Have you ever wondered how much impact your diet may have on your mood and mind health? With busy schedules, stressful situations and responsibilities constantly hanging over us, food is often the last thing on our minds, however most of us could benefit from a few extra brain foods.
What does mood and mind health include?
Mood and mind disorders range from diagnosed health conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder to other isolated symptoms such as anxiety, poor memory, difficulty in concentrating and issues with sleeping properly. Depression in particular is an extremely common problem, with many individuals reluctantly relying on anti-depressant medication while accepting the possible side effects. Depression is a term used to describe a wide range of mood disorders that create psychological distress such as low mood, despair, hopelessness and anxiety. Depression may be of the reactive type, i.e. a result of external circumstances such as a relationship break up, for which talking therapies may be beneficial. Clinical depression, in contrast, may have no clear reason for its cause and may involve a physiological imbalance in the brain, which can therefore be addressed with correct nutrition. If you feel this way, it is important to know that you are not alone but among millions, and giving your body the right nutrition may be what it needs.
The evidence – dietary associations with brain health
The connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness is generally understood, yet the connection between nutrition and mind/mood health is often forgotten. When looking at studies on diet and brain health, the clearest association between mood disorders and diet is with fish consumption. Countries such as Japan and Iceland have very low levels of depression and bipolar disorder, and very high fish consumption, whereas countries such as Germany and New Zealand are on the other end of the scale (1, 2).
When considering the nutritional value of fish, it is most importantly the richest source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Studies specifically looking at omega-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cells have found that concentration levels are significantly lower in depressed individuals (3). In addition to the high omega-3 content of fish, we must not forget that it is also a good source of important vitamins and minerals required for neurotransmitter synthesis, the chemical messengers in the brain; it is also high in protein, needed for making serotonin and dopamine, which are required to regulate sleep, memory, mood, feelings of reward and behaviour.
Dietary tips for mood and mind health
Dietary fat consumption often has a bad reputation, with low-fat diets still very commonly followed, but it needs to be understood that fat is crucial for your brain, and the balance of different types of fats is just as important. Inflammation for example, can be controlled by the ratio of omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) to omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as these fats produce pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory signalling molecules in the body. Inflammation is a normal biological response, however if this inflammatory response continues unnecessarily (that is, when its immediate job is done), this can lead to damage of body tissue and increases susceptibility to disease. Chronic low grade inflammation and a high AA:EPA ratio is associated with depression (4).
When considering your dietary balance of fats, it is most important to correctly balance omega-6 AA and omega-3 EPA levels; this may be achieved by reducing intake of grain-fed meat which is high in AA, and increasing intake of EPA found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring. Other omega-3 fats found in linseed oil and echium seed oil are also good to include in your diet as these can be converted to EPA in the body, although to a lower extent. Vegetable oils such as corn oil and sunflower oil can, however, convert to the omega-6 AA in the body which may result in increased inflammation, so it is best to limit these fats where possible. Vegetable oils are commonly added to cakes and biscuits and other processed foods, which may also be heat-treated, damaging the fats further.
In an ideal world, it should be easy for us to naturally obtain a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Unfortunately, modern farming techniques commonly consist of animal feed containing grains (rich in omega-6), rather than grass (rich in omega-3), and farming of fish also leads to a higher AA:EPA ratio. Eating meat and fish in quantities that our forebears consumed may therefore be insufficient, as the fat ratios in these foods have changed considerably over the last few decades.
In practical terms, in order to obtain enough omega-3 EPA from our diets, we should be eating 1-2 portions of oily fish per week, ideally from smaller fish which are naturally lower in contaminants such as methyl mercury, PCBs and dioxins. Given that these toxins are commonly found in the fish that we eat, it is difficult to balance high dietary amounts of fats from grain-fed meat with sufficient omega-3 EPA from fish without exceeding recommended upper limits of environmental toxins. There are also many variables affecting the amount of EPA found in fish, with oily fish such as mackerel containing much higher levels compared to white fish such as cod. The cooking method also affects EPA levels – baking better protects the fatty acids compared to frying, which destroys them at high temperatures. Canned fish also has much lower levels of the important fatty acids, so buying and eating fresh where possible is the best option.
The neurotransmitters in the brain help to transmit information to cells which are required for proper brain function, significantly affecting brain health including mood regulation, memory, behaviour and sleep quality. Neurotransmitters are synthesised from amino acids found in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds, so be sure to include plenty of these foods to keep your brain messengers working at their best.
A diet high in refined carbohydrates, including foods such as sugar and white bread, can result in a blood sugar roller-coaster, with glucose being released very quickly into the blood followed by a release of various stress hormones, highs and lows in energy levels, and an increase in inflammation. Refined carbohydrates can affect mood and concentration (5), so these foods should be limited as much as possible. Carbohydrates found in vegetables, pulses and wholegrain foods such as oats are generally better as they are more slowly absorbed and are nutrient dense.
Not only do refined carbohydrates cause blood sugar issues, they are also low in nutrients, so the body uses up B vitamins to process these foods. Sudden peaks in blood sugar delivered to the brain can also influence mood and anxiety. Choosing foods with a low glycaemic index ensures that blood glucose levels stay more constant, and therefore keep mood more stable.
Important vitamins and minerals for brain health
Fatty acids may be the most valuable dietary component to consider for brain health, however we must not forget the important vitamins and minerals which are required for processes in the brain including the metabolism of fats and synthesis of neurotransmitters. Deficiencies of some of these vitamins and minerals may lead to symptoms of insomnia, mood swings, nervousness, depression and confusion.
B vitamins are particularly important to prevent a buildup of homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine is a harmful by-product of the methylation cycle, which is a process important for the production of neurotransmitters. Homocysteine is usually converted into essential proteins involved in processes such as sleep and mood regulation, however an accumulation of homocysteine is a risk factor for dementia and depression. Elevated homocysteine disrupts neurotransmitter function and thereby affects brain function and mood. To process homocysteine properly, and to improve serotonin production, vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid are essential.
Below is a list of some of the richest food sources of the most important vitamins and minerals for brain health, so try including these foods on a regular basis. Think of fish with vegetables, lentil curries with brown rice, spinach omelettes, nuts and seeds for snacks, and of course some nice dark chocolate for the high zinc content.
Key nutrient sources
|Vitamin D||Sunlight is the main source. Small amounts found in fish, oysters, eggs and fortified products|
|Magnesium||Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale), nuts, seeds, fish, beans and lentils, whole grains, avocados|
|B vitamins||Seeds, nuts, fish, yeast extract spread (hoping you fall into the ‘love-it’ camp – Marmite), herbs and spices, brown rice and wheat bran|
|Selenium||Brazil nuts, shellfish, liver, fish, sunflower seeds, oat bran|
|Zinc||Oysters, wheat germ, liver, beef, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, dark chocolate|
Supplements for mood and mind health
If you are considering taking a fish oil to reduce inflammation and improve brain health, there are a few options to consider. Studies looking at the effect of fish oils on mood disorders have found that they vary considerably depending on the ratios of EPA:DHA. EPA and DHA are different types of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, of which EPA has strong anti-inflammatory effects. Meta analyses comparing many clinical trials carried out on fish oils have found that fish oils containing concentrated pure EPA fish oil have a more beneficial effect on mood health compared to fish oils containing both EPA and DHA (6). A dose of 1000 mg of EPA on its own, without DHA, shows significant beneficial effects on depression (7).
Quality and concentration of fish oils also makes a difference. Consider that standard fish oils have a composition of only 18% EPA, therefore the dose of EPA may be low, even in large capsules. If, however, you have a concentrated fish oil, for example at 90% EPA concentration in Pharmepa STEP 1: RESTORE, high therapeutic doses can be achieved, and from small capsules.
For vegetarians, there are alternatives to EPA derived from fish, such as echium seed oil, high in the omega-3 stearidonic acid (SA) and further along the metabolic pathway to conversion to EPA in the body. This conversion requires that you have adequate vitamins and minerals to support the enzymes to metabolise fats. SA is the superior choice of omega-3 for vegetarians and vegans compared to ALA found in linseeds, algae and hempseeds, as it is the direct precursor to EPA.
Nutrition tips for mood and mind
Most importantly when considering dietary changes, try to balance your AA:EPA fatty acid ratio by including plenty of oily fish in your diet and choose grass-fed meat over grain-fed. Also have nutrient-dense foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. Lastly, to give your brain a break, limit your intake of refined foods. With these simple changes, your brain should have all the nutrition it needs to help you feel good again.
1. Hibbeln JR. Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet. 1998;351(9110):1213.
2. Noaghiul S, Hibbeln JR. Cross-national comparisons of seafood consumption and rates of bipolar disorders. Am J Psychiatry. 2003;160(12):2222-7.
3. Pottala JV, Talley JA, Churchill SW, Lynch DA, von Schacky C, Harris WS. Red blood cell fatty acids are associated with depression in a case-control study of adolescents. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2012;86(4-5):161-5.
4. Conklin SM, Manuck SB, Yao JK, Flory JD, Hibbeln JR, Muldoon MF. High omega-6 and low omega-3 fatty acids are associated with depressive symptoms and neuroticism. Psychosom Med. 2007 69:932-4.
5. Nilsson A, Radeborg K, Björck I. Effects on cognitive performance of modulating the postprandial blood glucose profile at breakfast. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012;66(9):1039-43.
6. Sublette ME, Ellis SP, Geant AL, Mann JJ. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011;72(12):1577-84.
7. Mozaffari-Khosravi H, Yassini-Ardakani M, Karamati M, Shariati-Bafghi SE. Eicosapentaenoic acid versus docosahexaenoic acid in mild-to-moderate depression: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013;23(7):636-44.