Nutrition and Mood – What’s the Connection?

The last few months have forced us all to prioritise our health as we protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. But as job losses, social isolation and anxiety over the future take their toll; our current situation has also caused a huge amount of stress for many of us. And while we’re now beginning to ease restrictions on social distancing, the mental health of many Australians is still at risk as we face the after effects of this devastating pandemic.

While most of us know that eating certain foods can help lift our mood, such as chocolate or mum’s cooking, the strong connection between nutrition and mental health is only just starting to get the attention it deserves. It might seem an unlikely link, but this connection should really come as no surprise; after all, our brain is an organ and as such, requires specific nutrients to function effectively. So when it comes to our diets, what exactly can we do to optimise and protect our mental health?

Eat for good gut health

What do our guts have to do with our mood, you might ask? A lot, it turns out. Our guts are home to trillions of microorganisms, known collectively as the gut microbiota. A diverse gut microbiota, which can be achieved via a fibre-rich, predominantly whole food diet, has been found to be associated with reduced inflammation, a risk factor for mental health disorders. On the other hand, highly processed ‘junk’ food has been shown to be associated with chronic low-level inflammation, which increases the risk of mental health disorders. To maintain a healthy gut microbiota, eat a wide variety of colourful, fibre-rich whole foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and avocado, and limit your consumption of highly processed foods.

Eat plenty of oily fish

Oily fish is rich in omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that is important for brain function, and as such can impact on our mental health. Interestingly, rates of depression are significantly lower in countries with higher fish consumption, which is thought to be at least in part due to their high intake of omega-3 fats. Emerging evidence suggests omega 3s may benefit those with depression and can potentially help reduce inflammation, which as previously mentioned, is a risk factor for mental health disorders.

To maximise the benefits of omega-3 fats, aim to include oily fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel in your diet two to three times per week. However, it’s important to note that due to the mercury content of fish, pregnant women need to avoid or limit certain types of fish (visit the following link for more information: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/chemicals/mercury/Pages/default.aspx )

Keep blood sugar levels steady

Most of us know that feeling of intense irritability that hits when we’ve skipped a meal or forgotten to have breakfast. When we don’t eat regularly or eat the wrong types of foods, our blood sugar levels plummet, leaving us feeling what is commonly referred to as ‘hangry’. To keep hanger at bay, maintaining steady blood sugar levels is key. That means eating regular meals; breakfast, lunch and dinner and having a snack or two if you need it. And don’t forget that what you eat at each meal is just as important; good quality carbohydrates such as whole grain bread, oats, starchy vegetables such as potato and sweet potato, brown rice and pasta; lean protein and healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado and nuts will all help to keep blood sugar levels steady and in doing so, help keep your mood in check.

Limit highly processed and high sugar foods and drinks

We often seek out certain foods as a way of regulating our moods, and this may be especially true during stressful times. Eating carbohydrates, in particular, is associated with a temporary relief from a bad mood. This is thought to be because carbohydrates increase the production of serotonin, a brain chemical which helps to regulate mood. This could explain why many of us tend to crave carbohydrate-rich foods like chocolate and ice cream when we’re feeling down. But while highly processed and high sugar foods and drinks can make us feel good in the moment, it usually catches up with us later on. Our blood sugar levels spike, giving us a temporary boost before causing our energy to plummet soon after, leaving us feeling lethargic and irritable. In contrast, minimally processed and low glycemic index (GI) foods such as wholegrains, fruits and vegetables provide a moderate but longer  lasting positive effect on our mood.

According to the World Health Organisation “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In other words, we need to nurture and protect our mental health with the same vigilance that we do our physical health. One of the best ways you can protect your mental health is to maintain a healthy diet while ensuring you get plenty of sleep, regular exercise and manage stress effectively. However, if you are struggling to cope, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible.

By Nutrition Australia NSW
Skye Swaney-APD