FOOD AND MOOD: Role of nutrition in mental health

Wednesday March 18 2020

The quality of the food you eat can impact your overall physical and psychological health. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP


Nutrition plays a big role in a person’s mental health. The quality of the food you eat can impact your overall physical and psychological health. talked to Heather Cuthbert, a nutritional therapist, who delves into all the aspects of nutrition and the well-being. Born and raised in Kenya, she believes that optimal nutrition is vital to a healthy functioning body and mind.

“How we think, feel and behave on a daily basis is influenced by the balance of various chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in our brain. When this process is working optimally our brain chemistry is said to be balanced and we respond appropriately and positively to the outside world.

There are numerous different neurotransmitters that influence how we think and feel.

Serotonin, better known as the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter, helps to improve one’s overall mood. It also gets further metabolized into melatonin a very important antioxidant hormone that promotes sleep.

Dopamine encourages energy, drive and an upbeat mood.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline play important roles in the fight-or-flight response by increasing blood flow to muscles, heart output and blood sugar.

Endorphins, on the other hand, help relieve pain and promote euphoria.

Lastly, acetylcholine plays an important role in memory, mental alertness and skeletal muscle function.

Numerous health conditions are linked to brain chemistry imbalances in the long term. For example, depression is seen as a functional deficiency of serotonin and/or noradrenaline.

Alzheimer’s disease is linked to a reduced ability to convert choline into acetylcholine within the brain.

In order to balance brain chemicals, we need to take into account other physiological systems since nothing works in isolation. Therefore, there is little benefit in trying to alter neurotransmitter functions without addressing inflammation, blood glucose control, gut health, adrenal function (stress management) and detoxification.


Seek energy, not stimulation. Balancing blood sugar levels is essential for keeping moods throughout the day.

Focus on a low glycaemic load diet, which involves avoiding all processed and refined foods and eating whole foods such as pulses, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, wholegrains and fresh fruit.

Small, regular and well balanced meals can help keep blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day helping to promote mental clarity and a good mood.

Adequate protein consumption is important to obtain the amino acids tryptophan, methionine, phenylalanine and tyrosine. Numerous amino acids are needed in the production of neurotransmitters, so it is important to eat some complete protein, containing all the 9 essential amino acids, every day.

Examples of these are lean meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy or a combination of beans and wholegrains.

Dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline require the amino acid tyrosine or phenylalanine for production. Found in protein rich foods such as poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, seeds and spirulina.

For serotonin synthesis the amino acid tryptophan is needed.

Tryptophan can be found in fish, cottage cheese, bananas, eggs, seeds, especially pumpkin and sesame, beans, pulses, oats and poultry.

Choline is essential for the production of acetylcholine, high amounts are found in egg yolk and liver.

The brain loves omega-3 for neuron insulation and receptor function. The best sources are oily fish- trout, salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, as well as some nuts and seeds- walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds.

Mood enhancing nutrients are key. There are several nutrients that play several vital roles in supporting brain chemistry, sleep quality and helping to reduce the risk of depression.

The key is to eat foods containing the raw materials for making the neurotransmitters.

Vitamin D helps regulate the activity of serotonin, melatonin and dopamine which all have a profound impact on mood.

Studies have shown that the likelihood of having depression is significantly higher in people with a deficiency in vitamin D compared to those with optimal levels.  The best food sources include oily fish, eggs and mushrooms.

B Vitamins, especially B12, B6 and folate. B Vitamins are found in many protein sources as I mentioned before, as well as nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Since the only bioavailable source of B12 is found in animal products, vegans may need to consider supplementation.

Iron is needed for the structure and function of the central nervous system. Rich sources include red meats, liver, poultry, oily fish, eggs, green leafy vegetables, beans, pulses and dried fruit.

Zinc is needed for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Found in seafood (especially oysters), lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds and seaweed.

Magnesium plays a key role in nerve cell signalling. It’s found in dark green leafy vegetables, butternut squash, pumpkin seeds, nuts and seeds.”


  • Get some sunshine in your life.

  • Get plenty of sleep.

  • Take part in other feel good activities that include socialising, being among animals, long relaxing baths, massages and meditation among many others.

  • Regular exercise is a great way to increase the body’s endorphins.

  • Find ways to deal with stress.

  • Keep your brain active through reading, crosswords and puzzles, knitting and learning new skills.