Treating your mood through food may sound “fruity”, but nutrition science has discovered fascinating relationships: single nutrients, the gut microbiome, a communication superhighway connecting your brain to your gut – this article aims to enlighten on emerging science, and practical ways on how to improve your mood through food!
Nutrients are the building blocks for your neurotransmitters
There is a magical kind of chemistry connecting our food with our nervous system.For example, many different foods (Ex. animal foods, fruits, edible plants, roots, and botanicals) contain neurotransmitters (1).
One of many food examples is tart cherries, which have a small amount of both melatonin and tryptophan, an amino acid used to produce serotonin and melatonin (2). With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’d be remiss not to mention that turkey is also high in tryptophan.
This is important because serotonin plays a key role in mood, sleep, digestion, and sexual desire, and is largely responsible for happiness. Melatonin is most known for its role in regulating your sleep-wake cycles, but did you know it also plays a role in energy metabolism and glucose homeostasis (3)?
The molecules found in food that contribute to neurotransmitter production can be naturally present or part of essential metabolic processes (as in the examples above). They may involve ecological interactions with your gut microbiome (more on this below) or derive from controlled/uncontrolled food technology processes. They can even be influenced by ripening time, food preservation methods, cooking, and microbial activity.
Nutrients may improve your mood
There is an emerging area of research known as “nutritional psychiatry”, where research indicates a decreased risk of mood disorders within diets high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and good quality protein (i.e., fish and/or seafood). This dietary pattern is in alignment with a Mediterranean dietary approach, which is also considered to be “anti-inflammatory”. It also is a good framework for promoting gut health and the brain-gut axis (4,5).
Research on individual mood disorders such as depression and anxiety have implicated various individual nutrients, such as Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin B12, Folate, Zinc, and Iron (6,7,8). Given the overlap of so many nutrients involved in mental health, a food first approach is advised, with some potential consideration for supplementation. While more research is needed on single nutrient interventions, dietary intervention does represent a safe option that can be used alone or in conjunction with medical or psychological therapy. Strategies should also be tailored to the unique person.
What is the “brain-gut-axis”
Your body perpetually exists in dynamic communication with itself and the environment. The brain-gut-axis is a two-way communication between your central nervous system (your brain) and enteric nervous system (your gut). This communication is directed through the vagus nerve, which carries signals between your brain, heart, and digestive system. Interestingly, the vagus nerve also has a prominent role regulating appetite hormones, and inflammation (9).
So perhaps you have noticed a relationship between stress and digestive symptoms? In those without overt pathology or a digestive health related condition, it can be imagined as the sensation of a “gut feeling”, or “butterflies in your stomach”.This feeling can be heightened and even painful in individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other functional gut disorders (10).
While diet represents one target for intervention, mental health focused modalities such as intentional breathing, yoga, Tai Chi, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and others are known to be beneficial. Additionally, a modality termed gut-directed hypnotherapy has been shown to be as effective as a low FODMAP dietary approach in IBS sufferers, providing benefit to as much as 70% of people afflicted (11). It involves education about the digestive system, induction of a hypnotic state, and imagery/suggestions aimed at calming your mind and gut. If pursuing this, I recommend searching for a qualified health professional specializing in this area of psychotherapy.
For the best results, combine both nutritional and mindful based stress reduction techniques to maximize the benefit of lifestyle intervention on mental health.
A healthy gut microbiome may improve mental health
The gut microbiome is the collection of (largely beneficial) microbes and outnumbers our human biological cells both in number and in genetic material.These bacteria are actively participating in our health, including involvement in our mental health. For example, the gut is responsible for more than 90% of the body’s serotonin production. Research shows that our microbiome regulates serotonin production in the gut (12).
Many specific gut bacteria are involved in synthesis of other key neurotransmitters implicated in depression. Large research studies are underway to understand these relationships and hopefully how to intervene, but there are still gaps in our understanding requiring follow up studies (13).
That said, increasing amounts and types of fibre can certainly help improve the health of your microbiome. Additionally, some antioxidants help feed beneficial microbes, such as those found in pomegranate and cranberry (14).
Zooming out to practical solutions
The thousands of molecules found in our foods are fun to “zoom-in” on to enhance our understanding of the complex relationships between nutrition science and mental health, but we need to also be able to “zoom-out” and develop practical food-based strategies. After all, when one is affected by mood disorders, healthy eating can often seem like a chore. That’s why we are here to help!
6 Tips on how to improve mood through food
- Be mindful. Embrace and enjoy the process of shopping, cooking, and eating to enhance your relationship with food.
- Align your dietary pattern with one that is more plant forward, pescatarian leaning, such as the Mediterranean dietary approach.
- Prioritize a variety of colourful plant-based foods in your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, teas, herbs, spices, rich in antioxidants and fibre.
- Incorporate more plant-based proteins, such as beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These are nutrition powerhouses and are some of the best sources of fibre.
- Aim for more fatty fish in the diet, rich in omega-3 fats that support brain health. If not getting enough, consider an omega-3 supplement.
- Supplement daily with Vitamin D, especially in winter where we do not get enough from the sun.
All of these strategies align with an anti-inflammatory pattern of eating, similar to that found within the Mediterranean dietary approach.
You can book in with one of our dietitians to learn more about food and mood, and start working towards a holistic approach to mental health. Connect with a Preventous dietitian to learn more, and start optimizing your mood with food.
Daniel Neuman RD MSc