From a young age, we’re taught that eating well helps us look and feel our physical best. What we’re not always told is that optimal nutrition significantly affects our mental health, too.
Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health conditions worldwide. According to WHO, depression could be one of the top health concerns in the world by 2030.
Important research has shown that high quality diets have been consistently associated with reduced depression risk, while unhealthy dietary patterns – higher in processed foods – are associated with increased depression and often anxiety.
The Complexity of Mental Health
Although nutrition is essential for building optimal mental health, it is but one piece of the puzzle. Lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress management, and exercise are also critical contributors to mental health.
The relationship between our diet and our mental health is pretty complex but there are two groups of foods that have a specifically negative effect on the brain:
- foods that trick the brain into releasing chemicals we may be lacking, temporarily altering our mood (for example, caffeine and chocolate)
- foods that prevent the conversion of other foods into nutrients the brain needs (for example, saturated fat such as butter and palm oil).
When you stick to a diet of healthy food, you're setting yourself up for fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook and an improved ability to focus.
Vitamins & Minerals
When you don’t eat enough nutrient-rich foods, your body may lack vital vitamins and minerals, which may affect your energy, mood and brain function.
Scientists have found links between low levels of certain nutrients — including folate, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium and vitamins B6, B12, vitamin D and worsening mood, feelings of anxiety, and risk of depression.
Here are some examples from the British Dietetic Association of how different vitamin/mineral deficiencies can affect your mood.
- Iron: A lack of iron can lead you to feel weak, tired and lethargic. Foods rich in iron include red meat, poultry, fish, beans and pulses and fortified cereals.
- B vitamins: Not getting enough B1, B3 and B12 can make you feel low, tired and irritable. Animal protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and fortified cereals are rich in B vitamins.
- Folate: Specific genetic variants in the MTHFR gene are linked to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Folate can be found in green vegetables, citrus fruits, liver, beans and fortified foods like marmite.
- Selenium: A selenium deficiency may increase the chance of feeling depressed and other negative mood states. Good sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, seeds, wholemeal bread, meat and fish.
Individual genetic variations affect how we metabolise, uptake and absorb each of these nutrients. This affects how much we need of each on a daily basis - which can differ between 100% and 1500% of the average NRV Guidelines by nutrient.
Find out your own personalised requirement for these nutrients and others with a DNA Nutrition Test.
Caffeine can also cause sleep problems, which can worsen your mood. Some people find it makes them irritable and anxious too.
Whether caffeine has this effect largely depends on your genetics, specifically two genes called the ARORA2 and CYP1A2 gene. Find out your own caffeine sensitivity with a DNA Nutrition Test.
The Gut-Brain Axis
Gut bacteria produce an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses for the regulation of physiological and mental processes, including mood.
Research has found a strong link between gut health and brain function. For example, healthy bacteria in the gut produce approximately 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a large impact on mood. Stress is also thought to suppress beneficial gut bacteria.
Nutrition = Brain Fuel
Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on’. It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel.
That ‘fuel’ comes from the foods you eat - and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.