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Food and mood

There is an increasing amount of evidence and research to show that there is a link between our mood and what we eat. We can have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing by adding certain mood enhancing foods to our diet and avoiding others that can cause our mood to fluctuate.

How does food affect mood?

What we eat and when we eat can affect how we feel. Eating sporadically, missing breakfast and not having regular meals can affect our blood sugar levels. This has been shown to cause mood swings and our energy levels to dip. Also what we eat can affect how feel. If we eat a lot of sugar and caffeine rich foods this can elevate our blood sugar to give us fluctuating moods and also exhaust our adrenal glands which adds to our feelings of stress and anxiety.

Since the brain depends on an even supply of glucose, it is no surprise to find that sugar has been implicated in aggressive behaviour, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

Low levels of vital vitamins and minerals and essential fatty acids can also affect mental health, with some symptoms associated with particular nutritional deficiencies. For example, links have been demonstrated between low levels of certain B-vitamins and symptoms of schizophrenia, low levels of the mineral zinc and eating disorders, and low levels of omega-3 oils and depression.

Top tips to change how you eat and the way you feel

  • Have 3 meals a day at regular times spread throughout the day. Remember that having breakfast improves academic performance and improves the body’s ability to cope with stress.
  • Replace refined foods with wholemeal, whole wheat or brown varieties - Eating lots of refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice and most processed foods) is linked with depression because these foods not only supply very little in the way of nutrients, but also use up the mood-enhancing B vitamins because the body needs B vitamins to turn each teaspoon of sugar into energy.
  • Cut down or eliminate sugar and caffeine in your diet to help improve your stress levels.
  • Eat more oily fish such as mackerel or salmon and nuts and seeds which contain Omega 3, 6 and 9 essential fatty acids to feed the brain and improve function and stabilise mood.
  • Eat good sources of protein like beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs and meat, which are all high in tryptophan – the building block for serotonin which is a mood enhancer.
  • Eat foods which contain a good balance of vitamins, particularly the B vitamin complex which helps to feed the nervous system and improve mood. Food rich in these essential vitamins include romaine lettuce, asparagus, spinach, sunflower seeds, peas, tomatoes, aubergine, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, low fat yoghurt, milk, salmon, halibut, turkey breast, yellow corn, chicken breast, steamed broccoli, squash, bell peppers, dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, eggs, shrimps and lentils.
  • Drink plenty of water daily.
  • Exercise is a key part of changing your mood for the better. It has been shown to be as effective as taking anti-depressants in a number of studies in which people exercised for 30 to 60 minutes 3 to 5 times a week. Exercising outdoors increases the beneficial effects.

Useful Links

The Healthy Lifestyles Team has an excellent webpage giving you a lot of information regarding how to eat healthily, including a healthy eating test and eating seasonally as well as much more. They also run a veg bag scheme and cookery courses so have a look!

Food for the Brain is an excellent non-profit educational charity, created by a group of nutritional therapists, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers and scientists to promote the link between nutrition and mental health. The site includes nutritional solutions for particular conditions such as Alzheimers disease and Parkinson’s disease through to mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and depression, as well as specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia amongst many others – giving dietary recommendations tailored for each.

Mind is a mental health charity providing advice and support. This sub section provides information about maintaining a health diet and how it can directly impact upon our mental health.

Self Help Guides produced by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust offer a wide range of information covering a variety of issues affecting wellbeing including nutrition, the food we eat and why it is so important.

The Mental Health Foundation provides a wealth of information surrounding healthy eating. You can visit their main web page for maintaining good mental health through your diet as well as download a booklet which gives you many tips on looking after your diet. Also available on the Mental Health Foundation website is a nutrients table so that you can pick the right foods for you, depending on whether you would like to improve your concentration, reduce anxiety or get better sleep. You can also download podcasts on making New Year’s resolutions for a healthy diet or finding out how a good diet is central to good mental health. Finally if you find yourself short on ideas, have a look at their booklet on recipes tailored to both your body and mind, excellent if you find yourself cramming for an exam or writing your dissertation.