Nutrition and Mental Health

What we eat affects both our physical and mental health and the link is becoming clearer.
Natalie Simpson

Our stomach rules our mind…

What we eat affects both our physical and mental health and the link is becoming clearer. What we eat impacts how we feel and how we feel impacts our appetite. Past research has found that our life experiences are regulated by our emotions and chemicals in our brain which control what we feel, think, and do. Recent research refers to our digestive system as our ‘second brain’ as the two are connected in numerous ways. The hormone Serotonin is produced in both, in fact, 90% of all our Serotonin is produced in our digestive system! We know that the release of serotonin creates feelings of happiness and increased mood, therefore there is so much more that we can do to look after our mental health through nutrition. Eating foods that increase our energy levels, regulate our emotions, and increase our mood will ensure that we are mentally and physically well.

What do we need from our food?


We get our energy from carbohydrates. Keeping your blood glucose levels consistent throughout the day is key, so foods that release energy slowly throughout the day is important to increase concentration levels and maintain wellbeing. Slow releasing carbohydrates are oats, cereals, nuts, and seeds.

Emotional regulation

Foods such as proteins and fats help to regulate our emotions. Our brain needs amino acids, such as proteins, to help regulate thoughts and feelings. Proteins can be lean meat, cheese, soya products and legumes. Some good fats which contain omega-3 and omega-6 can help emotional regulation. Good fat sources for this are nuts, seeds, oily fish, poultry, avocados, dairy products, and eggs.

Increased mood

Vitamins that include Iron help us to increase our mood. Foods high in iron are red meat, poultry, fish, beans, and pulses. Foods with vitamin B1, B3, and B12 can also increase mood, decrease tiredness, and decrease irritability. These foods are meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Foods with Folate and Selenium can also increase mood. Food high in folate are green vegetables, citrus fruits, liver, and beans. Food that is high in selenium are brazil nuts, seeds, wholemeal bread, meat, and fish.

To feed our second brain

The best way to support the health of our digestive system is by eating foods that act as prebiotics and stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. All of these foods are great for our gut health, so there’s choice for anyone’s pallet!
Whole grains, apples, bananas, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, artichokes, root vegetables, beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, lentils, honey, green tea extracts, cocoa extracts and red wine extracts.

Did you know…

Has stress ever affected your stomach or bowels? Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach? When we feel stressed or anxious, we feel it in our digestive system – digestion may speed up or slow down.

Our intestines are physically linked to our brain through the vagus nerve which sends signals in both directions, so when stress is felt, we also feel it in our digestive system.
• Both our gut and our brain have neurons.
• Our digestive system can affect our immune system, resilience to stress, and our mood.
• Having a healthy digestive system ensures we’re able to absorb vitamins, minerals and nutrients that our brains need to thrive.
• Vitamin B12 decreases brain inflammation, reduces the risk of depression and reduces the risk of dementia.

Nutrition and you…

Eating nutritious food is a lifestyle choice. If you want to make some changes to your nutrition, then start adding more nutritious foods that you know you like. It’s not realistic to incorporate all of the above foods, but you can start to feel mentally and physically healthier by supporting your brain and digestive system better. We can start with smaller steps and notice the difference in the way what we eat makes us feel.

Our relationship with food

Remember there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ food. Food is fuel and every food group has its place and purpose in our diet. It can be very easy to develop an emotional relationship with food particularly in times of stress or sadness. Food = fuel and our body needs food so we have the energy to function in our day-to-day lives. If you are wanting to improve your physical and mental health by eating healthier food then first of all don’t call it going on a ‘diet’. It’s a lifestyle change that is going to have long-term impacts and don’t cut out any food which you enjoy. It’s all about balance, so aim to have healthy nutritious meals 80% of the time and still enjoy your favourite treats 20% of the time when you fancy them. Want to find out more about mental health? Check out our articles page.

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