Some Food for Thought — Food and Your Mental Health

A joint article with Becca Benning, Functional Health Coach & Nutrition Counsellor.

Lau Ciocan
Change Becomes You


Edward Howell — Unsplash

More than ever, mental health is present in our vernacular, social media feeds and conversations. However, much of it is focused on jasmine tea, bubble baths, and breathe in and … breathe out.

That’s all good, but I’m slightly flippant about it, so I can point toward an underrated topic that may affect our mental health, i.e. what we eat.

A nutritious meal has a positive impact on our mood. For example, when we are in a low mood, rich carbohydrate foods can prompt a flood of endorphins, chemicals that act as happy hormones, to rush through our brains. There are also foods that can negatively impact our mood, such as an excessive processed sugar intake.

The proverbial saying ‘we are what we eat’ might not be wrong after all.

In fact, our bodies are built from raw materials that are directly or directly derived from the foods we consume. The building materials we give our bodies to work with matter.

Today, much science does support the idea that there is a strong link between what we eat and our mental health. That is partly because of how food is prepared and processed before it arrives on our plates and then how it is digested by our bodies.

Becca and I will look at how food impacts our gut and brain and its links to mental health and provide tips on better supporting your mind and body with foods you can eat. Let’s start with the gut.

An unhappy gut can be the cause of an unhappy mind.

Different sources indicate the relationship between the gut and various mental health issues. We shouldn’t always rest depression or anxiety on the brain, trauma or life circumstances — though all of these can, of course, affect how we feel.

Conditions that manifest psychologically can start in the gut, and what we eat (or don’t) can significantly impact us. For more, see this TEDx talk The Brain in your belly — Stefanie Malan-Muller.

Vitalii Pavlyshynets — Unsplash

For example, the inflammatory cytokine model of depression suggests that many mental health issues may be rooted in chronic systemic inflammation. This ongoing inflammation is more broadly considered an underlying factor in most chronic health conditions. It’s certainly within our power to significantly affect our levels of inflammation with our dietary choices, for better or worse.

Here are two facts that point to the relationship between mental health and food:

  • 95% of serotonin we produce is in the gut and not the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter with a critical role in mood regulation and our feelings of happiness and wellbeing. It also plays a role in the digestive system and sleep cycles. All key components and contributors to our wellbeing.
  • Around 80% of our immune system is located in the gut. The strength of our immune system is linked to the gut bacteria, which are impacted by the variety and nutritional value of the food we eat.
  • Researchers now know that microbes form a complex ecosystem in the gut, known as the microbiome, and need a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients and a balance of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats).

A diet lacking in nutrients, such as that consumed by many of us in the West, may lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiome.

Understanding the connection between food and the brain

A recent fascinating scientific development is the discovery of the importance of micro-organisms in the gut as intermediaries between what goes into the mouth and what happens in the brain.

The brain itself is energy hungry, demanding around 20% of the body’s energy expenditure when at rest. A lot for an organ that makes up roughly 2% of body weight on average. Unsurprisingly, it functions best on high quality fuel — i.e. a nutrient-dense diet.

Physical brain health and function have complex links with our emotional state and identified mental health conditions. There is growing evidence for the beneficial effects of various nutrients on brain function in general and mental health.

Hence, our dietary choices can cause inflammation in the gut. If this occurs, signals of this inflammation (inflammatory cytokines) pass into the blood and ultimately to the brain, causing inflammation there. This can cause (unsurprisingly) a whole host of problems — including impacts on mood and energy levels.

So what can we do about it?

Well, there are enormous benefits to supporting gut health in general that greatly impact mental wellbeing.

Some simple initial interventions might be increasing the quantity of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit in your diet or perhaps exploring fermented foods as a natural source of probiotics. Having said that, let’s get into a few specific examples of foods that can support mental health, in particular.

One of the things I (Becca) love about a food first approach to addressing any health challenge is that it tends to come with side benefits rather than problematic side effects. These foods provide a big bang for your nutritional buck and will potentially benefit your mood and much more.

Omega 3 fats

Typical Western diets tend to include high levels of omega 6 fats (from processed foods due, among other things, to widespread reliance on grains and industrial seed oils) and low levels of omega 3. This imbalance promotes inflammation, which is linked to many health conditions, including — as mentioned above — depression and anxiety.

Omega 3 fats are critical for proper brain function and cellular function. As you can imagine, this means that the range of potential benefits of increasing consumption is pretty wide.

Priyanka Singh — Unsplash

The best sources are cold water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. Most white fish are also good sources. Plant sources of omega 3 fats include some nuts, particularly walnuts — though it is important to note that these are less bio-available (i.e. more challenging for our bodies to absorb and use) than those found in animal foods.

B-vitamins, particularly folate (the natural form of vitamin B9)

Folate is vital for various aspects of brain function, including producing neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Folate deficiency is associated with increased levels of homocysteine, linked with various mental health challenges. It is also connected with a worsening of depression.

Good sources include beef, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, and beetroot. Liver is a nutritional powerhouse if you’re feeling brave!

Amino acids, especially tryptophan

Tryptophan can be converted by the body to make serotonin. It also supports sleep by impacting both serotonin and melatonin production. Melatonin is critical for signalling our bodies that it is time for sleep. The best sources are nuts, seeds, red meat, poultry, eggs and fish.

Final thoughts

The relationship between food and mental health is less straightforward or immediate. It’s more about lifestyle and prolonged habits that can trigger mental health issues in our bodies. One advice is to experiment with food to find out which types your body enjoys and finds more nourishing.

Research and read to learn what would help you, but also make sure you track your food and how it affects your mood. There’s no need for a detailed journal; just look at the broader patterns.

Becca left some valuable resources that you can dig deeper:

Food and the brain

Food For the Brain Foundation

Brain Foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function

The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health (TEDx talk)

Mental illness and the brain

About Becca Benning

Becca is a behaviour change and Functional Medicine specialist with a particular interest in autoimmune disease. She works with clients with chronic health conditions to design and implement realistic dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce inflammation and get their spark back ✨

As someone with multiple autoimmune and other chronic health conditions herself, she understands how difficult it can be to make health-promoting changes while managing the challenges of life with unpredictable symptoms.

Find Becca here:







Lau Ciocan
Change Becomes You

Founder of MAN - a shortlisted platform for the 'Best Men's Health Initiative' promoting healthy masculinities & men's mental health.