We’ve all heard it before: you are what you eat. But it actually goes deeper than this - our mood and mental health are also deeply connected to the food we consume. Just like our bodies need fuel, our brains require fuel to function.

The last few years have been a struggle for many of us, and lots of us turned to food to cope. This likely meant we were eating lots of processed foods, high in salt with refined sugars. We may have seen some physical effects of this diet change, but did you notice how your mood was affected too? With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to dive into this topic of the ‘food mood connection’ and cover the psychological connection between what we eat and our mental health. We’ll also share a few insights on how you can help improve your mood, just by changing what you eat.

Nutrition for Mental Health

Some foods are known to be great for brain health, such as leafy greens, fish and berries (think vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and omega-3’s). Other foods, like those high in processed sugars, can contribute to brain inflammation and impaired brain function, connected to mood disorders like depression. These processed food diets are common in Western cultures.

What we eat is important for the physical health of our brains and our bodies, but the mental health impacts of our diets is a newer research area that holds a lot of potential. This is where nutrition for mental health comes in. Nutritional psychiatry is uncovering many connections between what we eat and how we feel and act, and even the connection between bacteria in our gut and their impact on our mental health.

The Science Behind the Food Mood Connection

Our brain and our moods are influenced by chemical messengers in our brains. But interestingly, these chemical messengers aren’t all produced in our brains. Serotonin is one of these chemical messengers. It’s a neurotransmitter that plays a big role in our functioning - from sleep, appetite, moods and also acts as a pain inhibitor. It plays a key role in our emotions and mood, but what’s the connection to what we eat? 95% of our serotonin is actually produced in our gastrointestinal tracts, and our GI tracts are lined with millions of nerve cells (neurons).

The proper functioning of these neurons in your GI tract and the production of serotonin is highly influenced by bacteria that make up the microbiome of your GI tract. You may have heard of this ‘good’ bacteria before, the likes of which can be found in foods like probiotic yogurt or fermented foods. These bacteria are truly good - they help protect your intestinal tract, limit inflammation and help you absorb useful nutrients from your food. Their biggest contribution to the food mood connection is their ability to activate neural pathways between the brain and our guts.

This makes it clear that there’s a very close relationship between our gastrointestinal system and our brains, mood and emotions. What we eat really does impact not only our overall health but our mental health too. From here, nutrition for mental health can help us make different choices to better our mood.

You Are What You Eat - How to Improve Your Food Mood

Large studies at the population level have shown that “people who eat a lot of nutrient-dense foods report less depression and greater levels of happiness and mental well-being”. Further research into specific diet choices sheds light on the very likely possibility that a healthier diet contributes to lower chances of depression.

The science behind the food mood connection makes it clear that the tie between our brain chemistry and the food we ingest has a very real impact on our mental health. Studies have shown that diets from other parts of the world, like the Mediterranean and Japanese (two diets rich in healthy fats like fish and oil, legumes, vegetables and unprocessed grains) have been associated with a 25%-35% lower risk of depression than in those who eat a ‘Western’ diet (think processed foods high in refined sugars and salt, meat-heavy).

Ever eat some fast food and shortly after feel sluggish and generally down? It might be more than your feelings of post-indulgence regret, especially if it’s part of a regular habit. Certain foods leave us feeling good (both mentally and physically) and others have the opposite effect. Pay attention to what you’re consuming on a regular basis and take note of how it makes you feel. If you’re struggling with your mental health or are prone to mental health issues, look at your diet and see where you might be able to make some changes. Try introducing new foods to your diet that are non-inflammatory and natural probiotics that will help with that good bacteria in your gut, like yogurt, kimchi or sauerkraut to name a few.

Here are some other foods with natural probiotics:

  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Natto (from Japan, fermented soybeans)
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Gherkin pickles
  • Brine-cured olives
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Buttermilk

Improving Your Food Mood for Good

Want to make a diet change to improve your mental health? Try switching to whole foods that are low in refined sugars and non-inflammatory and introduce natural probiotics. Make a concerted effort at improving your diet for a two-to-three-week period and see how you’re feeling afterwards. How is your mood? How do you feel physically? Chances are good you’ll see some positive changes and hopefully that’s enough to help you develop some longer-term habits that will benefit your mental health.