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How Food Can Affect Our Mental Health?

Let’s talk about comfort food. The things you eat when you’re feeling rough and just want something to make you feel better. What do you eat?

Comfort Eating

How does it make you feel after you’ve eaten through the Celebrations or the bucket of fried boneless chicken? Throughout Mental Health Awareness week (18th – 24th May 2020) I found myself thinking more and more about the impact certain foods make on our mental health. Sometimes, I notice when I eat certain foods that my mental health feels better. Other times, foods I think I want to gorge on to drown my sorrows (or whatever reason I’m wanting to comfort eat it), the food actually makes me feel worse.

So, I thought it was the perfect time to write about how food can affect your mental health. I’m sure we’ve all been there at some point: we’re feeling low so we grab a bag of crisps, a bar of dark chocolate, or far too much bread. At the time, eating that kind of food feels amazing. Just after you’ve eaten it, on the other hand, and for several hours after, it’s a totally different story. (At least, that’s how I feel. I’m not sure about you. I, certainly, have comfort food guilt!)

If we know these ‘comfort foods’ aren’t exactly what our body needs, what kind of foods improve your mental health instead?  What foods are good for your mental state? Is there even a link between the two for real?  Let’s dive a little deeper. 

The Food Science Stuff

I can’t remember when I first heard it, but it’s the saying that many people use when it comes to talking about the food you eat and the relationships it has with the body. Was it Gillian McKeith that first coined that phrase, or is it just the title of her book? I’m not sure, but it’s still a great phrase to use and sums up the topic well. We pretty much ARE what we eat.

What do you eat on a typical day? Have a quick think.

How do you usually feel? How does your body feel?

Does your diet and feeling match up?

Quality nutrition contributes to the prevention of mental health problems. It also helps the body to manage and recover from them when and if they do occur. In other words, if you eat good foods that are high in nutrients, your body will protect itself from any problems inside and out.

What counts as a high-quality nutrient that your body will use to help protect itself from mental problems?

Well, studies have linked the intake of nutrients like fish (and other omega-3 fats) to the prevention of mental illness such as depression. These studies found links between the low intake of fish and a higher risk of depression. Such links were also found between low intakes of zinc and Vitamins B1, B2, and C and an increased risk in depression, and between diets high in fat and greater risk of dementia. Furthermore, deficiencies in iron, magnesium, and zinc were found in children with symptoms of ADHD. Research: Mental Health Organisation

So, we can see in the above studies that nutrients affect mental illnesses like depression, dementia, and ADHD. That just goes to show how important a diet rich in the right nutrients is for your mental health.

The negative cause and effect of food for your mood

On the other end of the scale, is the way that eating food that is bad for you (with low nutrients, or is high in fat and sugar) can negatively affect your mental health. A study discussed in this NHS article found that as the consumption of fast food increases, so does the risk of depression.

It is suggested that this is the similar for many mental health illnesses.

Your brain is fragile and feeds off whatever you give it. Feed it good food, it will feel good. Feed it things without nutrients, you’ll notice the effects on your mood and with your mental state.

Food allergies and intolerances

Undiscovered allergies and food intolerance can also wreak havoc on your mental state. If you think eating certain foods types will be bad for your body (think sugar or too many carbs) which CAN put you at risk of mental illness, just imagine what could happen if your body considers a food a threat! 

We discussed previously the relationship between the gut and pretty much every part of how your body works. If you’ve not read it yet, you can check out > the blog here!  

If you’re eating foods your body considers a threat, your digestive system and other parts of your body are going to know. Then they’re going to complain. Often, parts of your body will become inflamed (you may not notice it, but sometimes you MIGHT notice bloating of the stomach after eating something your body is uncomfortable with). 

Studies have shown relationships between stress, inflammation, and disease. With a triggered allergy or intolerance (whether you know you have it or not), your body is going to have a triggered stress response and then, in turn, the brain will respond with a change in mental state. It’s not always just physical reactions like sickness or having to rush to the bathroom. Sometimes, it can be all in the brain. 

It’s not unknown for people with undiscovered (or late discovered) allergies to suffer more from depression, bi polar disorder, or other mental health difficulties. I knew someone who, unfortunately, suffered very badly due to this.

Intolerance to foods can cause very unpleasant feelings (mentally and physically) and it’s important to get them discovered before anything more serious happens. If you have a long-lasting mental illness, perhaps go to your GP to check for allergies and food intolerance. It could be your body trying to tell you something.  More information can be found in the Mind charity website

How lacking in certain nutrients can affect your moods

What we eat and drink affects the way we think, feel, and behave. Like other parts of our body (we previously spoke about the foods your gut needs to operate well) , our brain needs certain foods to operate well and help you feel great. It needs a variety of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. If you’re lacking in something, you’ll feel the effects all over your body, including mentally.

Imagine you’re lacking in Vitamin B6, for example. Just lacking in this could cause irritability, poor memory, higher stress levels, and depression. Just one food element that we don’t usually think about separately can cause larger effects like this that we just don’t pin down to the smaller things like that. If you were to have these symptoms and worry you’re lacking in Vitamin B6, raising your intake of wholegrains and bananas can help.

It’s the same for Vitamin C. Often, we imagine the long-suffering issues that sailors face after months at sea without fresh fruit and veg. Or, a greater risk of colds and other immunity issues. But, did you know that a lack of Vitamin C could also give you problems with depression? If you’re struggling with depression, try increasing your Vitamin C intake with fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly kiwi fruits, bell peppers, and citrus fruits.

I found a really helpful table from mentalhealth.org.uk that gives more information about nutrients you could be lacking, the mental symptoms that could cause, and what foods to eat to help with that. Check it out below from the Mental Health Org website.

Good mood foods

So, what kind of goods are great at helping your mental state? Did you know that a recent study found a Mediterranean-style diet (full of gorgeous veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and that glorious olive oil), helped to reduce depression among the participants of the study? (Parletta, 2017)

People I know who have grown up on a largely  Mediterranean-style diet, and being someone who ADORES anything fresh, veggie, fruity, I can believe how great the Med-diet is for giving the body the high nutrient boost it needs for a healthy brain and mental state.

What else is included in the list of top foods to eat to improve your mental health?

Fruit and veg

Vitamin B6 helps boost serotonin, which makes you happier. Fruit and veg such as tomatoes and bananas have potassium, which is essential for your whole nervous system, including your brain.

However, pretty much any fresh fruit and veg of as many varieties as you can get will help your mental state. They’re full of nutrients of all kinds, and doctors recommend going above the average 5-a-day (perhaps 8-a-day) to give your brain the boost it needs to be great.

Water

Though it’s not really considered a ‘food’, the type of liquid you drink greatly affects your body and your mental state. We all know we need to drink a couple of litres of water a day, but how many of us actually get around to drinking that, or end up having things like lots of coffee and sugary drinks instead?

Try sticking to water, herbal teas, or green tea as much as possible. They’ll hydrate you and give you the benefits you need. Try to avoid sugary drinks, things high in caffeine, or alcohol (as they take more fluids from your body when you eventually go to the bathroom than the drink originally gives you).

Protein

The amino acids in protein is a key part to your brain function properly and regulating your moods. This might be a more tricky one for vegans who can’t have the recommended fish or meat doses, but make sure to have a form of protein for every meal: quinoa, seeds, tofu, beans, anything. It will help repair and strengthen your brain, which is exactly what you need.

Wholegrains

Wholegrains are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your body create serotonin and melatonin, both needed to maintain your mental state. We all know serotonin to be the ‘feel good’ hormone. It helps to improve our mood and relax our brain, keeping depression and anxiety at bay.

Melatonin is equally important for your mental health, helping you to create and regulate good sleep cycles. And, I’m sure we’ve all been at a point at some point in our life where we’ve not had enough sleep or our sleep cycles have been out-of-whack and we’ve felt a serious hit in our mental health.

It’s due to these two feel-good hormones that tryptophan is important for our body. Make sure you have enough wholegrains in your diet to make the best use of this great nutrient.

Fats (the right ones)

Saturated fat? Unsaturated fat? Omega-6? Omega-3? Different ones are better for you and others we should try to avoid altogether. But, which ones are the ones that actually help our mental health and which are the ones that, though they feel great to eat, actually aren’t?

Omega-3 is a needed nutrient for your brain and can help protect you against mental illnesses. You’ll find Omega-3 in foods like salmon, fatty fish, soy-based foods, seeds, walnuts, and leafy greens. The BBC website has some good reading resources >here.

Omega-6 is also needed, but in less of an amount than we may think. People in the UK tend to have a diet richer in Omega-6 than in Omega-3. In fact, they’re both needed at a similar level.

Sugar

Sugars cause your blood sugar to rise quickly, which can make you feel better for a moment. But, it also falls quickly. Once it falls, you’re quickly left hungry again and wanting to eat more.This low blood sugar, even falling blood sugars, cause a rise in your stress hormones (including your adrenaline and cortisol), causing a negative impact on your moods.

The more sugars you eat, of course the more this will happen and the more your body’s stress hormones will be activated and affected.

To avoid these negative effects, reduce your sugar intake and eat foods that have slower burning sugars to avoid the sudden drops in sugar levels.

Simple Tip to help you eat well and improve your mental health

Keep a food and mood diary

Keep a food diary, or a note of what you ate that day. If you start to match your moods with the foods you’re eating, you’ll learn what makes you feel better and start seeing how food affects your mood.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just a quick note each day in the diary you already have about the main types of food you’ve eaten and how you felt that day. You’ll start noticing a pattern in no time, which you can adapt and experiment with as you go along.

Diet habits

  • Reduce sugar and processed foods
  • Increase your intake of Omega-3 fats
  • Feed your gut with prebiotic fibres
  • Eat regularly and don’t skip meals
  • Eat slow release energy foods
  • Drink water

Resources: Mind Charity and BBC

Now Over To You To Get Involved

What’s your top high-nutrient feel-good-food? Tell us below and please share this with people  who may be wanting to try something new next time they need a mental pick-me-up. 

One of my favourite things to eat if I’m feeling low is a bowl of vegetable soup. It was the ultimate get-better food in our household. If anyone was unwell or feeling mentally down, vegetable soup was the way to go. Even if, at times, I think I want unhealthy food, I know the vegetable soup is what my body really needs. And, as we saw above, it has the perfect mix of vitamins and minerals that will help the body recover.

References

  • Parletta, N., Zarnowiecki, D., Cho, J., Wilson, A., Bogomolova, S., Villani, A., Itsiopoulos, C., Niyonsenga, T., Blunden, S., Meyer, B., Segal, L., Baune, B. and O’Dea, K. (2017). A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutritional Neuroscience, pp.1-14.

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