The food we eat not only affects how we feel physically, but it has a big impact upon how you feel mentally.
We all know it’s important to eat a well-balanced diet if we want to maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risk of a variety of health conditions and diseases. But did you know that your diet also plays a key role in how happy you feel?
While we all enjoy the odd treat now and then, research suggests that an overall poor diet can contribute to poor moods.
Our brain and mood
Our moods are controlled by our brain. There are several areas in our brain responsible for the many different feelings and moods that we experience (i.e. fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow, etc.). One of these areas is called the hippocampus.
While studies into how our brain controls our moods are still continuing, researchers believe that low mood is linked to sluggish production of new neurons (nerve cells) in the hippocampus. In fact, one study of women who had a history of depression showed that the hippocampus was on average nine to 13 per cent smaller in depressed women, compared with women who weren’t depressed.
Researchers are still investigating links between low moods and the production of neurons, however some studies seem to suggest that mood only improves as nerves grow and form new connections.
And what do we need for our brain to grow these nerves and develop these strong connections? Good nutrition.
Like the rest of our body, our brain needs fuel to function properly, and the fuel for our brains is obtained through our diet. Our brain is a complex organ, so it’s not enough to feed it just anything. As a highly-tuned engine needs top quality fuel, our brain requires quality nutrition if we want it to perform at optimal levels.
The link between mood and diet
Evidence of the benefits of certain foods and our brain health, is based on what happens to our brain when we don’t get enough of them. For example, research shows some deficiencies in the diet may lead to negative effects on brain function, including low mood.
In fact, one study found long-term exposure to an unhealthy diet was a risk factor for depression. For the purposes of the study, an unhealthy diet constituted one that was high in sugar and processed foods.
Which brings us to the question: “What should we be eating?”.
Food for our mood
Instead of simply listing what foods we should eat, it may be more useful to discuss which nutrients our brain needs, and work out which foods are the best sources of these essential elements.
Different foods provide different nutrients, all of which affect the health of the brain. The following are required for optimal brain health.
- Dietary cholesterol improves brain function.
Best sources: dairy products, egg yolks, berries, walnuts and avocados.
- Antioxidants (in particular carotenoids and flavonoids) fight cell damage.
Best sources: carotenoids are found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, while flavonoids are found in all fruits.
- Iodine is essential to form thyroxine and deficiency in mothers has been linked to mental retardation in their children.
Best sources: iodised salt (be aware of adding too much salt to your diet, however), seafood, dairy products, eggs, saltwater fish.
- Iron keeps the membrane fluid. Iron deficiency may be linked to ADHD in some children.
Best sources: lean meat and fish, eggs, nuts, legumes.
- Protein impacts mood and memory and is required to produce neurotransmitters.
Best sources: meat, fish, eggs, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds, dried beans and lentils, dairy products and soy products.
- Folate is associated with positive effects on mood. Low levels of folate have been linked to brain atrophy or decline.
Best sources: leafy green vegetables.
- Vitamin B12 may help protect from brain atrophy.
Best sources: lean beef, fish, shellfish and dairy foods.
- Vitamin D is also important for normal brain function.
Best sources: oily fish, salmon, tuna, egg yolks, vitamin D fortified margarines or fortified almond milk.
- Essential fatty acids keep the membranes fluid, important for hearing and vision development.
Best sources: oily fish, flax seeds and flax oil.
- Water is essential for a healthy, functioning brain.
Follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines
If you look carefully, you’ll notice the best foods for our brain are those that form a healthy diet, and are the basis of the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Interestingly, it’s recommended that people suffering from depression, anxiety and related disorders follow these guidelines, as a way to boost their mood and support healthy brain function.
To further support this theory, a recent study into mental health disorders in new mothers, found that higher adherence to the Australian Dietary Guidelines was associated with better mental health and lower depressive symptoms.
Of course, following a healthy diet is only one aspect of maintaining good mental health, and happy moods.
If depression, anxiety or other related disorders are weighing you down, or you want to know how you can improve your overall mental health, seek the advice of your health practitioner.