It is estimated 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, and 1 in 6 will suffer from common mental health symptoms such as anxiety and low mood in any given week. It’s therefore very important to understand how your diet and the nutrients you get from it can impact your mental health.
Causes of mental health problems
Your mental health is affected by a combination of:
- Biochemicals in your body
- External factors such as events from childhood and adulthood
- Ongoing stressors affecting your hormones and emotions
- Lifestyle factors such as your diet and sleep
All play a role in the onset and severity of symptoms of mental health problems.
How do hormones impact mental health?
Lifestyle factors increase stress on the body and chronic stress is one of the biggest factors affecting the balance of hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid hormone function.
Changes in hormone levels can result in symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, poor sleep, poor memory and concentration, and the symptoms themselves can create more stress and exacerbate the hormonal changes.
Your diet and mental health
Our gut health and our mental health are connected.1 There are trillions of microbes in our gut (the gut microbiome) and most of the microbes help promote overall health such as our immune system, digestion and reducing chronic inflammation. Gut bacteria help to produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, which all play an important role in our mood.2
- Serotonin is associated with regulation of mood and helping memory.
- Dopamine can help boost motivation, mood and attention, and regulate emotional responses.
- GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) has a calming effect including helping to reduce stress and anxiety, and promote sleepiness.
Low levels of these neurotransmitters are associated with mental health symptoms and diagnoses.
Our gut and our brain are connected (the gut-brain axis) so if we have a healthy gut microbiome, we are more likely to have better mental health. Stress, hormones and the gut microbiome all impact each other – an unhealthy lifestyle can impact the healthy microbes in the gut, resulting in disease-promoting bacteria to thrive, so an unhealthy gut is often a contributing factor in mental health symptoms.
What we eat and drink plays a major role on our stress levels, our hormones and on our gut health.
Foods creating a positive impact on mental health
Low or sub-optimal levels of key nutrients play a role in mental health symptoms and here are a few you need to make sure are in your diet or you gain via supplements.
Magnesium – Stress can deplete Magnesium in the body and estimates suggest a large proportion of adults have too low levels. Magnesium is required for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body and is necessary for the release and uptake of serotonin, and the modulation of GABA in the brain.
Good food sources: nuts, avocados, legumes, seeds and wholegrains.5
Omega 3 – with the active form found mostly in oily fish and marine algae, Omega 3 is classified as an essential nutrient – this means that it cannot be produced by the body and must come from diet or supplementation. Omega 3 may help with the production and availability of serotonin.6 Dietary deficiencies of Omega 3 are associated with increased risk of developing mental health issues including depression.
Good food sources: oily fish such as salmon, and plant sources such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil.
B Vitamins – there are 8 essential B Vitamins which work together to manage many different processes, including helping with stress. They have a critical role in the production of chemicals in the brain, and aspects of mental health such as energy, cognition and attention. They may also help with stress management and anxiety, and low levels can contribute to low mood, lethargy and irritability. In particular Vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are involved in producing serotonin and noradrenaline which affect mood and other functions of your brain. B Vitamins are also important for hormone balance, detoxification and methylation processes in your body.
Protein – amino acids are the building blocks for making protein which is required for brain function and chemistry. Many brain neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, including serotonin (from L-tryptophan) and dopamine (from tyrosine). L-tryptophan can be found in poultry, fish, dairy and nuts. Tyrosine foods include meat, fish, cheese, nuts, eggs, beans and wholegrains. Some amino acids can be made by the body but others can only be supplied in the diet so it is important to have a high-quality balanced protein diet.
Good food sources: lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Iodine – Iodine is a mineral that is vital for the production of thyroid hormones. The thyroid plays an important role in metabolism, energy, mood, the immune system, brain function and much more. When your body doesn’t produce enough active thyroxine, this can lead to symptoms such as low mood, low energy, weight gain and poor concentration.
Good food sources: fish, shellfish, dairy and eggs.
Iron – Iron helps your red blood cells carry oxygen to your body’s tissues, so if less oxygen is reaching the tissues, this can result in weakness and lethargy, and low Iron can result in anaemia. Iron is required for production of dopamine in the brain. As well as lethargy, low Iron can present with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, poor concentration and apathy.
Good food sources: red meat, leafy greens, egg yolks and lentils.
Selenium – Selenium is a trace element that is important for thyroid hormone synthesis and metabolism. It is a potent antioxidant which can have a positive effect on your mood and cognition.8 Brazil nuts are very high in Selenium, however could cause selenium toxicity if consumed regularly.
Good food sources: mushrooms, seafood, beans, meat and sunflower seeds.
Zinc – this essential mineral is involved in many brain chemistry reactions. We need Zinc to regulate the storage and release of neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of zinc have been linked to anxiety and depression.8
Good food sources: meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds and nuts.
Vitamin D – known as the ‘Sunshine Hormone’, most Vitamin D is sourced from sunlight which converts it into its active form. More than half the population do not have optimal levels of Vitamin D and Public Health England recommend all adults supplement with Vitamin D. Low Vitamin D is associated with depression9, although the evidence is not strong enough for Vitamin D supplements in prevention of depression.
Good food sources: oily fish, eggs, red meat, fortified breakfast cereals.
Is my diet empowering my body?
It can be difficult to know what nutrients your diet provides and what it doesn't, and how they support your body, so we've created a free online Diet Profile that shows you. Try it here, it only takes a few minutes.
Food and drink creating a negative impact on mental health
Here are a few examples of foods that can result in mental health symptoms, affecting the balance of the gut microbiome and creating stress on the body.
Alcohol – you may feel happier when drinking alcohol due to a temporary boost in neurotransmitters, however the next day the feel-good chemicals can reduce and result in anxiety and low mood symptoms. Alcohol can also affect the quality of sleep and dehydrate you, resulting in fatigue. In the longer term, alcohol can lower serotonin which may cause or exacerbate depression.3
Caffeine – Caffeine can increase adrenaline and dopamine levels which can give you a temporary boost, but leave you feeling tired and low when the effects wear off. It can affect your sleep quality and is a diuretic, so resulting in lethargy and dehydration. Caffeine can also promote anxiety symptoms in some people.
Refined sugar – carbohydrate-rich food triggers the release of insulin, which helps to absorb L-tryptophan into the brain. L-tryptophan is an amino acid precursor of serotonin, so foods containing refined sugar can provide short term positive effects on your mood and energy, however the reduction in blood sugar that follows can lead to low energy and mood.4 Low glycaemic foods such as vegetables and wholegrains provide a longer lasting effect on brain chemistry, mood and energy.
Processed and fried foods are other examples.
Your diet plays a big role in the management of your mental health so it is important to focus on a healthy balanced diet, and reducing or cutting out foods that may be impacting negatively on your mental health. There can be a role for medication, however addressing the root causes of stress on the body, hormonal and gut microbiome factors, and lifestyle measures such as sleep, psychological factors and exercise, may help to improve symptoms.
Dr Katherine Hodgkinson, Hampshire Health & Hormones