Written by Heather Deering, Associate Registered Nutritionist. Reviewed by Harriet Smith, Registered Dietitian
Each year as many as one in four people will experience a mental health problem (1). Mental health is influenced by many different factors; some internal, like our genetic make-up, and others external, like our environment and personal relationships (2)
So, how does food affect mental health? Firstly, food and its link with mental health is an interesting and evolving area of research. The food we eat is a powerful tool, and ensuring we eat a nutritious and balanced diet can help to boost our mood and support all aspects of our health. However, it’s very important to understand that diet alone cannot prevent or treat mental health conditions.
How does diet affect mental health?
When it comes to what you’re eating, all food groups have an important part to play in supporting good mental health.
Foods for good mental health
Eating regularly and including foods which are high in fibre and protein can help to sustain your sugar levels, keeping your brain fuelled throughout the day.
Eating protein at every meal also provides your brain with tryptophan, which is a natural mood booster and a good food for mental health. Protein-rich foods include:
- Lean meat, poultry and fish
- Dairy products
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Soy products such as tofu
Choose a Mediterranean-style diet
Having a Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to benefit our mental health; eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil is associated with better mental health scores (3).
RYH provides on average 12 varieties of fruit and veg each day , spread equally over 10 portions, which is well above the current guidelines. Choose wholegrains, carbohydrates such as whole wheat pasta and opt for heart-healthy fats such as olive oil, oily fish and nuts.
Oily fish such as mackerel, herrings, sardines and salmon are thought to reduce depressive symptoms (4). So try to include them in your diet at least twice a week.
Gut microbiome and mental health
The gut microbiome refers to a community of bacteria and other microbes that live in the gastrointestinal tract. Many of these microbes are beneficial to our health, though some can be harmful. Maintaining a natural balance of the “good” and “bad” microbes is important for staying healthy and avoiding disease (5)
The gut microbiome is linked to the brain via a communication system known as the ‘gut-brain axis’. Through this synergistic pathway, the brain influences gut function, and the gut microbiome influences the brain (6).
Some mental health illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, have been shown to be associated with an imbalance in gut bacteria (7). Evidence from psychosis patients has also demonstrated that the greater the imbalance in the microbiota, the more severe symptoms are likely to be (8).
There is some emerging evidence suggesting it’s possible to improve mood and reduce anxiety in both healthy people and those experiencing mental health issues by influencing the gut microbiome through dietary changes (9). However, we need more research to explore whether dietary changes to the gut microbiome can help with symptom improvement in specific psychiatric conditions.
One of the best ways to look after your gut microbiome is by eating a healthy, varied and balanced diet which contains plenty of high-fibre wholegrains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
If you’re looking for support in ensuring that your diet is balanced and varied, check out the Reset Your Health plan – an online nutrition plan tailored to your unique medical and nutritional needs.
Choosing the right types of drinks is also important for maintaining good mental health. Limit caffeine to three to four drinks a day and try not to drink more than two standard alcoholic drinks (red or white wine) per day, with several alcohol-free days each week.
Staying hydrated can help with alertness and mood (4), so try to drink at least two litres of fluids per day (this includes tea and coffee, but excludes alcohol).
It’s not just about nutrition
Though eating well and mental health are linked, there are many other lifestyles factors we should consider for our mental health and wellbeing.
Exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on mood after just a single session, but also in the long-term, it’s associated with lower incidences of depression and anxiety as well as alleviation of symptoms in those experiencing these disorders (10). Aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, plus strength exercises on two or more days each week (11).
Prolonged experience of stress increases our susceptibility to depression and anxiety (12), so it’s important to try to find a way of managing stress that works for you. Similarly, poor quality and disrupted sleep is also associated with mental health problems (13). Ensuring you get a good night’s sleep is key to supporting your mental wellbeing.
Finally, if you’re struggling with mental health symptoms, please reach out to a doctor or other trusted healthcare professional who will be able to offer you support.
1. WHO | Mental disorders affect one in four people [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 12 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/
2. Every Mind Matters | One You [Internet]. Nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 12 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/possible-causes/
3. Muñoz MA, Fíto M, Marrugat J, Covas MI, Schröder H. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with better mental and physical health. Br J Nutr. 2009.
4. Depression and Diet Food Fact Sheet [Internet]. British Dietetic Association [cited 14th May 2020]. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/depression-diet.html
5. Quigley E. Gut Bacteria in Health and Disease. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2013;9(9):560–569.
6. Martin C, Osadchiy V, Kalani A, Mayer E. The Brain-Gut-Microbiome Axis. Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2018;6(2):133-148.
7. Jiang H, Ling Z, Zhang Y, Mao H, Ma Z, Yin Y et al. Altered fecal microbiota composition in patients with major depressive disorder. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2015;48:186-194.
8. Schwarz E, Maukonen J, Hyytiäinen T, Kieseppä T, Orešič M, Sabunciyan S et al. Analysis of microbiota in first episode psychosis identifies preliminary associations with symptom severity and treatment response. Schizophrenia Research. 2018;192:398-403.
9. Butler M, Mörkl S, Sandhu K, Cryan J, Dinan T. The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: What Should We Tell Our Patients?: Le microbiote Intestinal et la Santé Mentale : que Devrions-Nous dire à nos Patients?. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2019;64(11):747-760.
10. Guszkowska M. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood. Psychiatr Pol. 2004;38(4):611-20.
11. Exercise [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 13 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/
12. Ebner K, Singewald N. Individual differences in stress susceptibility and stress inhibitory mechanisms. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 2017;14:54-64.
13. Freeman D, Sheaves B, Goodwin G, Yu L, Nickless A, Harrison P et al. The effects of improving sleep on mental health (OASIS): a randomised controlled trial with mediation analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2017;4(10):749-758.