The topic of mental health is very rarely out of the public’s attention with mental health issues affecting most people at some point in their lifetime, either directly or indirectly. It is estimated that as many as one in four people suffer from a mental health condition every year.
Today’s lifestyle is filled with pressure and stress, from the impact of social media through to work stress, financial pressure and political uncertainty. However, it is becoming more and more clear that diet can also have an impact on a person’s mental health.
Shutterstock | Ekaterina Marelova
While diet cannot affect those external stressors previously mentioned, it can affect how a person’s body copes with these alongside affecting the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that play essential roles in the regulation of a person’s mood.
This article explores some dietary changes that can affect mood and help to overcome the symptoms of depression.
Biochemistry has a significant impact on mood, and this is the principle by which many anti-depressants operate. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is involved in balancing anxiety, happiness and mood with low levels of serotonin being linked to depression.
Most anti-depressants available today aim to raise levels of serotonin in the brain or reduce the breakdown of it, but it is also possible to use more natural methods to increase levels too.
Serotonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan which is found in protein rich foods. Walnuts, fish, pumpkin seeds, bananas, legumes and oats are especially high in tryptophan.
When consumed, tryptophan is converted into 5-hydroxytryptophan (5HTP) in the presence of co-factors; vitamin B3, iron and folate. 5HTP then needs magnesium and vitamin B6 to be converted into serotonin
Daylight and exercise have also been shown to increase serotonin production, so it is advised that time outside - such as a brisk midday walk - should be attempted every day. At night the pineal gland in the brain begins to convert serotonin into melatonin as light levels begin to decrease. Melatonin is the sleep hormone, and insufficient serotonin to convert into melatonin is one of the reasons that many people with depression find it difficult to sleep.
The Role of the Gut
Around 90 % of serotonin is actually produced within the digestive system, and while this is unable to cross the blood brain barrier, it is responsible for a range of gut health-related functions. When produced in the gut, serotonin binds to certain receptors which stimulate the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the nerve that connects the gut to the Central Nervous System (CNS) – part of a person’s enteric nervous system. As such, naturally stimulating the vagus nerve can impact on a person’s mood and influence their brain. While there is normal stimulation, mood can be improved, however abnormal stimulation (for example due to a digestive disfunction) can adversely affect a person’s mood.
The production of serotonin within the gut is largely affected by gut microflora and therefore, the stimulation of the vagus nerve. Research has suggested that serotonin is produced by host intestinal cells as a result of stimulation by gut microflora. Due to this, ensuring a good balance of microflora within the gut is essential for serotonin production and, as a result of this, the maintenance of stable mood.
Many conditions are impacted by the integrity of the digestive lining and when this is compromised by, for example, damage, oxidative stress and inflammation, larger molecules are able to pass into the blood stream and trigger systemic inflammation. This phenomenon is known as ‘leaky gut’.
If the integrity of the gut lining is compromised, the integrity of the blood brain barrier is compromised as well. As a result of this, molecules which should not be able to enter the brain are then able to enter it, triggering neuro-inflammation which can not only affect mood and depression but also have a considerable effect on a person’s cognitive function.
Between 50 and 90 % of patients that suffer from IBS also experience depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. Because of this, a person’s gut health must always be considered when that person is experiencing depression.
Supporting a Healthy Bowel Flora
There are a range of things that can be done to help improve and support a healthy bowel flora. These include:
- Eating fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha or miso
- Eating prebiotic (essentially, the fuel for gut bacteria) foods and polyphenols from things like chicory, baked apples, olives or Jerusalem artichoke
Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
As was previously discussed, inflammation within the brain can adversely affect mood and cognitive function. Patients with depression have demonstrated increased activation of the immune cells within the CNS known as microglia. Microglia are involved in managing neuronal cell death, synaptic interactions and neurogenesis as well as generating inflammatory cytokines.
Microglia also metabolize kynurenine to quinolinic acid and secrete glutamate, both substances which are neurotoxic and may cause damage or even death to neural cells. As can be seen, this very much highlights the importance of not only reducing inflammation but supporting the health of the blood brain barrier.
Inflammation is also linked to increased levels of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is known to cause damage to mitochondria, thus contributing to mitochondrial dysfunction which in turn leads to impaired energy production within the cell or even cell death (apoptosis) that can adversely affect overall neuronal function. This is another key risk factor for depression.
Reducing oxidative stress and inflammation should certainly be considered and this can be accomplished by:
Optimizing Gut Health
- Lowering consumption of omega 6 fatty acids from dairy, meat and vegetable oils
- Increasing consumption of omega 3 fatty acids from chia and flax seeds, oily fish and dark leafy green vegetables
- Eating anti-inflammatory foods such as ginger and turmeric
- Increasing consumption of foods rich in vitamin E, such as avocado
Reducing Oxidative Stress
- Removing exposure to pro-oxidative toxins such as pesticides, heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants
- Increasing consumption of antioxidants such as foods rich in vitamins C and E, selenium and zinc
Blood Sugar Control
Not regulating blood sugar and insulin resistance effectively can lead to low mood, adrenal dysfunction and ultimately depression. It is imperative that blood sugar levels are well regulated when managing any kind of mood disorder.
It is possible to help regulate blood sugar by including protein and healthy fats in every meal as these help decelerate the release of sugar into the blood stream. It is also useful to make sure that sufficient levels of the nutrients involved in blood sugar regulation are consumed, for example zinc, magnesium and chromium.
Insulin levels have also been shown to reduce when a person engages in time restricted feeding – that is, where they fast for at least 12 hours in any 24-hour period. This can improve insulin sensitivity.
Additionally, some nutrients have been associated with depression where their levels are lower than ideal. These include:
A number of micronutrients are recognized as contributing to normal psychological function and the function of the nervous system. These include vitamins B6, B12, folate, vitamin C and magnesium.
Essential Fatty Acids
DHA also has an important role to play in cognition and mood, with it being the main omega 3 fatty acid found in the brain. Research has linked low levels of DHA with low mood.
Additionally, phospholipids are incorporated into cell membranes which help with cell signaling and fluidity – both things that have been seen to be impaired in patients with depression.
In summary, it may be possible to improve mood with the following techniques:
- Eating foods that contain tryptophan such as oats, bananas, walnuts and turkey
- Taking a daily walk outside during daylight
- Increasing intake of magnesium and vitamin B6 which help convert 5HTP to serotonin
- Improving gut health to address possible leaky gut or dysbiosis
- Supporting antioxidant status and working to reduce oxidative stress
- Considering an anti-inflammatory diet including nutrients like omega 3 fats (as EPA), turmeric and ginger to help reduce inflammation
- Addressing any need for additional micronutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc
References are available on request.
The Brain Health Program
The Brain Health Program has been designed to provide individuals with the knowledge and practical tools required to optimize wellbeing, memory and mood. The Program includes six interactive workshops, led by qualified Nutritional Therapists, which include talks, activities and discussion to show individuals how to make, and sustain, lifelong food and lifestyle choices to protect and promote the health of the brain. The workshops cover topics such as nutrition, optimizing gut health, stress management, improving sleep, physical activity and brain training.
The Brain Health Program is suitable for anyone wishing to learn how to support their mental health and wellbeing and reduce their risk of cognitive decline.
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