Recently, several people have talked to me about how they’ve felt a drop in their mood – possibly connected to the darker days as winter draws closer. Alongside this, it’s been great to see that mental health issues are becoming more talked about and understood, I just wish there was more support out there for people, but that’s a whole other story! I do think there is a huge difference between feeling a bit low, in a funk or maybe even slightly depressed, to having something that is a more serious mental health issue. However, what you eat, and your lifestyle choices, can have a massive impact on your mental wellbeing and I’ve seen examples of this with people I’ve worked with. I’m certainly not suggesting that just by changing the way you eat, a serious mental health issue can be solved, I just feel that these things could certainly help.
I am not an expert in mental health issues, if you are reading this and have experienced longer periods of feeling down, upset, stressed or anxious etc then please go and see a doctor or contact a charity such as MIND for support.
Before we get into food, I think there’s a lot of other lifestyle factors that can have a huge impact:
Exercise – I completely believe that some people are more sensitive than others to the endorphins that are released when you exercise. I’ve known people who have experienced a big drop in their mood when they haven’t been able to exercise. Across the board, doing some kind of physical movement that you enjoy will have a positive impact on your mood. It doesn’t have to be dragging yourself to the gym either, just getting out for a walk or my personal fave, hula hooping, can help.
Stress – Obviously stress can have a significant impact, I’ve talked about stress before and how it effects my life. Not only having the stuff in your life that is stressful, but the physical impact of that stress, such as changes in hormone levels and all the other knock on effects, can have a huge negative impact. If you can try things like meditation, deep breathing and yoga, they will work wonders for a lot of people. If you are like me, and trying to fit that kind of thing in just adds more stress, simply saying no more often and re prioritising things can help.
Other stuff going on in your life – I guess this is linked with stress, but feeling down about things happening (or not happening as the case maybe) in your life is often the cause or trigger for mental health issues. I know that some things can be changed easier than others, for example feeling trapped in an unrewarding job etc. I’m not going to suggest that it’s just as easy as this sounds, but in my life I’ve found that with problems that face me I can either change something – or if it’s something I can’t change, then I try and change the way I think about it. Practising gratitude for the things I do have in my life is always helpful. I’m by no means suggesting that mental illnesses can be tackled like this, but sometimes that lower level ‘feeling a bit shit’ can be helped.
Daylight (or lack thereof!) – Some people do find that they are affected more severely by the darker days and lack of sunlight than others – also known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. On first consideration I didn’t actually think I was affected by it, but after Christmas in January and February a combination of the come down after Christmas and the seemingly endless days of grey have left me feeling a bit lower than usual in the past. I don’t think theres a magic answer to this, although getting outside more, planning more outdoors fun activities with others, light therapy and trying out a daylight alarm clock could be helpful. There is some research that suggests serotonin levels are lower in some people than others at that time of year so increasing foods that support it could help (see below) as well as thinking about increasing your vitamin D intake with supplementation.
Poor sleep – If you aren’t getting adequate sleep it affects all areas of your health- most definitely impacting on your mental wellbeing. I’ve wrote a free full downloadable guide on sleep full of tips to help you improve it.
If you have been feeling a bit down or depressed, checking in with those pointers above and assessing if any of those can be improved is a great start.
Now on to the food side of things…
Reduce (or eliminate) alcohol – I personally believe that alcohol has the worst impact on mental well being out of everything. Even if you are usually the happy go lucky type, too much to drink can leave you crying into your cocktails. Again, it is often the knock on effect of alcohol that has an impact as well. I think how much alcohol you can tolerate depends on you as an individual, but check in with how much you are drinking and experiment to see if a reduction in drinking helps.
Serotonin – serotonin is a neuro transmitter which functions in the central nervous system and has an impact on mood, sleep and appetite. Bio chemically it is deprived from the essential amino acid Tryptophan which is found in foods such as chicken, turkey, yoghurt, oats, dried dates, sesame seeds and chickpeas. Not having sufficient serotonin, either thought diet, digestion issues (more on that in a sec) or because the bodies serotonin receptors aren’t functioning well, is thought to cause depression, anxiety and panic attacks (source)
Check in with your digestion – there’s a whole host of new information coming out on the gut – mood connection, in fact it’s often being referred to as the body’s second brain. Any issues with digestion can impact on the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and that can have a huge knock on effect, including that of the production of serotonin as after the brain, the gut is the place where it is found in the body. There’s also a lot of links between brain function affecting digestion. There’s an interesting dietary approach called the Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet (GAPS) which aims to heal that issue. If you have any food intolerances, these could also have an impact on mood and mental wellbeing due to the digestive distress they cause.
Quit the refined sugar – eating too much sugar can play havoc with your moods when you spend your days on a blood sugar roller coaster with energy highs and lows. If you are eating a lot of refined sugar and refined carbohydrates you could also be missing key vitamins and minerals as those kinds of foods aren’t very nutrient dense.
Not eating enough carbohydrates – whilst you don’t want too be eating the less nutritious refined sugar and carbs, going on a low carb diet can also trigger some mental well being issues! The body can convert fat into energy, but that conversion is not always easy as using carbs. When it comes to fuelling brain function, going too low carb can lead to mood issues. Carbs also help the body to produce serotonin so a lack of them can have that knock on effect as well! (source) Sticking to whole food sources of carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains etc should help to balance your energy and mood – but again, this is a individual thing and some people need more carbs than others, so experiment!
Get plenty of fat! – this doesn’t just go for improvements to mental health but everything – fat is vital! I can’t stress this enough. We need fat for so many processes in the body, absorbing vitamins and minerals, manufacturing hormones – including the ones that regulate mood, balancing blood sugar levels etc. Try and get a good range of fats from different sources. Of course fish oils would be beneficial, preferably directly from oily fish like salmon and mackerel, if not from supplements. Include fats from nuts, seeds and olive oil but don’t be afraid of the saturated fat from full fat dairy, butter, coconut products and meat if they are decent quality.
Top up the vitamin D – vitamin D is the only vitamin that is actually a hormone. Tissues throughout the body have vitamin D receptors and some research has indicated a link between low mood and depression and low vitamin D levels (source) yet another reason why many people suffer from SAD. Vitamin D can be manufactured through sunlight on the skin, although in the winter the suns rays aren’t usually strong enough, however vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that can be stored in the body, so try and top up your levels in the summer when the sun does shine! Taking a supplement of course could be useful, especially one with added magnesium as it is a co factor in absorption.
Keeping an eye on caffeine – as much as I love my coffee, I know that after a couple of cups it certainly doesn’t love me back! Caffeine can have a similar effect to that of sugar on energy levels so can really play about with your moods. Keeping an eye on how your body responds to caffeine / how much you crave it etc is useful to see if it’s having a negative impact or not. As I said I know I’m fine up to 2 cups but then I switch to decaf.
Other vitamins and minerals that could have a positive impact – minerals such as magnesium and selenium have been noted alongside B vitamins as playing a role promoting good mental health, but generally I think it’s best to approach it in terms of having an overall healthy diet so that you are getting the full range of vitamins and minerals in the most absorbable form – food – instead of isolating nutrients. Make sure you eat your veggies, especially leafy greens and then a good range of other foods that don’t cause you any digestive problems along with the odd ‘good for your soul’ foods and you should be getting what you need. I do think that a multi vitamin is a good idea due to a lot of factors, but good food comes first!
A quick word on anti depressant medication as well – I know some people feel bad about taking it, but there’s no shame at all in going for medication if your doctor recommends it. Just try some of those other things in addition as they will help and might mean that you can ease off medication sooner. When it comes to hormonal mood swings I could write another whole long post, but generally by following the tips above, and most of all listening to your body and it’s cravings (craving carbs? Maybe that’s your body seeking out support to metabolise serotonin from the tryptophan!) you should see some improvements.
I’m sure there is more research and topics out there, and really this is just a dip in the ocean, but I think those tips give you a good start. As I said at the beginning, there is support out there and various therapies which I know can be helpful given the experiences of people I know. Sometimes it’s actually the issues with food itself that can make you feel depressed and out of control (if you wanted support around that, see what I offer through Uniquely Healthy for more info).
Here’s a few more useful links on the subject:
- Serotonin boosters from Marks Daily Apple
- Ingredients to improve your mental health from the Mind Sanctuary
- Healthy eating and depression PDF guide from the Mental Health Foundation
Do you see changes in your mood with the seasons? Have you noticed differences in your mental well being connected to your diet?
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