While it’s readily accepted that diet can shape our physical health, strangely we seem less attuned to what food can do for us psychologically. There is increasing research, to show the importance of essential nutrients for good mental health, and deficiencies are linked to some psychological disorders including depression and anxiety. Scientists are now studying how inflammation within the brain can lead to depression, and how the balance of gut bacteria plays a role in conditions like anxiety and depression . One important area of research is looking at the relationship between psychological health and certain probiotic bacteria which have even been dubbed ‘psychobiotics’.
Good mood food
While no single food, drink or supplement can cure depression or anxiety, eating a diet that is balanced and varied and largely natural and unprocessed should provide a beneficial range of mood-boosting nutrients and micronutrients. Steer clear of processed and junk food, especially sugary snacks and drinks which can cause inflammation in the body and possibly the brain. Recent studies reveal a Mediterranean diet – rich in vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts, seeds, pulses and olive oil – helps to protect against depression. Two separate studies found that those who ate a typical Mediterranean style diet were 30 per cent less likely to experience depressive symptoms, for example. It is thought the combined effects of a largely plant-based diet, plus anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish, nut and seeds), vitamin and mineral-rich fruit and vegetables, and the anti-inflammatory fatty acids and antioxidants from olive oil offer protection against depressive illnesses. Probiotic foods like natural yogurt and fermented foods or supplements that encourage good bacteria in the gut also appear to have a positive effect on mood and mental health.
Mood-altering minerals and vitamins
Interesting studies have also linked low levels of the mineral selenium with an increased risk of tiredness, depression and anxiety. Although selenium has not yet undergone clinical trials in people with depression, there is concern that low levels of selenium in UK soil have led to low intakes. The most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that 36% of adults did not even meet the lower reference nutrient intake (LRNI) which is the amount needed to prevent deficiency diseases. A British study has shown healthy people given selenium supplements found their mood improved – although having levels that are too high can also increase the risk of depression, so a balanced intake is key . Good sources of this selenium include Brazil nuts (just a couple a day will provide your recommended daily intake) eggs, meat, sunflower seeds, fish and brown rice.
Another important mood-boosting mineral is magnesium (found in almonds, quinoa, spinach, dark chocolate). Magnesium has a relaxing effect and supplements are helpful for those who are feeling depressed, anxious, or are experiencing sleep difficulties such as insomnia.
Lack of B vitamins can also have an impact on your mental health. In one study, over a quarter of severely depressed older women were found to have low levels of vitamin B12 (found in meat, eggs and dairy products). One of the most effective ways to take a vitamin B12 supplement is in the form of an easily absorbable spray. This allows absorption of B12 within the mouth, which overcomes the reduced absorption within the gut that commonly occurs in later life.
Calm your mind
Another interesting nutrient with anxiety-reducing effects is an amino acid called L-Theanine, which has several actions that simultaneously promote relaxation while improving concentration and attention span. L-Theanine is found in black and green tea (black tea contains more than the green variety but allow both to brew well to encourage optimum amounts of L-Theanine) and boosts levels of certain brain chemicals that help you feel more relaxed and chilled out. This relaxing effect kicks in after around 30-40 minutes of taking a L-Theanine supplement of 200mg. L-Theanine is also an effective natural sleep aid. Research shows it improves the quality of sleep by naturally reducing levels of anxiety and without leaving you feeling drowsy the following morning. As drinking black or green tea before bed can interfere with sleep due to its caffeine content, try a more soothing hot chocolate with added L-Theanine instead.