The Connection Between Mood and Food: How Our Diet Affects Our Mental Wellbeing
In recent years, numerous studies have been carried out to distinguish the relationship between food and mood. The research suggests that consuming a healthy balanced diet can significantly enhance our mood, as well as our overall cognitive function.
In this article you can find:
- What is relationship between mood and food?
- What is the gut microbiome?
- Tips for managing your mood with food
- Mood boosting foods and supplements
What is the Relationship Between Food and Mood?
The relationship between food and mood is bi-directional (this means that it functions in two different directions). For instance, the type of food a person consumes can affect the person’s mood though physiological mechanisms - while on the other hand, what food, and how much of that food a person consumes, can also be influenced by their current mood.
When we are faced with times of stress or low mood, we tend to crave “comfort foods”, or foods that are particularly high in fat, sugar, or salt. These foods are potent natural reward-drivers, as they trigger the release of the key “pleasure” neurotransmitters such as dopamine (Berridge, 2014). Consuming large amounts of these foods can result in cosmic surges of dopamine that can even mimic the way the brain reacts to the ingestion of substances like heroin and cocaine (Avena et. al, 2008).
While these foods can temporarily improve our mood, consuming too much overtime can result in many negative health effects such as obesity, diabetes, an increased risk of heart disease, among other dangerous issues.
Another neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating mood is serotonin, like dopamine, serotonin is often referred to as a “feel-good” hormone. What is not commonly known is that approximately 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin is made in the gut (Camilleri, 2009). Thus, a healthy gut is fundamental for adequate serotonin release.
What is the Gut Microbiome?
A microbiome refers to a community of microorganisms living together in a particular habitat. A human’s microbiome exists mainly inside the intestines and on the skin, and consists of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi. The microbes found in your intestines are found in a “pocket” of your large intestine called the cecum. They are what is referred to as the gut microbiome, and they weigh roughly 1-2kg. Out of all the microbes, bacteria are the most studied.
The human body is made up of approximately 40 trillion bacterial cells and 30 trillion human cells, thus we are more bacteria than we are human. There are up to 1000 species in the human gut, each carrying out different roles in the body – some being beneficial for our health, and others potentially causing disease. An imbalance of healthy and unhealthy microbes is referred to as gut dysbiosis (Belizário and Faintuch, 2018).
Signs of gut dysbiosis can include:
- Bad breath
- Upset stomach
- Trouble urinating
- Vaginal or rectal itching
- Chest pain
- Rash or redness
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating
- Low mood (anxiety, depression)
Tips for Managing Your Mood with Food
Irregular mealtimes can cause blood drops. Blood sugar drops can result in feelings of tiredness, irritability and depression. Low blood sugar triggers a cascade of hormones include cortisol (a stress hormone) and adrenaline (the fight-or-flight hormone) (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). While high levels of these hormones do not feel pleasant, they are release in attempt to raise and rebalance your blood sugar. Consuming food regularly, particularly foods that cause a slow release of energy slowly, such as complex carbohydrates and protein-rich foods, will help keep blood sugar levels steady. Foods that cause blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly include sweets, biscuits, soft drinks, and alcohol.
Protein can also help regulate your thoughts and feelings. Proteins made up of amino acids, which makes up the feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine that your brain needs to stabilize mood and promote feelings of well-being and happiness.
Dehydration can lead to a loss of strength and stamina, as well as difficulty finding concentration. Extreme levels of dehydration can even lead to delirium (Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2017). Opt to consume at least 6-8 glasses of water a day.
Consume a variety of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are high in dietary fiber, the part of plant foods that can’t be digested or absorbed by the body. However dietary fiber can be digested by certain healthy bacteria in the gut, which stimulates their growth. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables ensures that the gut is receiving a variety of vitamins and minerals, which is essential for a healthy and diverse microbiome.
Consume omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 is an essential component of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Studies suggest that those who consume omega-3s regularly, reduce the likelihood of having depression (Grosso et. al, 2014). In addition, some studies have indicated when those with mood disorders, including depression, anxiety and ADHD started supplementing with omega 3, their symptoms started to improve (Ginty and Conklin, 2015).
Limit intake of processed foods
Consuming a diet that includes a large amount of processed foods can elevate levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). A high level of CRP in the blood is a marker of inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with increased risk of psychological distress and depression (Wium-Andersen et al., 2013). Highly processed foods have also shown to stimulate the growth of unhealthy bacteria.
Mood Boosting Foods and Supplements
Fermented Foods (yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir) - contain healthy bacteria that can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut
Prebiotics Rich Foods (artichoke, bananas, asparagus, oats) - a type of fiber that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria
Probiotics - live bacteria that can help restore the gut to a healthy state after dysbiosis
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (salmon, maceral, sardines, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts or omega-3 supplements)
Polyphenols (green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil) - broken down by the microbiome to stimulate healthy bacterial growth
- Avena, N., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B., 2008. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), pp.20-39.
- Belizário JE, Faintuch J. Microbiome and Gut Dysbiosis. Exp Suppl. 2018;109:459-476. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-74932-7_13. PMID: 30535609.
- Berridge, K., 2009. ‘Liking’ and ‘wanting’ food rewards: Brain substrates and roles in eating disorders.Physiology & Behavior, 97(5), pp.537-550.
- Camilleri, M., 2009. Serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract.Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity, 16(1), pp.53-59.
- Ginty, A. and Conklin, S., 2015. Short-term supplementation of acute long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may alter depression status and decrease symptomology among young adults with depression: A preliminary randomized and placebo controlled trial. Psychiatry Research, 229(1-2), pp.485-489.
- Grosso, G., Galvano, F., Marventano, S., Malaguarnera, M., Bucolo, C., Drago, F. and Caraci, F., 2014. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific Evidence and Biological Mechanisms. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2014, pp.1-16.
- Harvard Publishing, 2021.Understanding the stress response - Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
- Pemberton R, Fuller Tyszkiewicz MD. Factors contributing to depressive mood states in everyday life: A systematic review. J Affect Disord. 2016 Aug;200:103-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2016.04.023. Epub 2016 Apr 20. PMID: 27131503.
- Pross, N., 2017. Effects of Dehydration on Brain Functioning: A Life-Span Perspective.Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 70(Suppl. 1), pp.30-36.
- Wium-Andersen, M., Ørsted, D., Nielsen, S. and Nordestgaard, B., 2013. Elevated C-Reactive Protein Levels, Psychological Distress, and Depression in 73 131 Individuals.JAMA Psychiatry, 70(2), p.176.