Sundus Khalid’s thoughts on the relationship between food and mental health


We are all well aware of the effects different foods have on our body, but its effects on mental health are less well known. Even though the exact cause and effect relationship between different foods and mental health isn’t fully understood, many research studies have linked eating (or not) of foods with our mood.

Nutrition is an often over looked factor in the treatment of depression and anxiety. There are a number of different food types that can help improve mood, which are detailed below.

  1. Proteins

Proteins containing amino acids such as Tyrosine and Tryptophan have been shown to have positive effects on mood. Tyrosine boosts levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain. These are crucial chemicals in our body that are involved in regulation of mood and behaviour and help with concentration and increases alertness.

Another important chemical that improves mood is serotonin which is made from the amino acid, Tryptophan. Deficiency in tryptophan leads to decreased levels of serotonin and thus making it difficult to deal with stress and depression.

Examples of foods rich in Proteins: Cottage Cheese, Asparagus, Eggs, Beans and meats such as Turkey.

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These are essential fatty acids as they are not produced by the human body and therefore are essential to have in your diet. It is shown that omega-3 fatty acids seems to be the most potent natural anti-depressant and reduces depressive symptoms by an average of 53%. It is believed that omega-3 helps to build brain cell connections and helps in us being more responsive towards the happy chemicals, mentioned above. Surveys have shown that in countries where a majority of the population consumes more fish has lower incidence of depression.

Examples of foods rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and nuts such as walnuts.

  1. Complex Carbohydrates

Studies show a link between mood and a balance of blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates keeps blood sugar levels steady as these are broken down to slowly release energy.

On the other hand, foods high in refined sugar or highly processed foods leads to spikes in sugar levels which are responsible for symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, insomnia, low mood and crying spells. These foods further negatively affect mood by using up the mood enhancing B vitamins in the body.

Examples of foods rich in Complex Carbohydrates: Whole grain, lentils, sweet potatoes, oatmeal.

  1. Vitamin B

Several studies have shown that people with low levels of vitamin B (B6, B12 or folic acid) are more likely to be depressed and are less likely to benefit from antidepressant drugs. One study showed that antidepressants alone improved the condition of 61% of patients whereas with the additional folic acid 93% of the patient reported to have felt better.

Vitamin B can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables whole foods nuts and seeds. Examples of foods rich in B Vitamins: Spinach, Broccoli, Asparagus, Liver, Eggs, Milk, Fortified breakfast cereals.

  1. Minerals

Minerals such as potassium, magnesium, selenium and zinc have also been reported to be significantly lower in depressed individuals compared to healthy. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that high-potassium diets helped relieve depression symptoms and muscle tension in its participants. Additionally, one study by the The National Institute of Health found that people with magnesium deficiency had reduced levels of serotonin, a mood-calming neurotransmitter.

Examples of foods rich in:

Selenium – Brazil nuts, seafood such as oysters and tuna

Zinc – cheese, shellfish, meat and dairy foods

Potassium – bananas, yoghurt and avocado

Magnesium – Dark leafy greens, walnuts, dark chocolate and dried fruit

  1. Healthy gut

Studies have shown that the gut has influence on a number of things such as obesity, mood and anxiety. There are two ways gut can influence mood. Firstly, gut bacteria are involved in the regulation of absorption of tryptophan into the blood, directly affecting the levels of serotonin. Secondly, gut inflammation has been identified as a causal factor in depression. This is usually caused by diets rich in saturated fats and carbohydrates which trigger changes in gut bacteria that are associated with chronic systemic inflammation. You can maintain a healthy gut by having Probiotic Yoghurt and avoiding foods you are intolerant against. For example individuals suffering from Coeliac disease are intolerant to gluten.