Good nutrition contributes to our emotional wellbeing, quality of sleep and ability to focus. If we struggle with low mood or poor energy levels, what we eat might be a factor. If that’s the case, we may have more power than we realise to improve our mood by changing what we consume.
Dr Leslie Korn, who is a psychotherapist and nutritionist, makes an observation that might sound surprising: in all her years in practice she has never seen a client with emotional distress who did not also have digestive and nutritional problems. Through her research on the relationship between food and mood she finds the opposite is also true – she doesn’t really see poor mental health in people who have good digestion. Rather than anxiety and depression causing digestive problems, it is possible it might be the other way round.
We are familiar with there being a relationship between poor nutrition and physical illness, but it is less common to think about links between poor nutrition and mental health problems. Anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia even ADHD can be reduced, and in some cases disappear entirely, when nutrition is addressed.
If some nutrients are absent from our body, or are present at levels that are too high, the effect can look a lot like a mood disorder. For example, when people with gluten sensitivities eat food containing gluten, this can trigger depression. Low magnesium levels can increase anxiety, irritability and insomnia, while low zinc levels contribute to foggy thinking and lack of motivation. Studies show that increasing omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils) can be very effective in treating depression. Korn also points out that symptoms like headaches, difficulty concentrating, constipation and even chronic fatigue can sometimes be due to dehydration and may be improved by drinking enough water.
To see if what you are eating is affecting how you feel, why not keep a ‘Food and Mood Diary’ to help you notice if there are any patterns. This involves writing down all meals, snacks and drinks that you consume. Recording everything for a full week is ideal, but even keeping a diary for a 3 or 4 day period can give you some helpful insights.
Aim to record:
- What you ate and when.
- How you felt physically afterwards.
Pay attention to what happens in your body for the next 1-2 hours. Did your heart rate increase? Did you experience gas or bloating, get a headache, notice dizziness or cravings? Did your energy increase, decrease or stay the same?
- How you felt emotionally afterwards.
Did your mood improve, get worse or stay the same? Did you notice feeling happy, anxious, irritable etc or experience any mood swings?
Looking at dietary factors alongside talking therapies and medication can be a more rounded way to tackle poor mental and emotional health.