How can my diet affect my mental health?

a woman holding a bag of food
Can changing my diet improve my anxiety?Getty Images

It's tempting to avoid the veg aisle during your weekly shop, but if your mental health is suffering taking a look at just how healthy (or unhealthy) your diet is could help.

We're not talking salads and juice detoxes for the rest of your life, but simply upping your protein, veg and hydration levels. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week we look at how small changes to your diet can boost your mental health.

Nutritionist Becca Meadows explains that mental health is influenced by so much more than just how we think, our emotions and our beliefs. 'The food we eat builds every cell in our body. All our chemical messengers in our body from hormones like melatonin controlling sleep to neurotransmitters such as serotonin influencing mood - they all have nutritional building blocks.

'When we don’t consume the necessary foods to support either optimal production or the ability for our body to act on what the chemical messengers are saying, we compromise our physical and mental health.'

This was proved by a recent study, which showed how the Mediterranean diet affected participants who suffered from depression, explains Meadows: 'One group had dietary support, while the other didn’t. One-third of the group with dietary support not only saw an improvement in symptoms but went into remission from depression compared to 8% in the group with no dietary support.'

Up your fruit and veg

Meadows explains that magnesium is a common deficiency in the Western diet, yet it 'plays a vital role in regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). You find it in wholegrain, leafy greens, nuts and seeds. Also important in the UK is Vitamin D from sunlight but also fish, eggs, mushrooms and fortified milk.'

While she adds that low levels of vitamin D have been associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression. However, this is one vitmain which can be tough to get from foods - so make sure you're taking your supplement.

Protein and healthy fats

Instead of opting for just that carb-filled dinner, add some protein to it, which Meadows says is 'essential for the brain to function, repair and grow.'

'Serotonin is made from a protein called tryptophan. This amino acid is called ‘essential,' which means we have to get it from food. It strengthens connections between brain cells and supports neurogenesis- the growth of new brain cells.'

So, which foods can we get our protein intake from? 'Meat, eggs, fish, dairy, soy, quinoa and buckwheat contain all the essential amino acids that we can’t make ourselves. '

One healthy fat you should have on your radar is Omega 3 - which we can get from our diet. So, how can it help our moods? 'It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects alongside key roles in brain development which has been shown to have beneficial effects on depression and anxiety.'

But, where can we find it? 'What we really need for supporting mental health is the EPA and DHA forms of Omega 3 found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies and also marine algae.'

Put the caffeine down

We all know that too much caffeine or alcohol can make us feel rubbish, but how can it affect us in the long term? 'Alcohol inhibits the production of some neurotransmitters such as GABA which combat anxiety. It also plays havoc with our blood sugar impacting mood and cravings,' explains Meadows. If your mental health is being sveraly impacted by alcohol have a few weeks off and see if it improves. A few cocktails are never worth weeks of low moods.

On the flipside hydration can also be a massive mood booster: 'The body needs water to be able to absorb all those important nutrients from our food - but more importantly, so our brains can work optimally. Low water consumption is associated with a greater likelihood of anxiety and depression - with many studies backing this up.

Bored of water? 'Try herbal teas, and decaf coffee, alongside smoothies and soups to make hydration a bit more exciting. I love Dash drinks for a fizzy hit without the sugar or sweeteners,' suggest meadows.

When to see your doctor

If lifestyle changes such as increased sleep, a change in diet or exercise makes no changes to your mental health book an appointment to see your GP.

Meet the expert: Becca Meadows is a nutritionist and the founder of 'She Thrives' - a 16-week programme designed to support women to achieve optimal performance, so they can feel healthier and lead better.

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