Food and mood
There's a lot more evidence about how diet is closely linked to our mental health. A poor diet can contribute significantly to the risk of mood disorders. According to the Mental Health Foundation, those who report some level of mental health problem tend to have unhealthy diets. At a time of rising levels of reported mental health issues, this is one lifestyle intervention we can all pay attention to. Yet more people than ever are now regularly eating processed foods, ready meals, takeaways and sugary snacks – not realising how detrimental this type of diet can be for their mind. It's estimated that less than 15% of the UK population eats at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
What we eat impacts our mental health via our gut. Our gut microbes don't just play a part in our digestion, they also contribute a large part of our immune function, make essential vitamins and influence our brains. Our gut microbiome produces and regulates mood-controlling neurotransmitters; about 95% of our serotonin is located in the gut. The brain and gut bi-directionally affect each other which is why you can get 'butterflies in your stomach' when you're nervous, but also feel more anxious if your gut health is poor.
The evidence is mounting up. Research from Deakin University in Australia has demonstrated that improving the quality of your diet can even help treat major depression. It's also been shown that switching to a low-sugar diet can dramatically lower anxiety after a month. And other studies reveal that taking probiotics can also lessen stress and anxiety.
As diet is a key determinant of mental and brain health, we can help ourselves by what we choose to eat. When we're feeling stressed, it's only too easy to reach for so-called 'comfort' foods like cake and biscuits – but taking the time to prepare a quick healthy salad or vegetable stir-fry is much better for improving both our health and mood. And what's good for our mental health now also helps protect us against the risk of cognitive decline in the future.