The links between mood, mental health, sleep quality and nutrition are areas of research interest. Associations between the type and quality of a person’s diet and risk of anxiety and depression are increasingly described in literature. Complexities around the multidirectional relationship between diet and mental health are becoming more understood (Firth et al 2020) and it has been long established that poor sleep increases inflammation and stress hormones in the body.
Brain function requires a steady supply of glucose as its primary fuel which comes mostly from starchy carbohydrates. Energy which is slowly released, such as low glycaemic index carbohydrates, provide the optimal energy release for use by the body https://glycemicindex.com/. The brain also requires dietary fats as it is made up of 50 per cent fat, with brain cells needing fats to maintain their structure. Data supports unsaturated fats and omega-3 helps to ensure the brain is well nourished. Whereas trans-fats found in processed and packaged foods (meats, cakes, biscuits) seem to be harmful to brain structure and function.
Protein is essential for the growth, maintenance, and repair of all body cells, including the brain. Total protein intake and the quality of protein intake is important to ensure the body receives all the essential amino acids required for health. Good sources of protein include fish, chicken, lean red meat, meat substitutes, beans, quinoa, and nuts. Furthermore, protein contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid which is a precursor of serotonin synthesis and is thought to help with less depressive symptoms and anxiety. Tryptophan sources include fish, poultry, eggs and game, some green leafy vegetables such as spinach, pulses and seeds.
Specific evidence looking at nutrients directly linked to mental health include B vitamins (including folate) and zinc with research suggesting that these nutrients are important in managing depression. Vitamin D has also received attention as to whether vitamin D deficiency causes depression. There is no evidence that this is the case, however there is a correlation between people who have depression and low levels of vitamin D. This is likely to be a causal effect from the social withdrawal and isolation from feeling depressed. There is evidence that not having enough vitamin D leads to depression symptoms. Eating a colourful variety of fruit and vegetables at least 5 portions per day (1portion = 80g), consuming foods fortified with vitamin D and getting safe sun exposure helps provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals sufficient for health and well-being. In addition, some researchers think that omega-3 oils, found in oily fish, may also help with depression. Oily fish twice per week such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and trout is recommended.
A healthy brain contains up to 78 per cent water, therefore dehydration may also affect mood. Caffeine can lead to dehydration, withdrawal headaches and to low or irritable mood when the effects wear off. Drinking too much alcohol causes dehydration and can lead to B vitamin deficiencies, which increases depressive feelings or anxiety. Alcohol should be limited to within safe limits of units per week along with at least two alcohol free days per week.
Eating and drinking pattern is also important. Regular eating ensures optimal blood sugar control and as described above, links to our body’s functions, including brain health.
Avoiding over-eating and eating a main meal by 7.30pm encourages better sleep quality, which in turn supports our body’s natural circadian rhythm or body clock. Lack of good sleep also affects how much we eat. Research at King’s College, London, found that even partial sleep deprivation increased daily calorie intake of the equivalent of four slices of bread.
A recent area of interest is the link between our gut microbiome and mental health. As well as supporting our gut health, the microbiome is linked to stress and sleep quality and conversely sleep deprivation is known to negatively affect the gut microbiome after only two days of reduced sleep quantity and quality.
Such preventative measures to help with optimising mental health, gut health and overall well-being is key to maintaining a long-term positive lifestyle and will pay dividends in your overall health and happiness.
For further food examples, please refer to my blog called ‘Practical Examples for Food and Mood‘.
Rebecca Mead is an accredited, registered and experienced Psychotherapist offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) to individuals adults. Rebecca is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.
Further reading by Rebecca Mead –
As we come out of lockdown, will a number of us be feeling socially anxious?
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