, sweet potato, whole grains, beans, wild and brown rice.
Zinc – legumes, nuts, seeds, oats, tofu.

Think about what you drink

Hydration also has a significant impact on mental functioning. How much you hydrate, and with what fluids, can impact on your concentration, mood, and anxiety symptoms. It can even affect your sleep. Regularly and adequately hydrating with water and other healthful options, such as herbal tea, can improve your focus, increase your performance, reduce fatigue, and best support your psychological wellbeing.

However, there are some beverages that can negatively affect our mental health. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks are the main culprits. Caffeine acts as a stimulant to our nervous system with enticing effects such as a reduction in fatigue, increased alertness, and improved mental performance. These effects are temporary and have to be weighed up against other well-known side effects, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased feelings of anxiety, restlessness, difficulties with sleep, and diuretic effect (the need to urinate more frequently). Good hydration can be an uphill battle if you’ve already had a few coffees by mid-morning.

Then there’s alcohol, which is quite a messy substance for the brain. The anticipation and consumption of alcohol can produce a satisfying but temporary increase in dopamine. However, regular consumption, and in particular alcohol-dependency and withdrawal states, leads to suppression of serotonin and GABA production (our happy hormones and mood improvers mentioned earlier). This can reduce your ability to manage stress, increase anxiety and panic, and result in lower mood. Alcohol is also no friend to your gut microbiome.

The evidence we have to date says that reducing your exposure to alcohol has benefits for your mental and physical health. Adhering to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Guidelines is strongly recommended. They advise quite clearly that no amount of alcohol consumption is risk free and that all healthy and non-pregnant adults should limit their consumption of alcohol to a low-risk quantity of no more than 10 standard drinks per week or 4 on any one day.

The science is clear

Drinking more water, eating a lot more whole plant foods, and consuming less refined products (and yes, I’m afraid this includes caffeine and alcohol too) can give many people a much-desired boost in both their mental and physical health. This is one nutrition prescription that is widely accessible, relatively easy to implement, economical, and comes with a long list of additional health benefits.

If you are struggling with your mental health, it’s also important to talk to your GP, psychiatrist, or psychologist, so that the most appropriate treatment options for you can be considered. Conventional approaches including psychology and medication will be part of the journey to better mental health for many people, and dietary change should be seen as a complementary treatment, not a substitute. With a holistic approach encompassing evidence-based nutritional and lifestyle improvements, there is potential to enhance the effects of other treatments, reduce relapse risk, and build better general health.

Of course, even if you aren’t currently experiencing a mental health issue, it’s beneficial to consume foods that contain neuro-protective nutrients and that promote good gut health, which can affect hormone production and mental health. And this can be as simple as focusing on eating a wide variety of whole plant foods and keeping well hydrated.

This article is republished with permission from

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