Food + Mood

Can you eat your way to better mental health?

 Let’s explore the role that the gut microbiome and diet have to play in brain and mental health, this Mental Health Awareness Week.

Food +Mood

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and as such we wanted to delve into recent research uncovering the intricate relationship between nutrition and mental health. In this article we explore key findings that shed light on how specific foods can impact your mood and overall well-being and how you too can take actionable steps to enhance your mental health by incorporating targeted nutrition choices.

A word on the Western Diet

A Western diet refers to a way of eating characterized by high consumption of processed and refined foods, sugar, unhealthy fats, and low intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. This type of diet is commonly found in Western countries and its role in the development of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes is old news. However, more recent research also reports the link to a Western Diet eating pattern and an increased risk of poor mental health outcomes.

Here are some key mechanisms regarding the association between a Western diet and mental health:

  • Inflammation: A Western diet can promote chronic inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with the development and progression of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and neurodegenerative diseases and elevated levels of inflammatory markers have been observed in individuals consuming a Western diet.
  • Nutrient deficiencies: A Western diet is typically low in essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients are important for brain health and proper neurotransmitter function. Deficiencies in these nutrients can certainly contribute to the development OR exacerbation of mental health disorders.
  • Gut microbiota disruption: A Western diet can negatively impact the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota. This imbalance in the gut microbiome, known as dysbiosis, has been associated with mental health disorders. The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in the production of neurotransmitters and the regulation of the gut-brain axis, which influences mood and behaviour.
  • Oxidative stress: The high intake of processed and fried foods in a Western diet can contribute to oxidative stress, leading to damage to brain cells, development of mental health disorders and even impaired cognitive function.

It’s important to note that while an association between a Western diet and poor mental health has been observed, it does not imply a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare also play significant roles in mental health outcomes

The gut-brain axis

The gut microbiome, comprised of trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, resides in the digestive tract. Recent research reveals a bidirectional link, known as the gut-brain axis, between the gut microbiome and the brain. The gut and brain communicate through the nervous system, immune system, and chemical messengers. The gut microbiome influences these pathways by producing metabolites, neurotransmitters, and immune molecules.

The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, impacting mood, behavior, and cognition. It also produces other neuroactive substances such as GABA (a calming neurotransmitetr) and short-chain-fatty-acids, that affect brain function.

Additionally, the gut microbiome influences the immune system, vital for brain health. In the instance of gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in the gut microflora) can trigger inflammation and activate immune responses that impact brain function and we know now that inflammation is linked to neurological conditions like depression, anxiety, and neurodegenerative disorders.

But as I said, this is a bi-directional link and the brain too can influence the gut microbiome. Stress, emotions, and psychological factors impact digestive function and gut microbiota composition. Stress hormones and neurotransmitters can alter the gut environment, affecting microorganism growth and leading to disturbances in the gut microbiome. Modulating the gut microbiome through interventions like dietary changes, pre and probiotics shows potential for improving brain health and treating neurological conditions.

Understanding and leveraging the close relationship between the gut and the brain holds promise for developing approaches to improve both brain and mental health.

The SMILES trial: A change of direction

2017 marks a milestone in research and how we approach mental health conditions. This study examined the impact of adopting a Mediterranean Diet on depressive symptoms in adults with major depressive disorder (MDD). The intervention focused on promoting a Mediterranean-style diet, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, lean meats, and olive oil while limiting processed foods, sweets, and unhealthy fats. Here are some of the key findings:

Dietary intervention reduces depressive symptoms: The study demonstrated a significant reduction in depressive symptoms among participants who received the dietary intervention compared to the control group. 

Higher remission rates: The dietary intervention group had higher rates of remission, defined as a score of ≤7 on the MADRS, indicating a decrease in the severity of depressive symptoms.

Faster treatment response: Participants in the dietary intervention group responded more quickly to treatment, experiencing greater reduction in depressive symptoms at the three-month mark compared to the control group.

Nutritional psychiatry implications: The study highlights the potential of nutritional interventions as adjunctive treatment for depression. Incorporating dietary improvements alongside standard approaches could enhance depression management.

The SMILES trial provides promising results and contributes to the growing evidence supporting the connection between diet, nutrition, and mental health, shedding light on the potential benefits of dietary interventions for individuals with major depression.

You can access the full study here.

The psychobiotic diet: A new approach to mental health


The psychobiotic diet is a dietary approach aimed at promoting mental health by incorporating specific foods that support a healthy gut microbiota. This concept combines “psycho” (referring to psychological well-being) and “biotics” (referring to living organisms like probiotics).

The key elements of a psychobiotic diet include probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. These fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria that can populate the gut microbiota. Additionally, consuming prebiotic fibers from fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains nourishes the gut microbiota.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts have been linked to improved mood and cognitive function. Antioxidant-rich foods like colorful fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and green tea help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, potentially benefiting mental health.

To optimize your psychobiotic diet, focus on whole, minimally processed foods. It’s important to note that the effects of the psychobiotic diet on mental health are still being researched, and that individual responses can vary.

If you’re looking for personalised advice, you can book a free initial consultation here to discuss your health concerns and learn about nutritional therapy could help support you mental health.

About Ilaria

Graduated from the respectable College of Naturopathic Medicine in London, I work with an integrative approach to support women who are experiencing symptoms related to imbalanced hormones, gut and digestive health, mood disorders, skin conditions, low energy and fatigue, and weight management issues.

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