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Customising your diet could be the key to good mental health, according to a new study.1
Research carried out over five years at Binghamton University, State University of New York found links between eating habits and the risk of depression and anxiety.
But they also found that one size does not fit all, and that what makes a feel-good diet differs depending on age and sex.
So, what's the evidence that customising your diet really can make a difference to your mental wellbeing, and how do you find out what will work for you?
The past decade has seen exciting research into the link between the mind and the gut, with studies showing that the balance of the gut microbiome – the bacteria in the digestive system – can protect against depression and anxiety.
Sometimes called the 'second brain', most of us know from experience that the gut acts like a barometer of how we're feeling, reacting with butterflies when we're excited or nervous, or a sinking feeling when we get bad news.
But now researchers are finding evidence that rather than just reflecting our state of mind, the gut – and what we eat – might influence it.
According to a study conducted at CalTech in 2015, it was estimated that 90 per cent of our serotonin – the brain's 'happy chemical' – is produced in the digestive system.2
Women's mental health in particular responds to dietary changes, according to Dr Lina Begdache, who led the Binghamton research.
She studied 2,600 people over five years, looking at differences between those who are younger (18-29) and more mature (30 plus).
Age matters because the brain is still maturing up to the age of 30, building new structures and connections, creating specific energy and nutrient demands, says Dr Begdache: 'As a result, young adults who consume a poor quality diet and experience nutritional deficiencies may suffer from a higher degree of mental distress.'
She also compared the sexes and found that the mental health of women across the ages is more affected by diet than men's.
Young women should always eat breakfast, as it helps balance blood sugar.
Of course, diet is just one factor that may impact mental health, and changes in mood are often a natural response to life events and experiences.
But if low mood or anxiety persists or starts to affect your quality of life, you may need extra support. Sharing how you feel with someone supportive, or a therapeutic professional, is an important first step.
Keeping active can also help – Dr Begdache's research found that regular exercise protected against poor mental health in all ages. But given that the mind and body work in tandem, it makes sense that what you eat can also impact your mood and emotional wellbeing.
And making an effort to prepare nutritious food is good for self-esteem, sending yourself the message that you're worth taking care of.
Keeping active also helps protect against poor mental health.
But how do you discover your own personal good mood diet?
Keeping a food diary or notes on your phone or a food diary app about what you've eaten and how you feel can be a good way to spot patterns and links. You could also try to experiment by making small tweaks and noting any difference.
Eating well isn't a quick fix so don't expect overnight changes to your state of mind. But following some of these suggestions based on the findings of Dr Begbache's study and other research may help.
Sally is a trained psychotherapist and health and lifestyle writer, working for national newspapers and magazines.
Find out more about Sally Brown.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Begdache, L. et al. (2021). Diet, Exercise, Lifestyle, and Mental Distress among Young and Mature Men and Women: A Repeated Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients 13(1)
2Yano, J. M. et al. (2015). Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis. Cell 161(2)
3Ramin, S. et al. (2020). A prospective analysis of dietary fiber intake and mental health quality of life in the Iowa Women's Health Study. Maturitas 131(1-7)
4O’Neil A et al. (2014). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: A systematic review. American Journal of Public Health 104(10)
5Noonan S et al. (2020). Food & mood: a review of supplementary prebiotic and probiotic interventions in the treatment of anxiety and depression in adults. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 3