Nutrition for mental health

Good nutrition can greatly improve your mental health.

Mental resilience and the ability to cope under pressure are influenced by a number of factors. Nutrition and hydration are two key areas that can significantly impact our state of mind.

There have been many links made between what we consume nutritionally and the direct influence it has on mental health. By the macronutrients that the food provides, these are  the most abundant component in the food breakdown providing energy/support to the body's structures and systems. Additionally the micronutrients present in food, which are important for producing hormones, such as serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA, all of which dictate our mood, motivation, state of calm and how happy we feel.

The stabilising effect of food

One overarching factor that can determine the state of our mental health is how stable our blood glucose (or blood sugar) is. Crucially, out diet influences this. The more we choose foods that keep our blood sugar relatively stable, such as foods that are high in protein and/or vegetable fibre, the more balanced our energy and mood will be.

Fluctuations in blood sugar can result in an increase in stress hormones, as the body responds to the highs and lows that occur. This rollercoaster kicks into gear an evolutionary response and sends a message to the brain that blood sugar either needs to rapidly be reduced or increased, as anything outside of a ‘normal’ amount can, over time, be harmful.

A low blood sugar level causes an increase in the hormone cortisol, which sends signals to the liver to convert carbohydrate stores into glucose, releasing this into the bloodstream to help raise glucose back to within normal range.

When blood sugar is too high (as it can be when eating processed, refined food in the absence of protein and fat), the body releases insulin to dispose of the glucose into our muscles, or to be stored for later use. This happens rapidly, which can often lead to an overcorrection and a subsequent low level of sugar in the bloodstream.

This perpetual cycle of blood sugar swings impacts overall mood and mental resiliency, and it can lead to cravings for sugar and caffeine. Avoiding these during periods of high stress is recommended.

The role of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)

Diet impacts blood sugar stability, additionaly the provision of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are also important. They help the body produce neurotransmitters and protect mental resiliency. Work done by the University of Canterbury suggest that a diet high in fruit and vegetables and low in ultra-processed food is an important factor in helping our ability to cope under times of stress.

The combination of vitamins and phytochemicals from these food choices helps reduce inflammation and oxidative stress systemically and in the brain, both of which are related to better mental health. In addition, animal protein provides forms of nutrients such as iron, zinc and B vitamins that our body easily absorbs, and these help in the production of neurotransmitters responsible for regulating emotion and mood.

Other ‘zoo’ nutrients (nutrients that are only found in animal sources of food), such as creatine and choline, are also involved in these roles. Creatine has a role as an antioxidant and is associated with lower levels of depression in women and can offset sleep deprivation. Choline is found in egg yolks and in organ meats and there is good preclinical support for its role in regulating memory, mood and potentially levels of anxiety and depression.

The importance of fat in your diet

A final dietary constituent with solid support for its role in mental resiliency is the longer chain fatty acids, eicosapentanoic acid and docohexanoic acid (EPA and DHA). These longer chain fats are either provided in the diet by fatty sources of fish (such as salmon, mackerel and sardines) or are produced in the body by alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in plant-based sources. Production of EPA and DHA in this way is inefficient in humans, therefore fish sources, or a fish oil (or algae) supplement, are essential for anyone wanting to optimise their intake. Both EPA and DHA have been studied for their use in the treatment of depression, alongside anti-depressant medications. The results suggest that due to their role in reducing inflammation in the brain and in reducing the deficit in these fatty acids often seen in people with major depressive disorder, they are good adjuncts to diet and lifestyle to optimise mental resiliency.

Nutrition tips for healthy ageing

To optimise mental resiliency and ability to cope under demanding conditions, focus on:

  • A diet that follows the foundation of Fuelling the Force, focusing on adequate protein, fat and colourful vegetables and fruit
  • Avoiding ultra-processed food as much as possible
  • Regulating blood sugar
  • Avoiding stimulants, such as coffee and sugar
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Nutrient dense sources of protein, including red meat, seafood and organ meats
  • Ensuring at least three serves of fatty fish per week, or supplementing with an omega 3 fatty acid supplement.