Food and MoodWe know that what we eat impacts our health. But did you know that our food choices may impact our mental health?

Students are at increasing risk of experiencing mental illness, and there is growing demand on student services across the country.

Evidence shows that student’s dietary habits fall when experiencing periods of depression and mental illness.

Sadly, there is no one size fits all approach to dealing with our mental health. Multiple factors play into it including our individual history, psychological state, genetics, food consumption, culture, environment, and lifestyle (1).

Depression is one of the most prevalent disorders worldwide. Mental symptoms include low mood and low self-esteem. Physical symptoms include changes to sleep cycle and changes to appetite (2).

What does this have to do with the brain?

In the brain, the hippocampus is involved in mood regulation and memory. Mood regulation is influenced by different neurochemical connections in the brain. These different neurochemical connections involve nutrients from our food, in the production of neurotransmitters in the brain (3).

There are hormones that act as neurotransmitters. Serotonin is our ‘happy’ hormone that contributes to good mood. Dopamine is a reward and motivation hormone that produces feelings of pleasure. Y-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in calming and slowing down brain activity. Deficiencies in serotonin, dopamine, and GABA are often associated with depression (5).

What should I be eating?

Developing evidence suggests that diets that have high intakes fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and fish are associated with lower risk of depression (4).

  1. Fruit and Vegetables: These contain a range of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that have neuroprotective properties that are believed to protect against depression. Aim for 5 varieties a day, incorporate into your main meals or have as a snack (6).
  2. Nuts and seeds: These are rich in unsaturated fats, polyphenols, selenium, vitamin E and magnesium that improve how our brain cells communicate and reduce inflammation. One to two tablespoons of unroasted and unsalted nuts and seeds is a portion. Aim for a portion a day! (7).
  3. Oily fish: A good source of omega 3s. These fats must be obtained via our diet. They form part of the cell membranes, support brain function and reduce neuroinflammation. Look out for SMASH (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring). Aim for 2 portions a week. An algae-based supplement is recommended if you do not consume fish (7).
  4. Protein: Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that must be consumed via our diet. It is involved in the production of serotonin, supporting good mood. Rich sources include dairy, chicken, turkey, oats, canned tuna and nuts. (5).
  5. Carbohydrates: Carbs support the uptake of tryptophan into the brain during insulin release. Aim to eat a variety of beans, legumes, and whole grain sources. (8).
  6. Water: Even mild dehydration can negatively impact cognitive abilities and is associated with poor health. Aim for 2 liters of water a day, more if you are active! (9).
  7. Alcohol: It may seem like drinking will solve all your problems, but in both short- and long-term alcohol exposure, the body’s ability to utilize serotonin is hindered, meaning you will feel worse afterwards. Choose non-alcoholic or low alcohol options occasionally (10).

As easy as it is to turn to the quick foods, eating well and nourishing your body is an important way to follow basic self-care and can support your health in the long run.

When you are feeling up to it and are able too, prepping meals in advance and storing them in the freezer using some of these foods and having snacks available is a great way to look after your brain health and wellbeing, ready for when you are feeling low.

This is not an extensive list and does not take away from registered health professionals’ advice. Please speak to a registered nutritionist or dietitian before making any changes to your diet.

Reach out for support if you are struggling, you do not have to suffer alone. Help is always there.

Francesca is a graduate with an accredited BSc Nutrition. Nutrition science is an exciting passion that she developed as a teenager. Leading to the world of nutritional psychiatry, developing an understanding between nutrition and mood. She provides evidence-based nutrition information, food inspiration and more on Instagram @flourishwithfran.

For more mental health tips, tricks and education, please visit our articles page or follow us on social media!