The food-mood connection has been a focus of research for years. It’s well known that omega 3 and a Mediterranean style diet full of fresh vegetables can boost a sense of physical wellbeing, but there’s a lot of recent research that shows certain foodstuffs can help mental wellbeing too.
Just like the body, the brain and mind needs nutrients such as essential fats, amino acids, minerals and water to support healthy functioning. Fresh vegetables are a key source of excellent nutrients. Some of the key nutrients that can improve mental health include:
Omega fatty acids are generally good for us. Most people get enough Omega 6 and 9, found in foods like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and animal fats, but diets can often lack sufficient Omega 3. Multiple studies suggest that Omega 3 fatty acids (particularly EPA and DHA) can benefit people with mood disorders like depression, while EPA may also be effective against anxiety. New research indicates Omega 3 fatty acids may also have a role to play in preventing low mood and anxiety.
Sources of Omega 3? Omega 3 is found naturally in cold water seafood such as some shellfish (oysters) and oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring), plus some seeds including flax and chia. It’s also possible to choose a dietary supplement instead of a fresh food option, in the form of cod-liver oil.
Vitamins such as B2, B6, B9 (folate) and B12 play a part in producing the brain chemicals that influence mood. Recent research suggests that B group vitamins may be important in maintaining good mental health. For example, deficiencies of vitamins such as B2, B6, B12 and folate may be linked to depression and introducing these vitamins may help turn low mood around.
Sources of B group vitamins? You can add more B group vitamins to your meals by trying to eat a balanced diet that includes fish (such as salmon or cod), dairy products, eggs, leafy greens and beans (good to know that the less you cook your green vegetables the more you’ll keep the vitamin benefit). B group vitamins are also added to some ‘fortified’ breakfast cereals. Meat is a source of B group vitamins, yet this might not be your ‘go to' foodstuff as the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets increases.
The highest concentration of zinc in the human body is found in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is an important part of the limbic system - the area responsible for controlling emotions. Emerging studies suggest that zinc deficiency is associated with depression and that including appropriate levels of zinc in a regular diet can relieve some aspects of depression and even help reduce anxiety.
Sources of zinc? Foods that are high in zinc include poultry, beans, nuts, wholegrain foods, cheese, milk, and some kinds of seafood (oysters, crab, and lobster) and red meat.
So, if all we have to do is tweak our diets why aren’t we all happy? First of all it’s not always that simple to add more of these nutrients to your diet. There are lots of reasons why people don’t follow the UK Government advice of 5-a-day. These reasons include lack time to shop and cook, lack of money, isolation and lack of motivation, or existing anxiety or depression. In other words, there are lots of situations when taking actions that would be helpful just don’t seem that easy to actually do. That’s why a holistic approach of being able to share problems with friends, family or a professional counsellor, as well as eating better and moving a little more can all combine to make a lasting difference.
Remember always check with your doctor if you do want to alter your diet or take supplements, so you can be sure the change you’re planning is right for you.