How to support your mental health
As I write this blog, it’s currently World Mental Health Day and Mental Health Awareness month… so I wanted to explore with you how we can support our mental health and well-being through food, nutrition and other lifestyle habits.
There are key nutrients which support a healthy and happy brain, but we need to combine this with other daily practices and healthy habits around exercise and self care.
We all have our own journey we are on, and different strategies will work for different people, or at different times in your life, so please keep this in mind.
If you need extra support, please reach out to the following:
Reach out to a friend, family member or contact lines -
@lifelineaustralia 13 11 14
@thebutterflyfoundation 1800 334 673
@beyondblueofficial 1300 224 636
@kidshelplineau 1800 551 800
@pandanational 1300 726 306
Our mental health is like a jigsaw - there are many pieces to the puzzle. So, nutrition isn't the only thing that's important to consider, but also your physical health, movement and exercise, self care, lifestyle, and emotional state.
Let's firstly look at the nutrition foundations for mental health
Key Nutrients for Mental Health
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s, found in fatty fish like salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts, play a crucial role in brain health. They have been associated with reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. They are involved in the production of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that help regulate mood, cognition and behaviour.
Antioxidants: Foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, dark chocolate, and leafy greens, help protect the brain from oxidative stress, which can contribute to mental health issues.
B Vitamins: B vitamins, especially B6, B9 (folate), and B12, are essential for neurotransmitter production and function. They can be found in leafy greens, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Vitamin D: Important for brain health and mood regulation; along with supporting cognitive function and concentration… plus bone and hormone health! Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with increased risk of depression, and other mood disorders. Vitamin D rich foods: fatty fish, dairy products, and mushrooms are good sources of vitamin D. Plus sunlight.
Magnesium: Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, some of which are related to mood regulation, cognitive function and concentration. Nuts, seeds, and leafy greens are excellent sources of magnesium.
Iron: not only is iron important for red blood cell production and energy; but also brain function and cognitive performance - including attention and concentration. Low levels can lead to anemia which can cause fatigue and other cognitive impairments.
Zinc: Important for brain function, cognitive performance and mood regulation. Low levels of zinc have been linked to depression and other mood disorders. Zinc rich foods include seafood, lean meats, nuts and seeds.
So what does that look like in food...
Foods to Eat for Better Mental Health:
Fatty Fish: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aim to include fish in your diet at least twice a week.
Leafy Greens: Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are packed with nutrients like folate and magnesium, which support brain health and mood regulation.
Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are high in antioxidants, which protect the brain from oxidative stress and can improve cognitive function.
Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are excellent sources of healthy fats, B vitamins, and magnesium, all of which support brain health.
Whole Grain carbohydrates: Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread provide a steady supply of energy and contain complex carbohydrates that help regulate mood and keep blood sugar levels stable.
Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are rich in protein, fiber, and folate, which can help stabilize mood and energy levels.
Probiotic Foods: Incorporate probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi to promote a healthy gut microbiome, which is essential for mental health.
Lean Proteins: Chicken, turkey, lean beef, and tofu are good sources of protein, which is necessary for the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
Dark Chocolate: In moderation, dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (70% or more) can provide antioxidants and may boost mood by stimulating the production of endorphins.
Green Tea: Green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that can have a calming effect and improve focus and cognitive function.
Extra virgin olive oil (cold pressed): rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Look for quality oils that are cold pressed. This means less processing and less damage to the oils.
Quality protein foods (lean meats, eggs, tofu, tempeh, milk, cheese, legumes, nuts and seeds): amino acids, the building blocks of protein, play an important role in regulating mood and cognition. Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain - helping learning and memory. Glycine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter which helps regulate mood and sleep. Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter which regulates mood, appetite and sleep. Therefore increasing tryptophan intake can improve mood and cognitive performance, especially for those susceptible to depression and anxiety.
Organic foods where possible & grass fed meats: reduces the amount of chemicals and toxins you’re exposed to and potentially lowers your risk of health problems associated with pesticide exposure.
Stay Hydrated: Dehydration can affect your mood and cognitive function, so be sure to drink enough water throughout the day.
Practical Tips for a Mental Health-Focused Diet
The Mediterranean diet (Med diet), rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, is associated with a lower risk of depression and cognitive decline. Many studies have shown an intriguing association between the Med Diet and lower risk of depression and anxiety. The SMILES Trial, showed that reduced depression was correlated with adherence to a Med diet at 6 months (Parletta et al., 2017). Other studies have also found the diet linked to lower levels of anxiety (Sanchez-Villegas et al., 2013). This is most likely due to the diet being rich in the above nutrients key for good mental wellbeing, mood, and cognition.
Fibre, prebiotics and probiotics foods also further support a healthy gut microbiota. There is emerging evidence to show that a bidirectional relationship between the gut microbiota and mental health. The gut microbiota is a community of microorganisms residing in the gut. It can influence gastrointestinal functions, while it can also be modulated by brain-gut interactions. The vagus nerve allows information from the gut to travel to the brain and vice versa. Therefore when we experience stress and anxiety, it can impact our gut function due to this vagus nerve relationship.
The enteric nervous system in the gut produces neurotransmitters that are important for mental health such as serotonin. Probiotics and antibiotics can also manipulate the gut microbiota. That’s why when you take a course of antibiotics, it’s important you also take a course of probiotics to replace good gut bacteria.
LOW ENERGY AVAILABILITY (LEA) & REDS
Low energy availability can lead to a number of changes and impacts on our health; and this includes changes in mood, increasing irritability, anxiety and depression. AND, you don't have to be an elite athlete or a "regular exerciser" to experience this - anyone can!
Our bodies require enough energy day to day to regulate physiological processes; this includes regulating neurotransmitters and hormones that play a role in mood regulation, appetite and other processes.
When energy is insufficient, these chemical balances are disrupted, mood and emotional wellbeing are affected. Reduced serotonin production can lead to imbalances that contribute to depression, anxiety and irritability. Low levels of dopamine, another important neurotransmitter, can lead to decreased motivation, feeling of apathy, and impaired reward processing.
Cortisol is also increased during LEA as a response to this stress. Chronically elevated levels can contribute to anxiety, mood disturbances, and difficulty managing stress. Thyroid hormones can also be disrupted which can lead to reduced metabolic rate and therefore possible changes in mood and cognition.
Foods to Limit (or avoid) for Better Mental Health:
Sugar: Excessive sugar consumption (outside of training) can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes, causing mood swings and irritability. Reduce your intake of sugary snacks, desserts, and sugary drinks.
Processed Foods: Highly processed foods often contain unhealthy trans fats, artificial additives, and preservatives, and seed oils, which can negatively affect your mood and overall well-being. Processed foods are okay to eat, just not all the time - so when possible, opt for whole, natural foods instead. Especially for meals and breakfasts. Plus add fruit or yoghurt to your snacks for whole food goodness.
Caffeine: While some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others, excessive caffeine intake can lead to anxiety, jitters, and disrupted sleep. Limit your caffeine intake to 400mg a day, or 200mg if you're pregnant. Caffeine can stay in your system on an average for over 8 hours, so be sure to not have caffeine 8-9 hours before bed time!
Alcohol: Alcohol is a depressant and can disrupt sleep patterns. Drinking in moderation is key to maintaining good mental health.
High-Sodium Foods: Excess salt can lead to high blood pressure, which has been linked to an increased risk of mood disorders. Reduce your consumption of high-sodium processed foods and opt for low-sodium alternatives.
Artificial Sweeteners: Some artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, have been associated with mood disturbances in certain individuals. It's best to consume them in moderation or avoid them if you are sensitive.
Fried and Fast Foods: Foods that are high in unhealthy fats, such as deep-fried items and fast food, can lead to inflammation, which has
Here's some more tips for managing other pieces of the puzzle
The relationship between your mental health and nutrition is undeniable. What you eat not only affects your physical health but also has a significant impact on your emotional and psychological well-being. By making informed dietary choices, such as prioritising nutrient-rich foods and avoiding highly processed foods, you can take a proactive step in nourishing your mind and enhancing your overall mental health for life!
Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous system. Ann Gastroenterol. 2015 Apr-Jun;28(2):203-209. PMID: 25830558; PMCID: PMC4367209
Mountjoy M, Ackerman KE, Bailey DM, et al. Br J Sports Med 2023;57:1073–1097.
Sanchez-Villegas, A. et al. (2013) ‘Mediterranean dietary patterns and depression: The predimed randomized trail’, BMC Medicine, 11(1). doi:10.1186/1741-7051-11-208.
Parletta, N. et al. (2017) ‘A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trail (HELFIMED)’, Nutritional Neuroscience, 22(7), pp. 474-487. doi:10.1080/1028415x.2017.1411320