Food and mood: what’s the connection?
There are many ways in which your diet can affect your mood each day.
- Not eating regularly enough can cause your blood sugar level to drop, which can make you feel irritable and down.
- Too little fluid can make you dehydrated, affecting your ability to concentrate and think clearly, which could change how well you feel able to deal with things emotionally.
- Too much caffeinated food and drink, or too much sugary food, may cause a brief surge in your mood and energy levels… but can eventually cause them to crash.
Over time your diet can also influence your risk of developing certain mental health problems.
- Mental health conditions can be connected to vitamin and mineral shortages in your diet. For example, depression is more likely in people who don’t get enough zinc, folate, vitamin D or omega 3.
- Evidence has consistently linked a Mediterranean-style diet to a lower risk of depression.
- A small but growing amount of research is showing how closely our digestive health and our mental health could be connected. There are trillions of tiny bacteria in our gut, and studies have shown that these can influence how we feel through a ‘gut-brain connection’. One recent review of 21 studies, for instance, found that regulating gut bacteria by eating well had a positive effect on reducing symptoms of anxiety.
How to change your diet and lift your mood
1. Eat regularly
This one sounds obvious, but many of us don’t get it right and that can have a real impact on how we feel. You can counter this and lift your mood by:
- eating regularly throughout the day – but equally, you don’t want to overeat, so try smaller portions spaced out often over the course of the day
- eating foods that release energy slowly, such as cereals, wholegrain bread, rice, oats, pasta, nuts or seeds
- limiting foods that make your blood sugar rise and fall quickly, such as biscuits, sweets, chocolate, sugary drinks and alcohol
2. Stay hydrated
Drinking enough fluid will help you stay alert and think clearly. Try to aim for between six and eight glasses of fluid a day.
Water is the obvious choice. Hot drinks and juices count too, but just be aware of their sugar or caffeine content, both of which may cause peaks and troughs in your energy levels and your mood. Caffeine is a stimulant that gives you short bursts of energy, but it can also cause anxiety or disturb your sleep.
3. Reach for the fruit and vegetables
From a young age, we’re told to eat our fruit and vegetables to grow physically strong. But did you know how much greens can benefit your mental health too? A study in February this year found that as people ate more fruit and vegetables, their sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction increased too. The guidance to get five portions of fruit and vegetables in your diet each day is well worth following.
On top of this, getting enough protein in your diet, and fatty acids (such as omega-3 and 6) will help keep your brain healthy.
4. Pay attention to digestion and gut health
As well as the complex gut-brain connection I mentioned before, there are more immediate ways your digestion can affect your mood. No one feels their best when constipated, bloated or suffering from indigestion.
It can help your digestion work smoothly if you drink plenty of fluids and pack enough fibre into your diet from things like fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals. Increase your fibre intake gradually though, to allow your gut to adjust.
If you feel like certain foods are giving you trouble in terms of your digestion, it’s probably worth speaking to your GP or a dietitian to discuss this and find out what might help.
5. Understand comfort eating
Food can be emotionally comforting. In part, this may be because more of a chemical that improves your mood, called serotonin, gets into the brain when you eat carbohydrates. Foods can also make us feel good if they have certain cultural meaning for us – think mince pies at Christmas time or a roast dinner on a Sunday.
The problem can be eating in order to manage your emotions rather than your hunger. Identifying situations when this happens can be the first step in dealing with your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve eating more than you would otherwise. There are lots of ways to combat emotional eating, including stress-relief techniques and eating more mindfully.