Author: Melanie Lawson Category: Health, Alzheimer's & Dementia, Diet, Mental Health, Nutrition

What you eat has more impact on your mental health and brain function than you think

Nobody would argue with the fact that alcohol profoundly affects our mood, because most of us have experienced it.  The effects are fairly immediate and clearly linked to the glass of wine we just had.   The same goes for caffeine, pretty quickly we can go from feeling groggy to alert or, if we over do it, jittery and anxious.  These aren’t psychosomatic; these are chemical reactions and physical changes that occur in our cells and neurons.

The link between diet and mental health

We don’t however link food with our mood or the longer term health of our brain because the effects are not as obvious, with some occurring over a long period of time so we don’t make the connection.

Illnesses of the brain are a huge and growing concern.  Mental health, including neurological disorders such as Dementia, costs £105 billion a year which is more than the cost of cardiovascular disease and cancer combined.  A staggering 38% of Europeans has a fully diagnosable psychological disorder.  Suicide is the leading cause of death among young men in the UK and depression and self-harm are alarmingly high among children.  The role of diet in these issues is hugely overlooked and plays a critical role, just as it does with other big diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

There are several facets to how food affects our mental wellbeing.  The complicated psychological relationship we have with food (often with its roots in childhood when we were rewarded with sugary treats).  The gut brain connection (nausea or butterflies caused by anxiety for example) and how food directly impacts the physical function of our brain and its chemical reactions, which is what I’m going to cover in this article.

Is food affecting your mood?

Comfort food is a well-known and often used term, generally referring to either warm and hearty dishes like a Lasagne or something sugary like cake or chocolate.  They tend to be high fat and carb/sugar, because they’ve been shown to inhibit activity in the parts of the brain that produce stress related hormones, giving a very real and tangible relief from stress.  We assume the relief comes from the pleasure of eating them but it’s the physiological changes they induce that make us feel, temporarily, better.  Sugar has been proven to be as addictive as class A drugs and nicotine, which is why kicking that habit is so difficult and some foods in large doses can cause immediate reactions such as certain mushrooms or nutmeg, which are hallucinogenic.

Our mood is dependent on the careful balance in our brain of inhibitory (calming) and excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters.  For example, serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that regulates processes including carbohydrate cravings and sleep, which can be depleted by caffeine. 

Essential nutrients allow us to manufacture neurotransmitters.  Tryptophan is a good example; an “essential amino acid” (essential meaning we must have it but can’t make it by ourselves, so have to eat it) that is a chemical precursor (the starting point for a chemical reaction or metabolic pathway) for serotonin among others.  We find it in various food including eggs, poultry, cheese, oats and spirulina.

Healthy fat for a healthy brain

One of the most important nutrients involved in brain and mental health is healthy fat, with Omega 3 at the top of the list.  Our brain is 60% fat, of which around 20% is a type of Omega 3 called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).  Here are just some of the reasons why it’s such an essential part of our diet:

Electric signals in the brain travel by passing from one brain cell (neuron) to another and they leave one brain cell at the synapse and cross a gap to the next neuron.  For this to happen, they need to be able to pass through the cell membranes (the walls that surround them).  These membranes consist pretty much entirely of fat.  There are ion channels in these membranes that open and close to allow the flow of the electric signals.  DHA makes these channels more elastic which makes it easier for the signals to flow.

  • DHA also plays a critical role in synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons).  Research shows that babies with Omega 3/DHA deficient diets have 50% fewer synapses and a study into the diet of 12,000 pregnant women (published in the Lancet ) found that children of those who consumed the least Omega 3 were more likely to score in the lowest quartile on IQ tests.
  • DHA has also been shown to increase brain volume.  People with high levels of Omega 3 in their diets had more grey matter, particularly in the area of the brain responsible for happiness.  Those deficient in Omega 3 have depleted dopamine (the happy hormone).
  • DHA is a neuroprotectin – meaning it protects our brains from oxidative stress (for example the effects of alcohol) and it also protects our retinas.  Alcohol consumption has been linked to Dementia and Omega 3 has been shown to reduce that risk, possibly because of the protection it provides from damage.
  • We also need good blood flow for our brains to function properly and another type of Omega 3 called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) helps hormonal function, allowing blood flow and controlling the immune system.  EPA has also been shown to be effective in clinical depression, both on its own and as a supplement to anti-depressants.
  • DHA has a profound effect on our brain’s ability to regulate emotions, make good decisions (important when it comes to self-control and sticking to new year resolutions) and to handle stress.  A study carried out on alcoholics found that those supplemented with DHA were able to stay off alcohol after rehab much more than those who took a placebo.  There’s also fascinating research from a leader in this field of study called Captain Joe Hibbeln showing a link between low levels of DHA and suicidal tendencies among US military.
  • DHA also influences melatonin production and therefore our sleep patterns. Insomnia is a huge problem for many, and is invariably either an effect or a cause of mental health problems.  A group of children with sleep issues were given 600mg DHA a day for 16 weeks and achieved an extra 46 minutes sleep a night.

How to care for your brain

In summary, if we want to care for our most vital organ we must not underestimate the importance of good diet.  By eating a good range, with good balance, of all the nutrients we need and limiting those that put stress on our brains – alcohol, caffeine and sugar – and limiting stress by exercising, sleeping well and valuing our mental wellbeing, we should be able to feel in later life that we did everything we could to take care of ourselves.  Of course genes play a role, but, as the famous quote says “Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger”.

And on a not so sweet note!

I’ll just leave you with this little nugget if you need some inspiration to cut down on sugar:

“Sugar makes you stupid” (a vintage Daily Mail headline) was a story that hit the news a few years ago after Fernando Gomez-Pinilla (Department of Neurosurgery at UCLA) studied rats’ ability to navigate a maze before and after they were given sugary drinks (the dreaded high fructose corn syrup).  He found that their ability to get through the maze was significantly impaired after 6 weeks.  The good news is that he also supplemented some of them with Omega 3 and those faired much better, suggesting that Omega 3 mitigates some of the damage.  It’s not OK to eat loads of sugar and take Omega 3 supplements to offset the damage though!

About Melanie Lawson

Melanie Lawson is a Mother of three and founder of Bare Biology Omega 3.  She founded the company after personal success taking high strength, good quality Omega 3 for mental health and is a huge believer in diet as the cause and cure of most illness. 


¹ Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study Joseph R Hibbeln, MD, John M Davis, MD, Colin Steer, MSc, Pauline Emmett, PhD, Imogen Rogers, PhD, Cathy Williams, PhD, Jean Golding, FMedSci

² Suicide Deaths of Active-Duty US Military and Omega-3 Fatty-Acid Status: A Case-Control Comparison. Lewis MD, Hibbeln JR, et al. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2011 August 23

³ Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study – a randomized controlled trial Paul Montgomery*, Jennifer R. Burton, Richard P. Sewell, Thees F. Spreckelsen and Alexandra J. Richardson