The food & mood connection - nutritional biochemist Dr Elizabeth Steels

You may know instinctively that the foods you eat – both healthy and not – can have an impact on your mood, but until recent years, nutrition and psychology were never discussed in the same conversation.

Now nutritional psychiatry is an emerging new discipline shedding light on the fact that nutritional factors are intertwined with human emotions and behaviour.1 We’ve got a direct connection to brain function – we can actually see signs of mental illness. We can see how well the brain rewires and repairs itself at night while you sleep, and we can assess which nutrients may help with that process, and which can inhibit it. 

The most important research that’s been done is on our diet, with typical western diets rich in excess salt, sugar, and deficient in fruit, vegetable and whole grains more likely to lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety.2 And we know wellbeing rises in an approximately dose response, the more often an individual consumes either fruits or vegetables.3

There are specific nutrients that we’ve identified and now have evidence for, that boost your mental health – they actually press the button to allow your brain to regenerate at night.1

The B vitamins: folate, B1, B12 and B6 are the main ones. Then there’s vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, selenium, Omega 3s, plus magnesium, potassium and zinc.

Green veggies, wholegrains, nuts, and fish sources can provide the majority of these nutrients. When it comes to choosing foods to support mental wellbeing, antidepressant nutrients are anti-inflammatory foods. Poor nutrition creates an inflammatory environment in the body, and that includes the brain.

Look for colourful foods and make sure that you eat some every day. For instance, I'll have a radish, carrot, cucumber and a capsicum every day – sometimes in a breakfast panini, or a Mexican omelette. You can also incorporate these nutrients into spaghetti Bolognese, or frittatas. I have a set of foods that I put in the fridge in a bowl, which is my quota of antidepressant nutrients I know I need to eat: the kids have their bowls too. It’s important not to feel guilty if you don't always eat a healthy diet, as that just causes stress, which is a health problem too.

Using herbs in cooking also helps with mental wellbeing. Curcumin from turmeric may reduce brain inflammation or if you don’t like it you can take it as a capsule or tablet.4

Green tea is suitable for most of us to take when we’re a bit stressed. If you need help getting to sleep, withania or kava are very good. They help slow down the mind.

A group of researchers are developing the antidepressant food score, which is being turned into an easy-to-read document and book, so people can see where they fit and whether they’ve got room for improvement. Also, the dietary inflammatory index (DII), which allows you to input your foods and it will tell you whether your diet is high in inflammatory foods or neutral. Watch this space for more research and interesting ways to help regulate your mood through your food and supplementation.

For more from Dr Beth Steels, please jump onto your preferred listening app such as iTunes to download her latest podcast.

The Expert Voice podcast series is designed to help natural healthcare practitioners remain at the cutting edge of the ever- evolving nutritional therapies industry. The series covers topics across lifestyle and nutrition, stress and toxicity, healthy ageing, gut health, mental health, and more. It focuses on the role of nutritional supplementation in helping both healthcare professionals and their patients on the journey to achieving and maintaining good health.


  1. LaChance, L.R. and D. Ramsey, Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World J Psychiatry, 2018. 8(3): p. 97-104. [Article]
  2. Opie, R.S., et al., Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression. Nutr Neurosci, 2017. 20(3): p. 161-171. [Abstract]
  3. Ocean, N., P. Howley, and J. Ensor, Lettuce be happy: A longitudinal UK study on the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and well-being. Soc Sci Med, 2018. 222: p. 335-345. [Article]
  4. Braun, L. and M. Cohen, Herbs & Natural Supplements: An Evidence-Based Guide. 4th ed. 2015, Sydney: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier
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