Eat yourself happy
How what you eat could affect your entire mood.
The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ is a cliché, but the more people study the role of food in the human body, the more evidence suggests a much deeper relationship between food and our mental health, mood and brain performance.
The stomach – your second ‘brain’
Serotonin is one of the body’s key chemicals. It helps control and manage our mood. Sometimes known as the ‘feel-good’ chemical, serotonin enhances calm, improves outlook and lessens depression. It is found mostly in the digestive system and is made by the amino acid tryptophan. This is commonly found in many foods such as nuts, cheese and red meat. A deficiency in tryptophan can result in mood disorders such as anxiety or depression – but no direct link between a diet high in tryptophan and improved mental health has been found.
Added to this, over 90% of the body’s serotonin receptors are situated inside the stomach. Many scientists now see the stomach as a ‘second brain’, with a critical, if complex, link to our mood and brain performance.
As Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, a depression expert and fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says. “The chemistry in the gut is very similar to the chemistry in the brain. So it’s not surprising that things that influence the gut might influence the brain too.”
Medical evidence in this area is the result of innovative studies, many of which are the first to look in-depth at this area. But as the evidence and research grows, more and more GPs recommend diet and lifestyle changes as a part of wider programmes to help manage chronic diseases and fight mild to moderate depression.
The foods that could help improve your mood
This isn’t about ‘magic bullet’ ingredients or curing depression by eating the right food. But medical evidence increasingly suggests that eating the right foods as part of a long-term, balanced diet may well help reduce your risk of depression and boost your body’s natural energy at the same time.
1. Eat complex carbohydrates
Serotonin is released after eating carbs (sugars and starches). By eating complex carbohydrates like whole grains, beans and vegetables (rather than simple ones like biscuits or sweets) we can maintain a longer-lasting effect to this serotonin production.
2. Eat lean proteins
Dopamine and norepinephrine are released after eating protein (meats, poultry, dairy and legumes). These chemicals work together to increase your energy levels, enhance your concentration and make you more alert.
3. Try the Mediterranean diet
An analysis of 41 studies* in 2018 suggests that those who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet are much less likely to develop depression. The fish, fruit, nuts and vegetables that are in the diet are effective when inflammatory processed foods are avoided.
4. Eat the 12 ‘antidepressant’ nutrients
A major study** outlined an Antidepressant Food Scale, with 12 antidepressant nutrients related to the prevention and treatment of depression. These are folate, iron, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C and zinc.
There’s no clear evidence of a positive effect of eating these, but diets that are short in some of these key nutrients have been linked to depression. Foods that are high in these nutrients include oysters, mussels, salmon, watercress, spinach, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, and strawberries.
5. Avoid processed and junk food
Dr Felice Jacka’s PHD study in 2010 showed that women with diets rich in vegetables, fruit, fish,wholegrains and some red meat were less likely to have depression or anxiety disorders than those who ate a poor Western diet of processed foods. Now Head of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, Dr Jacka has collected 150 peer-reviewed papers to show that “what we stick in our mouths matters to our mental health”.
6. Look after your bacteria
There are trillions of tiny bacteria in our gut, and they have many roles in our gut health including helping to convert tryptophan into serotonin. Regulating gut bacteria by eating fermented foods and probiotics has been shown to have a positive effect on reducing symptoms of anxiety.
So with the evidence growing, it’s worth considering whether making small, but significant, changes to your diet could help smooth out the ups and downs of modern life.
Reviewed by Dr. Asimah Hanif
March 4 2020
- Last updated:
- 3 Mar 2020