Can food really help my mood?

Eating fruit, veg, fish and wholegrains is linked to lower prevalence of depression and better mental health, writes nutritionist Francesca Vuolo.

The relationship between our diet and mental health is complex, and sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Multiple factors play into this relationship, including our individual history, psychological state, genetics, food consumption, culture, environment, and lifestyle.

Depression is one of the most prevalent disorders. Mental symptoms include low mood and low self-esteem. Physical symptoms include changes in appetite or weight, and changes to sleep cycle.

Linking this to the brain

Mood regulation is controlled via different neurochemical pathways, powered by different nutrients that supply the metabolites for production of the neurotransmitters.

Deficiencies in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and y-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are often associated with depression. More than a third of the brain’s neurons use GABA for synaptic connections; GABA supports serotonin via receptors, which in turn influences our mood.

Serotonin is our ‘happy’ hormone that contributes to good mood. Dopamine is a reward and motivation hormone that produces feelings of pleasure. GABA plays a role in calming and slowing down brain activity.

What should I be eating?

Developing evidence suggests that dietary patterns characterised by high consumption of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and fish are associated with lower prevalence of depression.

Fruit and veg
Good for body and for mind? Fresh produce is known to have multiple benefits.

– Fruit and vegetables: These contain a range of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that have neuroprotective properties that are believed to protect against depression.

– Nuts and seeds: These are rich in unsaturated fats, polyphenols, selenium, vitamin E and magnesium that improve how our brain cells communicate and reduce inflammation. One to two tablespoons of unroasted and unsalted nuts and seeds is a portion.

– Oily fish: A good source of omega 3s. These fats must be obtained via our diet. They form part of the cell membranes, support brain function and reduce neuroinflammation. An algae-based supplement is recommended if you do not consume fish.

– Protein: Neurotransmitters in the brain are made from certain amino acids. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that must be consumed via diet and supplements. Tryptophan is a precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin.

– Carbohydrates: The brain is metabolically active and has a high energy intake. Carbohydrates support the uptake of tryptophan into the brain during insulin release. Eat a variety of beans, legumes, and wholegrain sources.

– Water: Dehydration can negatively impact cognitive abilities and is associated with poor health.

– Alcohol: Alcohol intake hinders the body’s ability to use serotonin, with both short and long-term exposure.

Overall, adherence to a healthy diet is beneficial for our brain health and in turn our mood.  Ensuring that dietary intake is enjoyable and sustainable with adequate calories and hydration is more important than following an inflexible diet.

This is not an extensive list and does not take away from registered health professionals’ advice. Please speak to a registered nutritionist or dietitian before making any changes to your diet.


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