Gemma Hurditch explains how the right and wrong foods can affect our moods and mental health and discovers which mood boosting foods we should be eating
While boosting mood implies a quick fix to a short-term problem (moods aren’t generally thought to be a mental health issue), long periods of low mood signal depression, while moods of hyper agitation and restlessness can be indicative of anxiety.
Our moods can become problematic and more and more research is showing that food is directly linked with not only short-term behaviour ups and downs, but also mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression and other mental health issues. Here we will look at some of the ways we can boost positive moods and help curb negative ones.
One of the major modifiable predictors of depressive disease is… poor diet! It is not simply that depression or low mood causes poor dietary choices; depression and anxiety have been found to be a response and a result of having a poor diet.
While other risk factors for mental health issues, such as early childhood trauma and social disadvantage, are less easy to target, we do eat every day, so the choices we make can be helpful and supportive, or they can worsen mood and create more of a burden.
Not enough good food is one side of this problem; too much of the wrong foods is the other side. With good nutrition it is important to balance these two sides equally for a lasting effect.
So what is a poor diet?
On the ‘too much’ spectrum of things, we have the problems of too much of the following:
Sugar, particularly highly refined sugar, such as high fructose corn syrup or white cane sugar that we find in soft drinks, lollies, cakes, chocolate and other sugary treats, can cause blood sugar spikes that are quite destabilising to the body.
Sugar uses up valuable nutrients for its digestion and metabolism, which is why sugar such as the carbohydrates in whole fruit, vegetables and wholegrains is easier on the body: it comes packaged with the vitamins and minerals needed to process it and the fibre to slow down its effect on blood sugar levels.
When sugar comes without any nutrition, such as in a soft drink, it depletes the body, raising the blood sugar, which the body then needs to package away safely into cells. The digestion and packing away into cells happens quickly, causing the body to soon feel hungry again.
This yo-yo effect of hunger and high sugar – particularly if coupled with poor intake of vitamins and minerals – can lead to hypoglycaemia, symptoms of which include irritability, moodiness, anxiety and shakiness.
When discussing the problem of excess sugar, insulin is the main hormone called on to help the body pack away the large glucose molecules, which in excess can be damaging to our small blood vessels and thus the eyes, kidneys, nervous system, etc.
Saturated fats, particularly from factory-farmed meat, may make it more difficult for insulin to work, so the body gets pushed to make more insulin.
Excessive consumption of such saturated fats is linked to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and anxiodepressive behaviour. Palm oil in processed foods is particularly prudent to avoid.
Trans fats are bad for the brain. Numerous studies show that diets high in trans fats interfere with proper cell communication and are linked to depression and reduced serotonin (a feel-good brain chemical).
Check labels for trans fats and ingredient lists that include hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Avoid processed and fried foods.
Processed food, as we noted above, is more likely to contain trans fats, refined sugars and other chemicals, such as artificial colours and preservatives that can have adverse effects on our mood. Additionally, processed foods are frequently stripped of nutrients, providing only empty calories instead of true nutrition.
Foods we are sensitive or allergic to
Sometimes mood issues are tied up with food sensitivities or allergies. The gut-brain axis link, whereby alterations in the gut such as infection, microbiome alterations and even diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are linked with mental states, such as anxiety and depression, is well known.
If you feel down or jittery after a particular food it is a good idea to avoid it – common culprits include gluten, pasteurised dairy, soya and eggs.
Caffeine content is high in beverages such as coffee, energy drinks and black tea. Caffeine interferes with oestrogen levels and people who suffer with nervous agitation often find relief from ditching coffee and eliminating the adrenaline kick that can leave vulnerable people nervous with free-floating anxiety.
Caffeine-loaded beverages are also often high in ‘anti-nutrients’ (substances that reduce the body’s ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals needed for a calm and peaceful state of mind).
Overeating makes us feel tired, lethargic and lacklustre. Repeated overeating leads to being overweight. A combination of inflammation and other metabolic imbalances from being overweight, as well as our individual and cultural pressure to be thin, can exacerbate or lead to mental health issues and low mood.
Eating junk food results in excess calories and undernutrition, which can further drive hunger as the body is starving for the vitamins, minerals and healthy fats it is not receiving on a processed food diet.
Alcohol is on the list of junk foods as it provides little in the way of beneficial compounds, adds calories and toxic burden and is a drain on the mind and body.
What should we eat?
Mediterranean-style diet: A Mediterranean-style diet, rich in legumes (beans and lentils), extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and plenty of fruit and vegetables is shown to reduce risk of mental health issues and inflammation (which is linked to depression) and boost longevity.
Wholegrain and traditionally prepared foods are encouraged; limiting nutrient depletion from over-processing.
Probiotic foods: Probiotic foods such as kefir, kombucha and kimchi have shown promise in restoring a harmonious gut and mood. The microbiome of sufferers of mental health and mood disorders differs from that of controls, and those with psychiatric illness and ASD have signature microbiome elements.
Encourage gut health by incorporating fermented foods, so long as they don’t disagree with you.
Phytonutrients: These beneficial plant chemicals appear to be key. Aim to eat 8-9 cups of a rainbow-coloured assortment of fruit and vegetables a day, raw or lightly steamed, to maintain maximum benefits.
Green tea and berries are also very important sources of phytonutrients with diverse roles such as enhanced cellular communication, immune and nervous support and inflammation reduction.
Omega-3 oils: These are found in fish oils, but good vegan sources include flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. Omega-3 has shown mixed results as a therapeutic for depression, but research is promising and ongoing.
Hydrate: Hydration is crucial to keeping body and brain functioning optimally – make eight glasses of water per day a priority.
Of course, it’s important to seek expert support if your low moods do not appear to improve.
Naturopath Gemma Hurditch is a CNM (College of Naturopathic Medicine) lecturer. CNM trains successful natural therapy professionals, online and in class. Colleges across the UK and Ireland. Visit naturopathy-uk.com or call 01342 410505.
What has nutrition got to do with your brain health? Find out here.