The relationship between food and our mood is complex with culture, food types, age and life stage, emotional relationship with food and even timing of food intake all having a role to play.
Research over the past few decades has focused on how certain foods change the brain resulting in mood and performance changes. These studies suggest that foods directly influencing brain neurotransmitter systems have the greatest influence on mood. However, mood can also influence our food choices and we often hold certain expectations about the effects certain foods might have on us. I know this is true for me and there’s been many a time when I have reached for chocolate or wine when feeling a bit down or stressed!
Serotonin is one of the major mood neurotransmitters in our brains and one theory is that when serotonin levels are low, we experience lowered mood or depression and when levels are higher we feel happy. We produce serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan found in foods like turkey, milk, yoghurt, eggs, nuts, seeds, spinach, seaweed, beans, meat, fish and cheese. But like all things in our body, the making of serotonin requires other nutrients. We need a fine balance of carbohydrates to stimulate serotonin synthesis, and we need vitamins and minerals such as folate, iron, calcium, vitamin B3, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B6 and vitamin C for the synthesis to serotonin.
Recently a study in the The Lancet Psychiatry, highlighted the importance of nutrition for maintaining mental health and discussed research proving that the quality of diet and the deficiencies in certain essential nutrients are determining factors for physical and mental health. The authors wrote that the human brain needs an adequate intake of key nutrients, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids Omega-3, essential amino acids, B-group vitamins (especially B12 and folate), vitamin D and minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron. There is also lots of research showing that a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish, whole grains, legumes and olive oil protect against and reduce incidence of depression.
So while the role of food and mood is a complex one there is ample research to show that what we eat is one of the factors we need to pay attention to. Consuming a balanced and high-quality diet provides all of the nutrients our brains need for good mental health and where deficiencies are identified by a qualified practitioner, supplements can be added.