We’ve known for a long time that there’s a direct correlation between what we eat and our physical health – cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity for example. But it’s only more recently that we’ve started to see the link between what we eat and our brain, our mood and how we feel.
There are many factors which increase our risk for mental health conditions and disorders – trauma, poverty, our environment, our family, our genetics. Most of which we can do very little about, however there are modifiable factors with diet being one of them, but also sleep, exercise and stopping smoking.
It’s not just about us as individuals, we can also have an impact on our families and those around us, particularly if you’re the person that does most of the cooking and shopping. Also we know what a mum eats during her pregnancy has a huge impact on the health and well-being of the child, as well as what they eat in those first early years having a huge impact on long term physical and mental health.
What is good mental health?
The World Health Organisation gives a definition of good mental health as being:
a state of well being in which every individual realises his or her own potential; can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
So you can see that this is a fairly broad definition, which we all fit into that somewhere. So whether we are someone that just gets a little bit stressed, anxious or worries a bit sometimes, through to more serious things like addictions or diagnosis’ like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. You can see that we can all benefit from this advice in some shape or form.
What should I eat?
When you see programmes on TV or read articles in magazines, quite often what you’ll get is if you eat x, then y, but it is much more complicated than that. Research consistently shows that the higher quality the diet we eat, the better the physical and mental health outcomes we have.
What this means is: a minimally processed diet, rich in whole grains, lots of fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Loosely based around what you’ll know as the Mediterranean diet. A low quality diet is high in salt and sugar, highly processed and includes lots of animal fat and trans fats. That’s not to say you can’t have the odd takeaway but if we base most of our diet on high quality foods then we will see the benefit.
The microbiome is something you’ve probably heard a lot about, but what is it? The microbiome is all the yeast, fungi and bacteria that live in our guts. We know that signals move between our guts and our brain, with about 90% going from our gut to our brain, and about 10% of that communication goes down from our brain to our gut. Therefore, if our gut is stressed that has an impact on our brain and our mental health, and likewise, if we’re stressed that has an effect on our gut.
Our gut is capable of producing the full range of B vitamins and some neurotransmitters. B vitamins are the ones that are involved in helping us release energy and stopping us feeling lethargic and fatigued. The neurotransmitters include serotonin, the feel good chemical that helps to regulate our mood. So you can start to see that there’s a correlation.
Feed your gut
By focusing on food to support the growth of these beneficial bacteria and this will have a knock-on effect for our health, both physical and mental. This means:
- high fibre foods (for example, potatoes in skins, broccoli, oats, berries, nuts and seeds)
- pre and probiotics
Prebiotics are the foods that feed the probiotics, which are the bacteria and all that that makes up your microbiome. Prebiotics, include foods like garlic, onions, leeks, chickpeas and lentils. And your probiotics are your live yoghurts, miso, fermented foods like sauerkraut. If you can start to include more of those things into your diet, you’re going to help improve your microbiome.
What research is there?
There are two well documented trails; the HELFIMED trial and the SMILES trial. In these similar trials the participants were all diagnosed as being clinically depressed. They were each separated into two groups. One group received help from a dietitian and cooking lessons to bring them inline with a Mediterranean style diet. Whilst the other group received social support to help them feel more positive.
At the end of the three months, most of the participants reported a decline in their self-reported feelings of depression. However the groups that received the help with their nutrition, 32% were considered to be in remission, that is, they were no longer considered to be clinically depressed. These trials demonstrate that food can have a huge impact on our mental well-being.
Practical tips and advice, what can you do?
The main message to take away is variety. The more variety you can include in your day-to-day diet, the better.
- Make a shopping list and try to include lots of different ingredients, spices and herbs
- Cook from scratch as often as possible
- Include lots of pre and probiotics in your diet and lots of high fibre foods
- Include plenty of wholegrains – brown rice, oats, barley, bulgur wheat
- You don’t have to buy fresh foods, tinned vegetables and frozen fruits, vegetables and fish are just as good
- Buy extra tins of beans or other non perishable items like lentils when you shop so you always have quality ingredients to hand
- Cook extra with your main meal so you’ve got a high quality meal ready for your lunch or in the freezer for another day.
You can see there is much we can do to help ourselves through changes to our diet. However, I completely understand that changing how and what we eat can be a challenging process. If you would like more individualised support then please get in touch using the contact form below, and let’s see if I can help. If you would like to find out more about me first, then you can do so here.
Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R. et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
(2019) 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, 22:7, 474-487,
Gibson, G., Hutkins, R., Sanders, M. et al. Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on the definition and scope of prebiotics. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 14, 491–502 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrgastro.2017.75
Newman, L., Judd, F., Olsson, C.A. et al. Early origins of mental disorder – risk factors in the perinatal and infant period. BMC Psychiatry 16, 270 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-016-0982-7