Nutritional Psychiatry: What is the Relationship Between Food and Mood?

March 23, 2021

A topic seldom addressed in relation to mental health is the possible relationship between food and mood and how it can contribute to the betterment or worsening of an individual’s brain health. Of course, a nutritious diet is crucial to maintain good physical health, but the same is also true for maintaining a healthy mind.  


Owing to extensive research concerning dietary choices in relation to mental well-being, a new treatment method is being explored known as ‘nutritional psychiatry’ that, as the name suggests, essentially pertains to understanding the link between food and mental health to treat mood and psychological disorders.


This article provides an overview of nutritional psychiatry and the link between food and mood, along with a list of nutrients and foods that are known to negatively and positively impact mental health.

What is Nutritional Psychiatry?

Nutritional psychiatry is a considerably new form of treatment method being explored to be used for treating several mental health conditions. This emerging intervention method supports and promotes the theory that conditions like anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, eating disorders, and substance use disorders can be treated, if not improved, with dietary and nutritional interventions.


Nutritional psychiatry explores the relationship between food and mood and how happiness may be associated with a certain kind of diet, while an unhealthy diet may inspire feelings of sadness and grief. A study from 2014 backs up this relationship between food and mood; the findings conclude that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can elevate an individual’s mood and foster a healthier mind.


A prominent research carried out by SMILES (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States), aimed at comparing the impact of social intervention versus dietary intervention in improving symptoms of anxiety and depression. The SMILES trial found that a third of the people who received dietary support exhibited significantly higher signs of relief in their depressive symptoms as compared to the 8% of people who received social support.


These studies may be the stepping stone that will advance nutritional psychiatry as the future of mental health. Of course, even though the connection between food and mood is quite clear, it is also imperative to note that merely changing your diet is not a reliable method of curing depression. However, combined with conventional treatment methods, it can be of great benefit if appropriately applied.

The Science Behind Food and Mood

Nutritional Psychiatry - Foods That Improve Mood
Foods that Improve Mood

Experts are increasingly starting to believe in the significance of nutrition for brain health and cognitive performance. One of the major causes of developing mood disorders is chemical imbalances in the brain. These chemical imbalances are influenced by a number of factors. And, yes, diet can also affect the production of chemicals or hormones in our body.


An interesting fact to keep in mind is that our digestive system is also called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) or ‘the second brain,’ which explains the ‘gut feeling’ that you sometimes get and the butterflies that accompany stressful situations. Although the ENS can function independently, it does send and receive signals from the Central Nervous System (CNS), which clearly points towards the connection between the gut and the brain.


Accordingly, the food that you eat affects your digestive system, and the effect it has on your gut can be transmitted to the CNS through the ENS. People who suffer from gastrointestinal issues are likely to experience an alteration in mood when their symptoms flare, stimulating the ENS. This can prompt the ENS to communicate with the brain inside your head, and as a result, you can experience a shift in your mood.


Almost 90% of serotonin is produced in the stomach by gut bacteria. Serotonin is the ‘hormone of happiness’ along with dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Some of the foods that we eat can impact the amount of and rate at which the gut bacteria produces these chemicals. A sufficient amount of serotonin and dopamine produced in the gut translates to a happier mood. On the other hand, if we consume foods that influence gut bacteria to produce less of these ‘happy chemicals,’ our mood takes a nosedive, leading to sad and depressing feelings.


Foods That Affect Your Mood Negatively

Having established the relationship between food and mood and the gut and brain connection, it seems that nutritional psychiatry can indeed prove to be beneficial in the treatment of mood disorders and depression. Here is a list of nutrients and foods that can cause mood swings:


1. Sugary Foods and Drinks

Sugar stimulates the ‘bad bacteria’ in the gut, leading to inflammation. This can adversely affect a person’s mood. Even though sugary foods may result in a temporary spike in dopamine, giving you a ‘sugar rush,’ it’s actually not good for you. This temporary rise in dopamine levels will drop sharply, leading to a ‘sugar crash,’ which can be bad for your mood.

2. Refined Carbohydrates

Foods high in refined carbs like white bread and pasta are not only bad for physical health, they’re also bad for mental health. They, much like sugars, can cause drastic spikes and drops in blood sugar levels. A diet high in refined carbohydrates is associated with depression. Instead of refined carbs, switch to a ‘good carb’ diet, which is present in sweet potatoes, pulses, brown rice, wheat, etc.

3. Processed Meats

Processed meats are easily accessible, which makes them our ‘go-to meal’ most of the time. Unfortunately, processed foods like hotdogs, jerky, salami, etc contribute to poor mental health, and high consumption of these foods is associated with a mood disorder called mania, owing to the chemicals used to preserve these items.

4. Excess Caffeine  

Caffeine consumed in medically approved amounts may not have that much of a health risk. But excess caffeine consumption can lead to feelings of anxiousness and stress. It can also cause sleep problems, which can result in issues with mood regulation. It is also associated with agitation and irritability, along with severe mood swings. Among people with pre-existing anxiety, it can worsen symptoms and can even bring about panic attacks.

Foods That Improve Mood

Poor diet can have adverse effects on mental health. Luckily, there are numerous foods that improve mood and that can be substituted for an unhealthy diet. A healthy diet that can enhance your mood and is linked to lower levels of depression includes:

1. Fatty Fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients that your body does not have the ability to produce, hence, it is essential to obtain them through your diet. Fatty fish like tuna and salmon are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that is linked to lower levels of depression and anxiety, along with being effective in treating borderline personality disorders.

2. Foods Rich in Probiotics

Probiotics are the ‘good bacteria’ naturally present inside the gut. Fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, tempeh, kombucha, etc can help maintain a balance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria inside the digestive system since they are rich in probiotics. A study from 2017 found that daily consumption of probiotics was linked to lower levels of depression, anxiety, and cognitive issues.

3. Lentils and Legumes

Legumes are rich in zinc and folate, while lentils and beans are an excellent source of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium. Low levels of B vitamins and folate are linked to mood disorders. Potassium, magnesium, and fiber work as stress-busters while zinc is commonly used in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

4. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts are an excellent source of vitamin E, folate, niacin, and vitamin B6, along with minerals such as selenium, calcium, and plant-based proteins. Seeds and nuts like walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame, and peanuts are also loaded with tryptophan, an amino acid that assists in producing chemicals for enhancing mood and mental health.

The Mediterranean Diet and Mental Health

New research to identify the link between food and mental health has found that a Mediterranean diet is directly associated with mood enhancement and a healthy mind. A Mediterranean diet includes a combination of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, and white meats, along with a strictly limited intake of red meats and fermented dairy products.


It is a diet rich in antioxidants, fiber, animal proteins, monounsaturated fats with a sufficient amount of probiotics, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The study found that depressive symptoms seemed to lessen significantly among individuals who strictly abided by the Mediterranean diet.


Bottom Line

There’s still much to learn about the food and mood connection and its negative and positive impacts on an individual’s mental health. However, the host of available research and studies backs up the relationship between food and mood. Although still in the works and considerably new, nutritional psychiatry appears promising enough to eventually become an essential part of mental health treatment in the future.

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