Inside: How food and mood are connected and what nutrient deficiencies may affect your mental health.
This post was submitted by Caitlin Evans, bookworm and medical student interested in health, nutrition, and wellness related topics.
“We are what we eat” – the old adage, which you’ve undoubtedly read, heard, or perhaps even said a dozen times, always finds a way to any discussion about nutrition. And when it comes to the topic of how the food we eat can affect our mental health, the saying really embraces a deeper undertone.
Numerous studies have been conducted to help us understand how certain nutrients impact mood and mental health, especially concerning depression and anxiety. We can rely on the findings from these studies in our own lives to remind us every day that the food we eat is like medicine for our wellbeing. In this blog post, we’ll talk about food and mood, as well as the nutrients that have the biggest impact on mental health and how to ensure you get them in your diet.
Food and Mood: What Nutrients Can Affect Mental Health?
There’s no debate as to whether a protein-rich diet is important for overall health – after all, the macronutrient acts as a building block of numerous parts of the body, from organs to muscles to hormones. Mood mediation is yet another key point of the numerous benefits and functions of protein in human bodies.
More precisely, it is amino acids, the building blocks of protein, which play a definitive role in mental function. Amino acids serve as important raw material for neurotransmitters, the mood-regulating chemicals, which include serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and GABA. Low levels of amino acids translate to low levels of neurotransmitters, leading to anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
How to avoid amino acid deficiency:
Make sure you get enough protein daily from healthy sources, in accordance with your body weight and activity level. Aside from your protein intake, keep in mind that poor digestion or consuming antacid medication can also cause lower levels of amino acids in your system. In order to be broken down into amino acids properly, protein needs a certain amount of stomach acids, so avoiding deficiencies starts with proper gut health.
Carbs have been made synonymous with “devil food” in our age, but, as always, there’s a limit to how much you should be limiting. It’s not only your body that requires carbs for energy and proper functioning but your brain as well.
The brain is fuelled by glucose (blood sugar) from the bloodstream in order to maintain optimal mental function, and carbohydrates, as you probably already know, are the body’s main source of glucose.
Moreover, certain levels of carbohydrates are necessary for the synthesis and release of serotonin – which really explains why comfort foods are typically carbs and why people tend to overeat carbs, connecting them to pleasant feelings (there are even some studies which address this phenomenon). It’s a double-edged sword – balance is key.
How to avoid carbohydrate deficiency:
Considering that carbs are almost impossible to avoid in our diets, you’re not going to have an issue with this, unless you go on an overly restrictive low-carb diet. With carbs, it’s more of an issue of maintaining that fine balance and ensuring you get them from healthy sources.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbs should make up 45-65% of your daily caloric intake, so you can use that as orientation. Focus on complex carbohydrates by choosing whole grains, oats, brown rice, yams, sweet potatoes, peas, pumpkin, beans, carrots, etc. Complex carbs break down more slowly in your body so that you don’t have extreme blood sugar spikes followed by crashes. This also means that serotonin is released more consistently and in a stable manner. Check out these 10 Blood Sugar Balancing Meals.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to healthy brain function, but you might be surprised to find that various studies link diets low in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids with depression. They have even been researched as a possible treatment for psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and researches continue to examine this possibility.
A diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids is also recommended as one of the safest ways to raise neurotransmitters like dopamine. Not getting enough Omega 3’s in your diet can lead to mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, poor focus, and hampered cognitive function overall.
How to avoid omega-3 fatty acids deficiency:
The best sources of Omega 3’s are fatty cold water fish – salmon, mackerel, and sardines, to name a few. Make sure you also include nuts and seeds – particularly almonds, walnuts, chia, and flaxseed, which are great sources of Omega-3’s and staple foods of a dopamine-friendly diet.
If you have allergies or it’s simply difficult to get an adequate amount of Omega-3 rich foods, you can supplement with fish oil, but make sure you get it from a reliable source that offers pure and high-quality products.
This essential micronutrient has been getting a lot of interest from researchers for its role in maintaining mental health, with studies showing the association between depression and low zinc concentrations in peripheral blood. There are a couple of ways in which zinc in your body impacts your overall mood and anxiety levels:
- It helps regulate copper, which is a cofactor for dopamine production. Without a sufficient amount of zinc in your body, copper cannot be regulated properly, and studies have shown increased levels of copper can cause anxiety and an agitated mood.
- It’s an essential cofactor for the conversion of amino acids into serotonin and dopamine.
- Zinc participates in the production of enzymes and acids which are necessary for breaking down protein – which means that low levels of zinc mean low levels of amino acids and ultimately low levels of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
How to avoid zinc deficiency:
A diet rich in zinc includes red meat, seafood (oysters and crab especially), poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
You might be one of the numerous people (myself included) who often feel the effects of low iron levels – fatigue, low energy, and often apathy as a result of the previous two. This is a very common problem, especially among women, who need three times as much iron as men, and even more during pregnancy.
How to avoid iron deficiency
If previous blood tests have shown you have low or borderline levels of iron, it’s not a bad idea to check on iron levels every now and then. Raising the iron levels in a safe way, solely through diet, takes some persistence and consistency. Dark leafy greens, red meat, quinoa, lentils, and beans are all great sources of iron.
Vitamins B12 and B6 (folate) play a vital role in maintaining the functions of the brain, including the production of neurotransmitters. Psychologists and psychiatrists often emphasize the role of these vitamins in mood regulation and cognitive function, with plenty of clinical evidence pointing to their importance. Symptoms of low B vitamins include fatigue, low energy, depression, irritability, confusion, and anxiety.
How to avoid B12 and folate deficiency:
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products and generally isn’t present in plant foods, which especially puts vegetarians and vegans at risk. Fortified breakfast cereal and dietary supplements are the common solution in that case.
As for folate, it’s much more available to all types of eaters, and can be found in chickpeas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, spinach, beans, and avocado.
Our bodies are beautiful, intricate mechanisms where all the parts, processes, and functions are deeply intertwined with each other. As with everything, your body requires balance and diversity from your diet. You don’t need to stress about your nutrient intake – just choose healthy and diverse foods, and if you find yourself lacking something, you can always supplement. Listen to what your body is telling you, observe your food and mood (you can keep a journal if you want) and enjoy every meal, knowing that you’re cultivating the garden of your wellbeing.
Caitlin is a bookworm and a medical student. She is especially interested in health, nutrition, and wellness related topics. When she is not trying to find the meaning of life and Universe, Caitlin is researching and writing for the various awesome blog since she loves sharing her knowledge. She is happily addicted to art in all its forms, grilled tofu, and hiking. To see what Caitlin is up to next, feel free to check out her Twitter dashboard.