Food or nutrition is not often a subject that comes up when you see your health practitioner about your mood - but it's a very important part of getting and staying well.
How does my diet affect my mental health?
Our modern day busy lifestyle of eating on the go and snacking on highly processed packaged foods can contribute to a sub-optimal dietary intake. For most, this will lead to a vicious cycle of low energy, poor nutrition, and ongoing low mood.
In 2017, an Australian based study was published in answer to the question "If I eat better, will I feel better?" It was aptly called the 'SMILES' study (2). It looked at 64 individuals who were diagnosed as being depressed and put half of them (intervention group) onto a modified Mediterranean type diet and the other half (control group) continued eating their normal diet - but had some social support.
It turned out that after 12 weeks, over 30% of the depressed people who changed their diet went into remission - that is - they were no longer suffering from depression. This was 4 times more than the control group!
There have been other studies too - looking at the effect of a 'junk-food' diet and mood (the results are not good ☹️) While other studies looking at specific nutrient deficiencies has found some correlation between low levels of certain vitamins and minerals with poorer mental health.
What do you need to make neurotransmitters (aka brain chemicals)?
Neurotransmitters also known as "messenger molecules" are an important part of how our cells communicate with each other - and we need them in good amounts to feel good. You may have heard of serotonin (known as the 'feel good' chemical) or dopamine (considered the 'reward' neurotransmitter). These neurotransmitters need specific ingredients in our food to be made. A bit like baking a batch of cookies. If there are a few ingredients missing - they don't turn out so good or we can't make enough of them!
If you are curious, below is a complex diagram of how food is converted into neurotransmitters in our body and brain. The diagram shows how amino acids (the building blocks of protein eg. chicken meat) - for example Tryptophan - together with vitamins (folate, vitamin B6) and minerals (zinc and magnesium) turns into serotonin (neurotransmitter).
The 5 main types of neurotransmitters associated with mental wellbeing are:
- Serotonin is the primary neurotransmitter that many modern antidepressant drugs (SSRI's - Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) target. SSRIs works by keeping levels of serotonin high in the brain to make individuals feel better. Serotonin is also converted into melatonin, which is known as the sleepy hormone and helps us to get off to sleep.
- Dopamine, the "motivation" neurotransmitter, is released when people satisfy their cravings and low levels are implicated in addictions. Dopamine is also converted into adrenaline and noradrenaline for the get up and go response we all need from time to time.
- Oxytocins, the “connection” neurotransmitter is released when you have a loving or supportive connection with someone. For example, when you give your hang out with your friends or breastfeed your child.
- Endorphins, are a type of neurotransmitters which reduce pain and stress levels while giving you a feeling of euphoria. Endorphins are most commonly released when you exercise.
- GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, has a calming and relaxing effect which will help with reducing feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear.
You can learn more about these neurotransmitters and how to increase them to improve your mood in this short video.
To ensure you have the building blocks for making these important neurotransmitters, here are some ingredients to include in your cooking:
- Amino acids, such as tryptophan. Contained in meat, egg and dairy - but can also be found in vegetarian based protein sources such as legumes, nuts, quinoa and soy.
- Magnesium which supports the enzymes needed to transform the amino acids. Found in spinach, yogurt, and almonds.
- Folate - Found in green leafy vegetables. Interestingly, some studies have found that anti-depressants may work better when the person also has increased levels of folate (8).
- Zinc - Found in lamb, pumpkin seeds, beef, and chickpeas.
- Vitamin B6 - Found in beef, avocado, and tuna
- Vitamin C - Found in oranges, broccoli, and kiwifruit.
What are the negative effects of Trans-fats?
Trans-fatty acids are the fats in baked goods and margarine. Trans-fats ('Bad' fat) are thought to take the place in the cell where Omega-3 fats ('Good' fat) would normally reside. According to one study, trans-fats have an adverse effect on the brain and nervous system by altering the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. They have also been shown to be linked to behavioural irritability and aggression (5).
In prison populations, inmates with lower Omega-3 levels were more aggressive and had higher rates of Attention Deficit Disorder (6). While, a trial of nutritional supplements on young adult prisoners, found that those receiving the supplements committed an average of 26.3% fewer offenses (7).
What to eat?
Nutrition may only be a small part of the puzzle when it comes to recovery from mental illness. But it's a very important part and may be the missing link when it comes to recovery.
The dietary advice for mental health is really the same for any health issues. The Ministry of Health Guidelines (2020) sum it up quite nicely.
In summary, it's important to get enough protein (for the amino acids), enough vegetables and fruit (for the vitamins and minerals) and reduce as much as possible processed fats and simple sugars which may be doing more harm than good to your body.
If we think it can't possibly be as simple as 'eat well and feel better', the Smiles Study clearly shows for 32% of depressed people, this is indeed the case. And for those 32% I am sure that meant an awful lot.
Helen Duyvestyn, Mental Health Nurse, (RcN, MHSc)
Need a bit more help? Book therapy with me OR Find available therapists on Clearhead including those who take a more holistic view of wellbeing and will incorporate nutrition advice in their sessions with you.
(5) Golomb, B. A., Evans, M. A., White, H. L., & Dimsdale, J. E. (2012). Trans fat consumption and aggression. PloS one, 7(3), e32175. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032175
(6) Meyer, B. J., Byrne, M. K., Collier, C., Parletta, N., Crawford, D., Winberg, P. C., Webster, D., Chapman, K., Thomas, G., Dally, J., Batterham, M., Farquhar, I., Martin, A. M., & Grant, L. (2015). Baseline omega-3 index correlates with aggressive and attention deficit disorder behaviours in adult prisoners. PloS one, 10(3), e0120220. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0120220
(7) Gesch, C., Hammond, S., Hampson, S., Eves, A., & Crowder, M. (2002). Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners: Randomised, placebo-controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry, 181(1), 22-28. doi:10.1192/bjp.181.1.22