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Nutrition

Food and Your Mood: How what you eat directly affects your brain

Do your brain a favour and reach for a handful of mood-boosting foods – think nuts instead of donuts! Here’s how to improve your mood with food…

Natalie Parletta
October 2019

People often turn to comfort foods like chocolate and ice cream when they’re feeling down, but too much of these foods could make things worse. The flipside? Many essential nutrients and foods can actually boost mood in the long run.

As far back as 1910, it was said the leading cause of ‘acquired insanity’ was ‘imperfect nutrition’. Since then, research has identified a vast range of nutrients that are vital for optimal brain function and mental health.

These include vitamins such as A, B, C, D and E, minerals such as chromium, iron, zinc, selenium and magnesium, antioxidants and omega-3 fats, which all have different roles in supporting a healthy brain.

Professor Bonnie Kaplan, from Canada’s University of Calgary, explains that nutrients are needed for every single chemical reaction that takes place in the brain.

Brain food: How do nutrients boost your mood?

Chromium in broccoli, apples and wholegrains, for instance, can help increase levels of neurotransmitters including serotonin, norepinephrine and tryptophan, which all help regulate emotion and mood.

Magnesium, found in leafy greens, nuts and legumes, is one of the most important minerals in the body. Insufficient levels can lead to many problems including headaches, insomnia and agitation. Magnesium may also have an antidepressant effect.

Zinc is another highly essential mineral, found in red meat and poultry, oysters, nuts and legumes, which acts as a cofactor for hundreds of enzymes in the body. It is also important for our hormones, immunity and the brain, including neural functions that may help ward off depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish like salmon and tuna and edible algae have many roles in the brain, including lowering inflammation. Chronic inflammation, linked to diets high in processed foods, can be an underlying factor in depression, heart disease and many other conditions.

Vitamins B6, B9 (folate) and B12 are found in foods such as eggs, dairy, citrus, dark green vegies and wholegrains. These vitamins help regulate your body’s homocysteine levels.

Homocysteine is an amino acid found in small amounts in the body but when these levels increase, you may have a higher risk of heart disease and depression. So, keep your B12 and folate levels high to help prevent these conditions.

Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants, as are the hundreds of polyphenols found in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, green tea and herbs and spices. These repair oxidative damage in the body and brain, which may offer some protection against depression, dementia and more.

Exploring the food and mood connection

The link between mood and food has become increasingly clear, says Professor Felice Jacka, director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University, Vic, and author of Brain Changer: The latest cutting-edge science on how diet can affect your risk of anxiety and depression, and influence the health of your brain.

“We now have very extensive and consistent evidence from around the globe and across the lifespan that healthier diets are associated with an approximate 30% reduction in the risk for depression,” she says.

And Australian clinical trials, such as SMILES at the Food & Mood Centre, recently confirmed that a healthy diet can help alleviate depressive symptoms.

The mood-boosting foods that helped people feel happier are found in traditional Mediterranean diets: lots of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes (lentils, beans and chickpeas), nuts, seeds and olive oil, along with moderate intakes of fish and dairy.

The idea of ‘whole foods’ being consumed, as opposed to single nutrients, is being examined by researchers, because ‘whole foods’ have multiple benefits for brain and body health. For example, fibre, found alongside vitamins in fruit and vegetables, feeds healthy gut bacteria, which in turn lowers inflammation and may be associated with a lower risk of depression.

Professor Jacka agrees it’s best to focus on whole foods rather than individual nutrients.

“The way nutrients and other food components interact in our bodies is exceptionally complex, so focusing on one at a time is not particularly useful,” she explains.

Nutrition and mental health expert, Professor Julia Rucklidge, from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, says, “While many single nutrients have been studied for the treatment of depression, what these studies reveal are typically small effects."

“This is probably because the brain doesn’t need just one nutrient; it needs a broad array of nutrients to optimise brain health. It’s equally important to avoid junk and processed foods that directly harm the brain and the gut.”

“Anything that benefits the gut is likely to benefit our physical, mental and brain health,” says Professor Jacka.

Next time you reach for that donut, consider replacing it with an apple to bring a smile to your face, a handful of nuts for a better night’s sleep or make yourself a green tea to help ward off depression.

If you require urgent mental health support or emotional assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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