Call us on 0117 973 1967

The Food-Mood Connection Blog

The Food-Mood Connection Blog
01/05/2014 Olivia

Food = mood connections

Ups and downs in life are pretty inevitable. Handling rocky times and even avoiding daily highs and lows through what we eat and don’t eat has become a major topic of interest.

This short article will look at 3 aspects of food and brain connection we may not automatically think of.

‘Basically diet can bring about changes in our brain structure (chemically and physiologically), which can lead to altered behaviour.’ [1]

There is more and more evidence that the steep hike in sugars, refined grain products and reduced fat coupled with far less fresh produce, compromised gut bacteria or ‘dysbiosis’ and the demands of a stressful life influence our moods and behaviour.

The Little Critters – more crucial than we thought…

We have 10 times more bacteria than cells in our body, 3-5 pounds in weight, living in delicate balance in our ‘microbiome’. New studies are indicating that bacteria in the gut are doing far more than digesting food and maintaining a healthy immune system.

Studies are showing that what we eat can alter the composition and products of the gut flora. In particular, that people with high vegetable and fibre based diets have a different gut environment from people who eat the more typical Western diet that is high in sugar and carbohydrates,’ [senior author Dr. Emeran] Mayer says, ‘Now we know that this has an effect not only on metabolism but also affects brain function.’ [2]

A new study showed an ‘anxious mouse’ and a ‘calm mouse’ reversed their behaviour when samples of their gut flora were swapped! In another study of MRI brain scans showed that simply live probiotic yogurt may help. Of 65 women in the trial, those who had the live yogurt showed a marked functional improvement in a key area linked with processing emotions when faced with a ‘stressful task’ over the women who had a placebo. It’s looking like mood can be improved by altering the dominant strains in the gut. [3]

Another issue is the gut lining itself. The lining of the gut is a permeable mucosal membrane which requires continual repair. Heavily processed, man-made foods (pizza, burgers, sweets and cakes) present a real problem for many people. Over-taxed immune cells present in the gut to protect us from outside invaders become over-reactive and create inflammation and digestive upset. Research is ongoing into the link between gut permeability and the blood-brain barrier, and depression and behavioural issues.

So look after your tummy. Eat many and fresh vegetables and naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha or try a booster supplement of probiotics.

Don’t Banish Carbs — Just Choose ‘Smart’ Ones

One connection between ‘good’ carbohydrates and mood involves the amino acid Tryptophan. Serotonin, known as a mood regulator, is made naturally in the body from Tryptophan with some help from the B vitamins and magnesium. Foods thought to increase serotonin levels in the brain include fish, cottage cheese and vitamin D.

However Tryptophan is notoriously hard to get into the bloodstream from protein sources as it seems to be overshadowed by other amino acids. You can, however, boost your levels by eating more of the ‘good’ carbs like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, which also contribute important nutrients and fibre.

Just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut and they produce neurotransmitters like Serotonin. In fact, the greatest concentration of Serotonin is found in your intestines, not your brain. It’s quite possible that this might be one reason why anti-depressants, which raise serotonin levels in your brain, are often ineffective in treating depression, whereas dietary changes often help considerably.

Next we can think of sugar and the carb connection. All carbs break down to sugars – it’s the rate they do so which is important.

Sweetened refined flour products break down to sugars rapidly. Think of children at a birthday party gorging on cake. The sugar in their bodies and brains suddenly shoots up, they get hyperactive then they over-produce insulin to deal with the sugar, and blood and brain sugar drop abruptly. The children get cranky and irritable, and their parents take them home. The same happens to adults, only our reactions are more contained.

One of the more recent theories that add to sugar’s impact on your mood and mental health is the connection with chronic inflammation. Sugar triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that suppresses appropriate immune responses and promotes inflammation. In the long term, inflammation chronically disrupts the normal functioning of your immune system and wreaks havoc on your brain. Once again, it’s linked to a greater risk of depression and brain function. [6]


We need fat. Increasing evidence links reduced fat and fat-free diets with mood disruption and depression. Fat is a vital component of all cell membranes, particularly nerve cells and of course, the brain. Refined vegetable oils are damaged fats that can eventually harm the brain. This is a massive subject in its own right and so I will be brief here.

Nutritional fats are virgin organic coconut oil, organic butter, avocados, olive, hemp, flax oils, grass-fed and wild meats, wild fish, nuts and seeds. These fats will not cause heart disease or weight gain. We have been told by health officials that eating fat makes you fat. Science doesn’t support that. [4]

Omega-3 fats are called essential fats because they can’t be manufactured within the human body and therefore it is essential that you get them in your diet. The richest dietary source is from oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, pilchards, herring, trout and fresh but not tinned tuna. Surveys have shown that the more fish the population of a country eats the lower is their incidence of depression. There are two key types of omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA and the evidence suggests that it’s the EPA which seems to be the most potent natural anti-depressant. [5]

In some trials the average improvement in depression was approximately double that shown by anti-depressant drugs, without the side-effects. This may be because omega 3’s help to build synaptic connections (nerve cell links) as well as the receptor sites for neurotransmitters; therefore, the more omega-3s in your blood, the more serotonin you are likely to make and the more responsive you become to its effects.

Another thought

Low mood and feeling isolated or lonely often come together. Look up when out walking… Tilting the head slightly upwards triggers production of Dopamine in the mid brain. This neurotransmitter is associated with get-up-and-go and a positive outlook. Make happy, inspiring, encouraging future plans, however small or grand, near or far, and above all always have something to look forward to.

*     *     *     *     *     *

References, resources and interesting articles:









By Allie Burdet, Advisor at Wild Oats


For other articles of the month, click here…