Feed your mood
Feed your mood
The role of inflammation
Inflammation is our body’s response to factors that cause physical stress. If we are constantly exposed to these sources of stress, or if injuries or infections remain unresolved, then our bodies will develop ongoing, low grade, inflammation. In mental health, neuro-inflammation simply means low-grade inflammation that impacts our brain.
Factors that can provoke low-grade inflammation include physical injury, infections, smoking, stress, a change in the gut microbiome and environmental pollutants
Neuro-inflammation is associated with mental health issues so making dietary changes that reduce inflammation offers a new way for you to support your mental health alongside any medical care.
Evidence suggests that our lifestyle and what we eat can have either a positive or negative effect on our brain and impact mood-related disorders such as depression and anxiety.
If you are living with a mood disorder and want to use food and lifestyle changes to support your mental health, read about the latest scientific evidence and see our dietary and lifestyle suggestions.
Dietary approaches for mood disorders
Eating a healthy diet has been found to reduce the incidence of mood-related disorders. We recommend that you boost your intake of brain supporting nutrients and focus on eating anti-inflammatory, nutrient-rich foods. A diet high in colourful fresh vegetables, a little fruit, fish and wholegrains, a similar dietary pattern to that referred to as the Mediterranean diet, can help your mood. One study found that a third of people following a Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of depression.
The gut and the brain are inextricably linked and ‘talk’ to one another through several mechanisms known as the ‘gut-brain axis’. Recent research suggests that the bacteria that live in our gut, known as the gut microbiome, play a big role in brain health.
Recent research has begun to identify different species of gut bacteria, some of these are beneficial to health whilst others have been linked to the onset of certain conditions.
Diet has a profound impact on the type of bacteria that live in our guts and the type of bacteria that populates each person's gut is very much influenced by what they regularly eat and drink. Many other factors including stress and low-grade inflammation have also been found to influence the gut microbiome.
Eat for blood sugar balance
If you eat or regularly crave sugar, sweets, sugar-rich foods or beverages such as cakes, biscuits, desserts, fizzy drinks, or sweetened tea or coffee, then it might be time to give your diet an overhaul.
Reducing how much sugar you eat may really help if you’re suffering from low mood, anxiety, or depression.
Consuming these high sugar foods and drinks has been found to trigger anxiety and depression. Additionally, when you eat high sugar food, your body can overreact when it tries to balance your blood sugar, making it drop very low. This has also been found to trigger anxiety and make you feel tired. The mood lowering effect of a high sugar intake may be due to a variety of different reasons, the dopamine reward system in the brain, a reactive drop in blood sugar, or inflammation of the nervous system, known as neuro-inflammation.
We recommend swapping to a whole food diet that is rich in the nutrients that feed your brain, helping to balance your mood and energy. Below are our top tips to follow to feed your mood.
Eat the right fats
The brain is composed of 50-60% fat. It is vitally important to include healthy fats in your diet that support brain function and mental health. This has close links to the evidence surrounding dietary fats and heart disease.
The fats we eat vary in their health effects, some fats promote inflammation and others reduce inflammation.
The western diet is generally high in omega 6 fats found in vegetable oils including sunflower and corn oil (commonly used in packaged/processed and fast foods) and these are thought to play a role in mental health disorders by encouraging inflammation in the body.
Research looking at fat levels in people with depression, low mood or social anxiety found that they had high levels of the inflammatory omega 6 fats and low levels of the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats. Eating a low-fat diet and therefore having a low intake of omega 3 fats, increases the risk of experiencing depression.
If you suffer from low mood, depression, or anxiety, evidence supports regularly including food sources of essential* poly and monounsaturated fatty acids - such as those found in seeds, olive oil, avocado or walnuts - into your diet to boost your mood which can help to reduce mental health symptoms and episodes of depression.
Fats - How best to eat
- Do cook slowly at low temperatures
- Do switch to extra virgin olive oil - this can be used for cooking at moderate temperatures and drizzled neat onto vegetables and salads
- Eat olives are also a great option to add to meals or for snacking
- Eat avocados
- Eat oily fish such as salmon/ mackerel/ sardines/herring/trout and fresh tuna (particularly high in brain health-boosting omega 3 fats)
- Eat ground flaxseeds and chia seeds and their oils- sprinkle onto breakfasts/ soups and salads and add to smoothies
- Eat walnuts
- Don’t cook with vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn oil (high in omega 6 fats)
- Don’t fry foods
- Limit fast food, take-away, processed, and packaged foods
Why does serotonin matter?
What is serotonin
Serotonin is one of our feel-good neurotransmitters (messenger chemicals in the brain). High levels of serotonin create a sense of good mood and happiness and low levels of serotonin are linked with increased episodes of low mood and depression.
How to boost serotonin naturally
Get outside in daylight for a minimum of 10 minutes a day - daylight has been found to trigger the production of serotonin - evidence suggests that getting some direct sunlight on your skin (without sunscreen) may increase serotonin levels so some sun-safe skin exposure is also worthwhile.
Get active and do some regular form of exercise. This has been found to boost serotonin levels.
Eat tryptophan-rich foods
Tryptophan is an amino acid. When amino acids combine together, they create proteins. Eating tryptophan-rich foods can boost levels of serotonin. Like essential fats, tryptophan cannot be produced in the body, so we need to eat it. Evidence suggests we need to eat 3.5-6mg/ kg of body weight, which translates to approximately 250mg- 425mg/ day, or, to keep it simple, at least one portion of tryptophan-rich foods a day.
It has been found that eating a tryptophan-rich food with a carbohydrate such as a potato/ rice or another grain may increase its beneficial effect.
Top tryptophan-rich foods
- Cottage Cheese
- Seeds-chia/ sesame and sunflower
- Oat bran
Magnesium - a really important mineral in your diet
Some research has linked low levels of dietary magnesium to mood-related disorders. More research suggests boosting magnesium intake may also support better quality sleep. Improved sleep can improve low mood for some because disrupted sleep is linked with mood disorders. Refined foods have much lower levels of nutrients, including magnesium, than wholefoods as nutrients are lost during the manufacturing process. Eating a whole food diet can be a simple way of boosting your magnesium intake. Magnesium-rich foods include nuts, avocados, dark green leafy vegetables, and dark chocolate.
Vitamin D deficiency has been found to be a factor for some people with anxiety and depression. Vitamin D is mainly obtained through exposing your skin to the sun. There are a few dietary sources of vitamin D including oily fish with lower amounts being found in egg yolks, some mushrooms, and red meat. Some foods are fortified with vitamin D including cereals, some dairy products, yogurts and plant-based milks. NICE recommendations are that all adults should consider taking 400 iu of vitamin D daily especially in the autumn and winter.
Foods to reduce/avoid
The evidence surrounding the health impact of caffeine is complex. It is thought that a moderate amount of caffeine may be mood protective and reduce the incidence of depression - however for some people caffeine can worsen symptoms. Caffeine can cause insomnia, which can also increase mental health symptoms.
Tea, coffee, and chocolate all contain varying amounts of caffeine. Generally, the effects of caffeine are felt in the first 30-60 minutes following consumption, but it takes up to 9.5 hours for all the caffeine from one cup of tea or coffee to be fully removed from your body.
How much caffeine can I have each day?
Evidence suggests that having a maximum of 400mg of caffeine per day, so 3 - 4 cups of tea or coffee, is safe for most people. However, caffeine tolerance varies from person to person - the important factor is to work out how it affects you.
If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to become pregnant, then the advice is to have no more than 200mg of caffeine a day, that is 1-2 cups.
- Reduce or avoid alcohol
Alcohol reduces serotonin and people who are low in mood or experiencing depression are more likely to feel worse when they drink alcohol. Evidence suggests that there is a strong link between alcohol intake and depression and some research suggests that the more alcohol you drink the more likely you are to develop major depression. Binge drinking, drinking large amounts of alcohol in one go, has been found to cause increased levels of depression, with women being more vulnerable to this than men.
Sugar is recognised as being as addictive as some drugs. We recommend that you reduce your consumption of all added and hidden sugars to support your mental health (see above, Eat for blood sugar balance).
Get active to boost your mood
When you are feeling low in mood, anxious, or depressed, getting active is likely to feel like the last thing you want to do, but getting regular activity can help you feel better.
Evidence suggests that regular physical activity can reduce feelings of low mood, depression, or anxiety, and can be as effective as other therapies. Exercise is known to increase endorphins, which boosts a sense of wellbeing and happiness. One study found that 15 minutes of running or one hour of walking a day may be enough to improve mood-related disorders and reduce your risk of depression. NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommends that people with mild to moderate depression exercise at least three times a week for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
What type of exercise is best?
On balance there is no ‘best’ exercise - it's more important to find something you can do, ideally enjoy, and make a regular habit of it. Aim to introduce some movement into your day every day - do something you can do easily like going for a walk, simply get your body moving. Once this has become a routine aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of movement a day.
Some evidence suggests that more intensive exercise leads to increased improvement in depressive symptoms but other research has found that doing moderate-intensity exercise is equally beneficial and possibly a better option, as it is easier to maintain long term.
Meet Our Lifestyle Team
Dr Sam is a GP, yoga and nutritional therapist, writer and meditation teacher. She believes in taking a holistic approach to care and is joint Clinical Lead for Lifestyle Medicine with a focus on weight loss.
Ruth is a BANT Registered Nutritionist®, health and wellness coach and registered nurse. She is passionate about lifestyle medicine and supporting people to improve their health and quality of life.
Dr Sarah is a GP and trained physiotherapist. Joint Clinical Lead for Lifestyle Medicine, she’s committed to helping patients improve the quality of their health and wellbeing through positive lifestyle change.
Page last reviewed by: Dr. Christina Hennessey 02/02/2022