We often hear the phrase “you are what you eat”.
But is that based on scientific fact or fiction?
In this article, we’ll provide an overview on how diet and lifestyle can impact on our mental health and mood.
Our brain needs a constant supply of energy to function.
Glucose (sugar) is the brain’s main source of energy, which is largely obtained through the diet.
All carbohydrate foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains and dairy are broken down into sugars in the blood. When you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, blood sugar levels can run low, often leaving you feeling tired, irritable and easily distracted.
Consuming slow-releasing carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and cereals, pulses and vegetables can help to slow down the release of sugar into the blood, which may help to stabilise your mood and maintain concentration.
Other nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, also influence our mood. For example, iron deficiency can lead to fatigue, tiredness and lack of concentration. Not getting enough folate can increase a person’s risk of developing depression; particularly in older people. Whilst a lack of selenium can lead to negative mood states.
Include a protein food (i.e. eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds, meat, poultry) with each meal as these foods contain an essential amino acid called tryptophan. This amino acid helps the body to produce serotonin (sometimes referred to as the “happiness hormone”) which plays an important role in regulating our mood.
Try to include some of these foods in your daily diet:
- Wholegrain bread, pasta, rice and breakfast cereals
- Nuts and seeds
- Fruits and vegetables (preferably with the skin on)
- Iron-rich foods: poultry, eggs, offal, red meat, fish, beans and pulses, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit
- Folate-rich foods: fortified breakfast cereals, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, yeast extract
- Selenium-rich foods: brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds
A mediterannean diet which is rich in wholegrains, lean meat and fish, pulses and legumes, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables has consistently been shown to be great for our health and wellbeing.
In addition to strong evidence for its cardio-protective effects, studies have shown that a Mediterannean-style diet may also help to reduce the risk of brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s and positively influence cognitive function.
In particular, researchers have found that regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil—a key constituent in the Mediterannean diet— protects memory and learning ability and prevents the formation of harmful plaques in the brain, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Diet and Mental Health Conditions
The role of diet and lifestyle in mental health is very complex and is poorly understood.
However, ultra processed diets which are high in fast food, cakes and pastries have been associated with increased risk of developing depression.
Consuming a varied and diverse diet is important for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome; a complex community of microbes that live within the gastrointestinal tract.
Fortunately, you can improve the composition and diversity of your gut microbiome by making changes in your diet. One of the best ways to optimise your gut health is by consuming a diverse and healthy high-fibre diet.
Here are some high-fibre foods to include in your diet:
- Wholegrain cereals
- Potatoes with skin on
- Fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and pulses
Lifestyle Strategies to Optimise Brain Health
We’ve talked a lot about which foods to include in your diet.
However, certain lifestyle habits are known to negatively influence our mood. For example, alcohol is a depressant which can affect our thoughts, feelings and actions. Drinking within the recommended UK alcohol guidelines (14 units per week maximum) and having several alcohol-free days per week can have a big impact on your health.
Smoking is thought to have a negative impact on the gut microbiome, which plays an important role in maintaining good mental health. If you’re thinking of cutting down or quitting smoking, you can get help here.
Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids as dehydration can lead to tiredness, inability to concentrate and headaches. As a rule-of-thumb, aim for at least 6-8 large glasses of fluid per day (more if exercising). The best way to check your hydration status is to monitor the colour of your urine, aiming for a pale, straw yellow colour.