How your diet can improve your mental health
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 regular mental health symptoms such as anxiety and low moods in any given week. In fact, the latest Ipsos Global Health Service Monitor shows mental health is now a bigger health concern than cancer, and record levels of stress and anxiety across society are among the biggest drivers of this, as shown in 'The Stress Survey', with 78% of people feeling stressed or anxious at least once a week.
Hormone health expert Dr Katie Hodgkinson explains how your diet and the vitamins you get from the foods you eat impact your mental health.
Causes of mental health problems
Your mental health is affected by a combination of the following factors:
- 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 of these 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 your 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.
Diet and mental health
Our gut health and our mental health are connected through the gut-brain axis. 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 a vital role in our mood, ability to think clearly and our mental health via the gut-brain axis.
- 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. Learn more about the gut-brain axis in 'Why your gut is your second brain'.
A healthy gut microbiome improves our mental health. Stress, hormones and the gut microbiome all impact each other – an unhealthy lifestyle can impact the healthy microbes in the gut, enabling disease-promoting bacteria to thrive, so an unhealthy gut is often a contributing factor in mental health symptoms. As a result, it's important we reach for foods which support our gut microbiome and our mental health. Learn more in 'What are prebiotics and probiotics?'.
Foods with a positive impact on mental health
Here are a few of the key nutrients you need to make sure are in your diet or you gain via the highest quality and clean supplements.
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.
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 a vegan Omega 3 supplement. Omega 3 can help with the production and availability of serotonin and dietary deficiencies of Omega 3 are associated with increased risk of developing mental health issues, including depression.
There are 8 essential B Vitamins which work together to manage many different processes, including helping with stress. B Vitamins 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 Vitamin 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.
Read our blog: 5 signs you may be low in Vitamin B12.
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.
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.
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. Learn more about why iron is so important, particularly for women.
Good food sources of Iron include leafy greens, lentils, and for those not plant-based egg yolks and red meat.
Selenium is a trace element that is important for thyroid hormone synthesis and metabolism, and is key ingredient in our award-winning Daily Multi-Vitamin. It is a potent antioxidant which can have a positive effect on your mood and cognition. Brazil nuts are very high in Selenium, however could cause selenium toxicity if consumed regularly or too high quantities.
As well as Brazil nuts, good food sources of Selenium include mushrooms, beans, sunflower seeds, seafood and meat.
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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. Hear from our experts on the signs of a zinc deficiency.
Known as the ‘Sunshine Hormone’, most Vitamin D is sourced from sunlight which converts it into its active form in our body. More than half the population do not have optimal levels of Vitamin D and Public Health England recommend all adults take a Vitamin D3 supplement. Low Vitamin D is associated with depression, although the evidence is not strong enough for Vitamin D supplements in prevention of depression. You may enjoy reading 'How do you know if you're deficient in Vitamin D'.
Good food sources of Vitamin D: fortified breakfast cereals, mushrooms, oily fish, eggs, red meat.
Is my diet helping?
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.
Create your free Diet Profile
Bad foods for 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.
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. Learn more from our experts in 'Is wine good for you?'.
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 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, and is also one of the most important drinks and foods to avoid if you suffer acid reflux or 'GERD'.
Discover the best alternatives to caffeine.
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 Learn more about the symptoms of high and low blood sugar.
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
View our range of Vegan Vitamins & Supplements.
You may be interested in reading 'Nootropics: Everything you need to know'.
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