While 1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, many will look to medication and therapy to support themselves through the symptoms. The importance of diet is often overlooked, and yet everything we eat is broken down in our digestive system, absorbed into our bloodstream and assimilated into our cellular makeup. We therefore become what we eat. This viewpoint was already around during the early development of Western medicine in the 1800s. Much earlier, Hippocrates was saying “Let food be thine medicine”. So, how can we choose to eat yummy and wholesome food in order to keep our mental health balanced?
There is a great deal of research on the relationship between what we eat and how we feel, on the negative health impact of highly processed food, and on the prevention of mental health issues through our food choices. Although this is not yet translated to the clinical field, science is particularly interested in the relationship between what we consume and neurotransmitters, nutrient deficiencies and the sensory effects of eating.
Neurotransmitters are the molecules that affect our brain, two of which are dopamine and serotonin. Decreased dopamine activity is involved in depression, and serotonin makes us feel happy, relaxed and self-confident, and helps improve sleep. Some nutrients, such as folate, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and omega-3 fatty acids are known to improve mood, as are carbohydrates under certain circumstances. On the other hand, the pleasurable experience derived from eating certain foods can be enough to make us happy.
Here are the top eight foods that help support your mental health:
Fruits and vegetables
Studies have shown that the more fruit and veg you consume, the lower your risk of depression. Particularly beneficial are:
- Berries, especially blueberries and blackberries – these can be grown in a small garden or foraged responsibly in late summer. Berries contain antioxidants called anthocyanines, which assist in the production of dopamine in the brain.
- Bananas – bananas are the ultimate mood food: sweet, easy to eat on the go and to make into creamy smoothies, yummy baked goods or ice cream. The cocktail of vitamin B6 and tryptophan in banana boosts production of serotonin.
- Avocados – there are so many reasons to include avocados in your meals if you aren’t already: breakfast smoothies, lunchtime salads, mashed avocado on toast (add some lime juice and black pepper), and awesome chocolate mousse. Avocados are packed with healthy fats and antioxidants, help support hormones, assist with the absorption of other beneficial nutrients, and generally improve your mood.
- Leafy greens and root vegetables – packed with fibre and vitamins, they are great for seasonal salads (try coleslaw or “massaged” kale), soups, stews, and smoothies or juices (blend carrot, spinach, apple and ginger for a supportive morning juice).
These mushrooms are particularly rich in vitamin B6, a precursor to serotonin, and have proven useful in treating depression. Add them to nut roasts, pasta sauces or pie fillings to create amazing textures.
The slowly digested carbohydrates in pulses and beans regulate the production of serotonin. Incorporate them in your daily menu with veggie haggis, bean burgers, chickpea or broad bean hummus, three bean salad, or black bean brownies.
The hundred trillion microorganisms that live in our gut are a huge source of neurotransmitters and contribute to our hormonal and immune balance – keep them happy to keep your mind happy. Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, and drinks like kombucha can be made at home and provide gut-helpful bacteria (probiotics).
Oats release their energy slowly into the bloodstream, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable. They also contain selenium, the deficiency of which is linked to depression. Brazil nuts are also rich in selenium, so top your porridge or overnight oats with a few for some crunch and a mood boost.
We all know that eating chocolate makes everything better. Chocolate may interact with neurotransmitter systems, as it contains serotonin and endorphins, as well as the dopamine precursor tyrosine. Vegan dark chocolate and raw cacao can be used in delicious desserts, cakes, and non-dairy shakes.
Sesame seeds are an ancient crop and contain the dopamine precursor tyrosine. Include tahini (sesame seed paste) to your favourite hummus or ice cream recipe for a really tasty mood-boosting treat or use it in a salad dressing.
Curcumin, the yellow-orange pigment contained in turmeric, protects neurons and may improve mood and help fight depression. Add it to your smoothies, curries and soups, or enjoy a golden turmeric milk.
Keep your spirit and your mind healthy by reading our other tips. And if you have a glut of bananas, make this awesome super-easy Banana Nice Cream.
Mood-boosting Dessert: Chocolate Banana Nice Cream
This makes a richly smooth soft-scoop ice cream, which will help you through any hard times. The tahini gives it additional flavour and nutritional benefits, but feel free to substitute with cashew or almond nut butter instead. Try other flavour combinations than chocolate, like blueberries or lemon juice and zest. The bananas have to be thoroughly frozen for this, so chop them up and freeze the day before – or always keep a frozen batch in your fridge to make this recipe whenever you feel like it.
2 kg very ripe bananas (yellow and brown-spotted are best)
2 tbsp tahini
3 tbsp raw cacao powder
1 tsp vanilla paste
¼ cup plant milk (almond works great)
Chop the bananas into large bite-size pieces. Put in a freezer bag and freeze overnight. Remove from the freezer and let sit for 10 minutes to thaw a bit. Pour the plant milk in the blender, then add the bananas and all other ingredients. Blend well until a soft-scoop thick ice cream is formed.