Mental Health & Wellbeing

Food and Mood: How What You Eat Affects Your Mental Health

Mental Health & Wellbeing

The brain is one of the largest and most complex organs in our bodies. It initiates our body’s movements, controls our behaviour, it’s the headquarters of our intellect and home to our senses. Our brain works tirelessly 24 hours a day, seven days a week; even when we sleep. As a result of working continuously, our brains need a constant supply of power, and just like a prestige car, our brains function at their best only when they are supplied with premium fuel.

Just like a prestige car, our brains can be damaged if we fuel it with anything other than premium ‘fuel’. When our diets include an excess of processed foods, or foods containing large amounts of refined sugars, our brain has limited ability in being able to rid itself of the effects of these toxins. In particular, diets high in refined sugars are extremely harmful to our brain. As well as interfering with our body’s regulation of insulin, these also increase inflammation and oxidative stress. Many studies have found a link between consuming a diet which is high in refined sugars with impaired brain function and an exacerbation of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression.

If our brain is deprived of the ‘premium fuel’ of good quality nutrition, the low-grade fuel of too many processed or sugary foods allows free radicals and other damaging inflammatory substances to damage the cells within our brain’s space. This can cause brain tissue injury and damage to healthy brain cells which can have devastating consequences. Current evidence also suggests, that along with other healthy lifestyle factors, following a Mediterranean or similar diet, may help reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

A research study undertaken by the UNSW Ageing Futures Institute has shown some very promising results. The study showed that those individuals who followed a diet designed for brain health had a reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment. Professor Kaarin Anstey states, “This study has shown for the first time, outside of the United States, that the MIND diet reduces the risk of dementia.”. The study was based on the MIND diet, developed by Professor Martha Morris. The MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (a diet designed to reduce hypertension). The researchers categorised foods into 10 brain-healthy food groups and 5 brain-unhealthy food groups. The participants’ weekly food intake was assessed weekly with a MIND diet ‘score’, tallying the number of brain-healthy and brain-unhealthy foods consumed. What researchers found amazed them. Those who ate more brain-healthy foods and less brain-unhealthy foods had a 53% reduction in their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease! Even participants who didn’t follow the guidelines strictly still showed a significantly reduced risk at 35%.

Thankfully, due to continued studies, researchers are finding that there are many correlations between, and consequences related to, what we eat, how we feel and how we behave on a daily basis. Research studies have shown that those individuals who eat the Mediterranean diet, the neuroprotective MIND diet or a traditional Japanese diet have a 25-30% lower risk of experiencing depression. Individuals who follow these diets generally have a much higher intake of fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish, and seafood and consume only a moderate amount of lean animal protein and dairy foods. Refined foods and sugars which are usually staples in the ‘Western Diet’ are not found in these healthier diets.

There is also a direct link between our gut health and brain health. Supplying our gut with ‘good bacteria’ influences not only what our gut digests and absorbs, but also limits inflammation in our bodies and brains, enhances our moods and increases our energy levels. Changes in the gut microbiome as we age has been linked to disruptions in the immune system, persistent inflammation, chronic disease and neurological disorders, so paying attention to what we fuel our bodies and brains with, becomes more crucial as we age.

So, how can we improve our brain health?

Pay attention to how eating certain foods makes you feel; not just when you’re eating them, but also in the following 24 to 48 hours.

Consider eating a ‘clean’ or Mediterranean diet for a month, cutting out all processed foods and refined sugars.

Monitor how you feel by keeping a Food/Mood journal. Slowly reintroduce foods back into your diet and see how you feel when you consume these foods again.

Many of my clients have reported how much better they feel both physically and in their moods, when they follow a healthier diet, and how much worse they feel when they reintroduce foods which are known to cause inflammation.

Although eating a healthy diet can help to improve a person’s mood and enhance their brain function, it’s not a substitute for seeking help. If you have been experiencing low moods or struggling with negative feelings for an extended period of time, speaking with a registered, professional counsellor can help.