How food affects our mental health

Brain function and mental health rely on optimal nutrition for basic function, so when deciding what to eat we should aim for more than a quick energy fix, says nutritional therapist Charlotte Watts.

  • We need the right carbohydrate sources for sustained energy and quality protein for neurotransmitter production, as well as healthy fats, B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and omega 3 oils
  • Constant grazing and snacking rather than set meal times is not the ideal way to balance blood sugar – the cornerstone of energy utilisation and metabolism
  • Both PTs and clients can develop ‘little and often’ eating habits which can set up a confused relationship with appetite, as well as place a strain on digestion and metabolism
  • A breakfast high in protein and healthy fats can set us up for more stress-coping and less sugar-craving throughout the day.

If you’ve ever reached for chocolate or cake when stressed, you will know that what we eat is intrinsically bound up in our ever-shifting mood states. When we feel low or demotivated, we can quickly crave the dopamine fix that sugar, caffeine and junk fats can deliver. With motivation to move and look after ourselves relying on this mood-lifting neurotransmitter (and dopamine levels are depleted by stress) it’s easy to see how a vicious cycle can quickly result, in which emotional eating replaces taking on the nutrients we need to support good mood.

As I outline in my book Good Mood Food, brain function and mental health rely on optimal nutrition for basic function. We need the right carbohydrate sources for sustained energy, quality protein for neurotransmitter production and healthy fats for nervous system cells to pick up and use these. We also require B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and omega 3 oils (to name just a few key nutrients) to metabolise these macronutrients and produce the hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters that run the whole symphony. To continue this musical analogy, this orchestration is put under more pressure when physical activity is increased. Yes, this is a good stress or challenge (‘eustress’) when appropriate recovery for tissues is also observed, but increases the need to attend to nutritional needs for both energy and mood.

Balancing blood sugar

There’s a reason that ‘balancing blood sugar’ is the foundational starting point for most nutritional therapists. If this cornerstone of energy utilisation and metabolism is not addressed, we cannot have an objective view of what other symptoms might mean. Helping a client eat for sustained energy to brain, muscle, organs and other tissues can help us view where other factors such as gut, adrenal, reproductive and thyroid health need support. Sports nutrition has a basis of sufficient blood sugar needs before training, and replenishing spent muscle with protein soon after, and this is supportive of blood sugar balance (and therefore mood) as a whole. For example:

Before training, these carbohydrate sources are easily digested:

  • a low sugar berry smoothie
  • a few oatcakes
  • coconut water (also isotonic for electrolyte minerals)
  • a banana or other piece of fruit
  • nut and dried fruit mix.

After training, depending on time and how close to a meal you are, these make good snacks:

  • boiled egg and avocado
  • spinach frittata or omelette
  • nut butter on rye crackers or bread
  • Greek yoghurt with berries and coconut
  • good quality protein smoothie or snack bar.

Unfortunately, many messages have been propagated that eating ‘little and often’ is the way to fix rollercoaster blood sugar levels, where people may feel energy dipping and low blood sugar symptoms between meals, such as low mood, intolerance, irritability, lost motivation, fatigue and poor concentration – not to mention the effect on performance for those in training.

It is true that eating small amounts regularly will prop up any sudden drops in glucose delivery to cells, but this is not a viable long-term solution. It not only creates a fixation with putting things in our mouths, but also sets up a confused relationship with appetite, places a strain on digestion (which has to start the whole process from scratch each time we eat) as the gut has little time empty for renewal and gut motility, and is metabolically dampening. We need to be able to go for at least 4 to 5 hours without food, and longer allows the ‘intermittent fasting’ that supports mood, immunity and energy efficiency.

PT eating habits

I’ve seen many personal trainers over the years who struggle with adrenal fatigue because the job is so physically demanding and eating has to fit in between sessions. A ‘little and often’ eating habit tends to develop. We work with how to schedule and time manage so that taking a full break and time to digest are factored in as an important part of the job, but of course that isn’t always possible, especially for those who work in gyms. The food examples above can be good replacements for the quick-fix sugars or convenience foods that we often gravitate to, and which add to blood sugar highs and lows and don’t provide the mood, energy and tissue support needed in the job.

Client eating habits

For the client, the circumstances are different. Often classed as weekend warriors or amateur athletes, they will likely spend most of their time sitting behind a desk, stewing in stress hormones that create the urge to move but, because they can’t, result in tight fascia and muscle. This can create signals to ‘fuel up’ as the stress response is a survival mechanism that demands immediate energy to protect us from perceived danger. When the stress is in response to a pressured work environment or upsetting email, the whole mind-body still prepares for the full physical fight or flight reaction – even if this manifests in the modern world as irritability or going for a walk around the block.

For many in office culture, the pull to snack on sugary items available can be continual, particularly if sugar and junk fats – or the deeply satisfying combination of both as cakes, cookies or pastries – are used as ways to numb against stress or boredom. When we see food, it is natural to want to have and eat it (as any animal is primed to do) so to blame poor willpower for giving in to temptation is a recipe for more stress-inducing self-criticism, guilt and shame. Recognising the biochemistry and stress at play can help our clients, and ourselves, to recognise the signs that we need to support our blood sugar and adrenals and step back from the pressure to take smart breaks.

Exercise and energy balance

This feeds into exercise too. Those who are stressed can tend to ‘live in their heads’ and may only be driven by the next goal or aim. Either of these can prevent us being able to listen to our bodies and eat and exercise mindfully. When not interoceptively listening (tuning inwards) the likelihood of injury and adrenal fatigue becomes higher, as a person loses the ability to self-regulate and know when to pull back or take time to rest and recover. A key sign that the energy balance has been pushed over into depletion is knowing you need densely supportive nutrient-rich food, yet are feeling compelled to fuel up with quick-fix foods (biscuits, cake, chocolate, even white bread) that create an energy spike, followed by a low. If you exercise too high in this state, you’ll send out more signals to the brain to fuel up quickly as you’re burning energy fast. Reducing sugar intake and regulating exercise appropriately can prevent using up the nutrients needed for healthy mood and focus.

Starting the day with a breakfast high in protein and healthy fats, such as yoghurt, nuts and berries, Bircher muesli, buckwheat pancakes or smoked mackerel and avocado on rye, can set us up for more stress-coping and less sugar-craving throughout the day.

A few key nutritional changes can also help:

  • Magnesium is a calming mineral and deficiency is common as it is depleted by stress. Low levels are seen with anxiety and related symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, muscle cramps, panic attacks and IBS. Found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish, it tends to be poorly ingested in the modern diet. You can also supplement 300 to 600mg magnesium citrate, split over breakfast and dinner to help reduce tendencies to anxiety.
  • Omega 3 oils are needed for brain function and mood regulation. If you are not getting these from direct sources such as fish, you may need a supplement as a DHA algae form (vegan) as we do not convert plant sources well.
  • Drinking camomile tea, or sleep teas that include this herb, has an accumulative effect when camomile is regularly ingested, reducing anxiety overall, not just after drinking it. It doesn’t make us soporific, just able to handle stress and adapt well, without over-reactivity and hypervigilance creeping in.
  • Celery and lettuce contain the soothing chemical apigenin, so load salads up with them.

Charlotte Watts is an award-winning nutritional therapist and senior yoga teacher, specialising in stress-related conditions, mental health, digestion and fatigue. Her latest book Good Mood Food (Nourish Books) follows her interest in supporting mindful self-care.