Mental health and food

I have two big passions in my life – psychology and food. Obviously, I am interested if there is any connection between them. So, let me share with you some interesting and (the most important) useful information about mental health and food.


You know that there is a strong connection between your brain and your digestive system, right? Probably everyone at least once in a lifetime faced stomach aches after a super stressful event. But did you know that not only the brain can affect the work of your digestive system, but also vice versa.

Your brain affects the health of your digestive system and your digestive system may affect your brain health. The communication system between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis (Healthline).


Some facts:


95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells (neurons). This is why your stomach reacts to stress and anxiety and this shows that the digestive system doesn’t just digest food, but also affects your emotions.

Neurons are the cells in your brain responsible for receiving input from the external world and sending signals to your muscles. 

Serotonin - is a neurotransmitter (neurotransmitters are the molecules used by the nervous system) that helps regulate mood, sleep quality and pain.

It is believed that Tryptophan is an essential to boost serotonin levels. Tryptophan is an amino acid. 

Not going into too much detail – you can’t make tryptophan in your body, so you have to get it from your diet. Serotonin – on the contrary – you can’t get it with food, but your body can produce it.

Products that can help you boost serotonin levels: nuts, eggs, cheese, turkey, tofu and pineapple. 

Also, the function of neurons and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin is highly influenced by the billions of bacteria of your gut system. These bacteria are “good” and very important for your health. Without other activities (protecting you against toxins, limiting inflammation, etc.), they activate neural pathways between the gut and the brain.

To take care of your microbiome, you need to make sure that your diet includes probiotics. Best probiotic foods: yogurt, kimchi, miso, kefir and others. 


DOs and DON’Ts – other products then those mentioned above


-        Avoid added sugar – when you are upset or tired, you might start dreaming about ice cream or donuts. Usually sadness, anger and other similar emotions take a lot of energy from your body and your brain, and so you start to feel a need for something that can boost your energy levels and increase your mood. Well, few points here:

1. It might look like sugar gives you energy and boosts your mood. However, the reality is that added sugar only brings imbalanced levels of energy and mood (worsen ability to handle stress, increased risk of anxiety and panic).

2. Added sugars in beverages and food has been linked with depressive symptoms according some studies. 

By the way, did you know that sugar can be more addictive than cocaine?

-        Avoid caffeine – similar to sugar, caffeine boosts levels of energy very quickly. “Excessive ingestion leads to a state of intoxication known as caffeinism, which is characterised by restlessness, agitation, excitement, rambling thought and speech, and insomnia. These symptoms clearly overlap with those of many psychiatric disorders”. 

-        Eat more fish – did you know that depression is less common in countries where people eat a lot of fish? The omega-3 is critical for normal brain function. Studies show that Omega-3 can play an important role in depression treatment.

-        Avoid processed food - according to some studies, people who eat processed food are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who eat unprocessed, whole foods. 

-        Eat dark chocolate – studies found that people who regularly eat dark chocolate have 70% lower risk of having depressive symptoms. I think there is nothing more to add here.

-        Be conscious about alcohol - harmful use of alcohol is one of the key risk factors for the development of mental health conditions:

1. Different studies showed the close link between patterns of alcohol use and depression. Even though not all questions are yet answered in relation to this link, it's clear - alcohol use is a risk factor for depression and that depression is a risk factor for harmful use of alcohol.

2. There is strong evidence that there is a link between anxiety disorders and harmful alcohol use.

3. There is also a link between harmful use of alcohol or dependence and self-harm or suicidal behaviour. In general, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2016, harmful use of alcohol resulted in an estimated 3 million deaths worldwide, the European Region accounting for about one million of those deaths.

If you are interested to know more, I recommend you to read this publication by WHO.


Additional advices:

  1. Eating routine

Your brain loves routine. Routines are situations that have happened so many times that you are familiar with how the events are going to be. In this way, your brain needs less energy. The less you need to think about what is going to happen next, the more energy you can save.

Routine is crucial for people with mental health problems, such as depression. Those people usually have sleeping problems during the night and very hard mornings. Being unable to fall asleep at night, depressed people will sleep during the day and like this they get lost in the regular day/night cycle. One of the main reasons why people with depression might be hospitalized is to help them get back to routine.

For sleeping, in this case, you should stay in bed only during the night hours, it doesn't matter if you fall asleep or not. During the day, you should stay awake, doesn’t matter how tired you may feel. Like this your body and brain will get so tired that it will increase chances to fall asleep at night.

Eating routine is another way to bring back routine to your life. You should be eating every day at the same time. This is helpful not only for people with mental health problems, but also for everyone during the winter, when days are super short. You either can use light therapy, or keep a strong eating routine. Eating breakfast every day at the same time, can help you to awaken your brain.

  1. Highly sensitive people

Highly sensitive people (HSP) have increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli, such as pain, light, noise, and of course hunger (Psychology Today). If you are HSP, you should avoid triggers for your mental health.

If you have a busy lifestyle, where not always you have proper meals, at least try to make sure you always have some snacks, that could save you from getting super hungry.

  1. Emotional eating

Have you ever heard about emotional eating? Comfort food? This can also be called stress eating. This is more complex that it may look like and can touch more people than you would expect. The problem is that it’s quite difficult to separate simple self-awarding from emotional eating.

The best way to help yourself if you think you may be struggling with emotional eating is getting distracted – going for a walk at least for five minutes, getting cold shower or talking to someone. Emotional eating may lead you to more serious diseases, such as bulimia.

If you think that to control this is not anymore in your hands, ask for professional help!



None of these will prevent you from mental health issues 100%. Mental health is really complex, thus you need a good balance in all areas of your lifestyle.