The Complex Relationship Between Diet and Emotional Well-Being

You may be familiar with the phrase “you are what you eat”, and it’s true! There’s a complex relationship between your diet and your emotional well-being.

In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health issue related to anxiety or depression. So, how can we support our mood naturally?

Can a healthy diet improve mood?

Nutritional psychiatry, the study of the relationship between foods people eat and how they act or feel, is a well-established field of research. Diet is associated with mood fluctuations, as well as several mental diseases and behavioural issues such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, schizophrenia, dementia and depression.

Other potential effects of diet on mood disorders can be attributed to lifestyle factors, including alcohol intake, smoking, drug use, and physical activity.

How can certain foods positively affect our emotional well-being?

Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will ensure you’re getting plenty of antioxidants, which are associated with reduced oxidative stress and neuronal damage. By consuming high levels of omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish, nuts and olive oil, it is also possible to reduce overall inflammation and improve neurotransmitter activity. Foods containing B vitamins, such as whole grains, help to support general mental function. As such, some people find it helpful to follow the Mediterranean diet to make sure there is a balanced diet and get healthy levels of vitamins and nutrients.

What is a Mediterranean diet?

Relative to the Western diet, the Mediterranean diet encourages increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish and olive oil. This diet focuses on a holistic lifestyle approach, supporting less red meat, processed meats and dairy products, with moderate alcohol intake.

The Mediterranean diet involves many foods containing nutrients that may contribute to preventing various brain diseases. It also helps fend off additional factors that contribute to depression, including metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

The importance of fatty acids

A diet high in omega-6 to omega-3 ratios can alter cell membrane properties and increase inflammation. Conversely, a higher dietary ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 can promote a healthy central nervous system and composition of cell membranes due to omega-3’s anti-inflammatory properties. With this mechanism, omega-3s have been shown to affect dopamine and serotonin neurotransmission. These two neurotransmitters are involved in sleep, memory, metabolism, and emotional well-being.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds. These fats have been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of mind to moderate depression. Supplementing with fish oil is another great option to make sure you’re getting adequate fatty acids.

Critical nutrients to fight depression

Nutrients such as B vitamins are critical in protecting against depression. Vitamins B12 and B6 in particular are involved in processes of the neurotransmitters and phospholipids in the central nervous system. For that reason, a deficiency in B vitamins may result in decreased synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain, contributing to depression.

Folate is another nutrient linked to the synthesis of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Having a deficiency in these three key B vitamins can impact depression.

Which nutrient depletions are linked to anxiety?

There are many nutrient depletions that can be linked to anxiety.

B vitamins are especially important for managing anxiety. Vitamins B1 and B5 decrease stress-induced cortisol response, while protecting the adrenals. Vitamins B3 and B12 improve sleep quality and the circadian rhythm, which may be affected by anxiety. Vitamin B6 and folate are required for the synthesis of the neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin and dopamine.

Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that plays an important role in the development of depression. It’s involved in several brain processes including brain development, neuroplasticity and neuroprotection. Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with poor cognitive function, neurodegenerative diseases, seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder. Vitamin D can be found in salmon, red meat and egg yolks.

Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in many functions within the central nervous system. Deficiency is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts, legumes, tofu and whole grains.

Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in regulating mood by affecting neurotransmitter activity and cell membrane fluidity. Altering fatty acid composition of the central nervous system membranes can change their functions as well as neurotransmitter availability, impacting serotonin and dopamine levels.

Amino acids, particularly tryptophan, have an impact on mood stability. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin and is closely linked to the suppression of depression and anxiety. This amino acid can be found in foods such as whole milk, canned tuna, turkey, chicken and oats.

Evidence suggests zinc supplementation alone or in conjunction with antidepressants therapies have potential benefits for depression. Zinc plays a role in reducing or preventing depressive symptoms, and can be found in oysters, red meat and poultry.

Iron deficiency is associated with mood and cognitive impairments. Iron and zinc are often found in similar food sources, such as meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds, and whole grains.

Studies report that low selenium intake is associated with poor mood. The brain retains more selenium than other organs, as oxidative stress can impact brain function. Selenium has an essential role in protecting the body from free radicals as an antioxidant. Selenium is found in seafood, organ meats and Brazil nuts.

Natural support for mood and anxiety

Prioritizing a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, amino acids and minerals can be beneficial in supporting mood and anxiety. As a general guideline, consume a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and fish.

It is also important to address lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress management. Chronic stress can exacerbate deficiencies due to increased nutrient requirements. During times of stress, some individuals may turn to processed foods or habits like overeating, Some may skip meals, some may consume more alcohol, smoke or feel irritable or angry. Therefore, addressing mood and anxiety requires a holistic approach considering diet, sleep and stress management.

If necessary, under your healthcare practitioner’s advice, supplementation may also be beneficial in supporting mood and anxiety. You may consider Healthy Mood and GABA 500.