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Depression and nutrition: How food can affect your mood

Will Hawkins photo

Created: 31 May, 2018

Updated: 18 July, 2019

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 300 million people across the world are affected by depression. There are many ways of treating it - from medication, to talking therapies - and our doctors can help you find the right treatment plan for you.

Alongside a treatment plan, there are changes in your day-to-day life that may help to improve your mood.

This includes looking at what you’re eating, to make sure you’re giving your body everything it needs to help you look after your mental health.

vegetables being sold in a store front

Why nutrition is important when it comes to your mental health

Your brain needs a lot of energy to work effectively. And without enough foods that contain the right nutrients, it can’t do its job properly, which can have an impact on your mental health.

In fact, one study suggests that eating lots of food that lacks essential nutrients can increase your chances of becoming depressed by as much as 60%.

What nutrients should you be eating and why?

Here are some of the key nutrients you should include in your diet when it comes to helping your mental health.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Found in: Fish, nuts, seeds, eggs

  • Provides building blocks for healthy brain development and function.
  • Studies suggest that supplementing these healthy fats with fish oil may help ease symptoms of depression.

Prebiotics and probiotics

Found in: Leafy Green Veg, Dairy, Onions, Tofu, Potatoes, Fruit, Oats, Legumes, Garlic

  • Helps to maintain a high level of microbiome in your gut, keeping it healthy.
  • This helps with the production of serotonin and dopamine (the mood boosting hormones), as well as transporting them from the gut to the brain.

B vitamins

Found in: meat, eggs, seafood, green leafy veg, legumes and whole grains

  • Studies have shown that B vitamin deficiencies (particularly B12) can be linked to depression.
  • Incorporating a diet rich in B vitamins, including B12, B6 and folic acid has been proven to help with mood improvement.

Vitamin D

Found in: bread, juices, leafy veg, nut, seeds and exposure to the sun

  • Vitamin D helps with brain development and function, and being deficient in it may be linked to depression.
  • Most people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D due to a lack of sunshine, so it’s important to eat food rich in it.


Found in: cod, poultry, walnuts and other nuts

  • An essential mineral, selenium has to come from food - you can’t get it anywhere else.
  • It works with other nutrients to create antioxidant balance in our cells.
  • Studies show a link between low selenium and depression, so it’s important you’re getting enough of it.


Found in: protein, such as chicken, beef, turkey, eggs and some dairy, leafy greens

  • Tryptophan is an amino acid that prompts your body to release hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, both of which are linked with boosting your mood.
  • Low levels of tryptophan has been shown to trigger depressive symptoms in some people who have taken antidepressants.

salad bowl with tomato, carrot and sweetcornHow can eating a healthy diet help your mental health?

Eating well affects the brain in many ways:

  • Fights inflammation

If your body turns on an immune response, but struggles to turn it off again, it can cause chronic inflammation. This can result in permanent damage in homeostasis, which means your brain can’t regulate itself properly. This can be linked to depression.

  • Maintains gut health

Your gut absorbs nutrients from the food you eat, as well as filtering out the bad bacteria. To do this, it relies on healthy intestinal cells and beneficial bacteria, which help you absorb vitamins and minerals and digest food.

If your gut microbiome is low or the balance isn’t right, your brain could be missing out on what it needs to function properly.

  • Keeps your blood healthy

60 litres of blood is pumped into your brain every hour, providing oxygen, removing waste and delivering nutrients.

If that blood is lacking in nutrients, or carrying junk that it doesn’t need, it’s likely to interfere with your brain’s function, specifically its ability to create neurotransmitters, which we’ll cover in the next section.

  • Helps produce happy hormones

Serotonin  and dopamine, the neurotransmitters that helps boosts our mood and makes us more sociable, is made in the gut.

If you don’t look after your gut health, production of these will slow down,  so you’ll have less of these good, happy chemicals in your brain.

  • Feeds your mitochondria

Mitochondria are the energy carrier cells in your body.

Recent studies show that they play an important role in brain function and cognition and that low levels may contribute to depression.

To promote a greater production of mitochondria in the body, not only is incorporating protein (i.e. lean meats, tofu, dairy, eggs) and iron-rich vegetables (i.e. spinach, kale, swiss chard, broccoli) in your diet a good idea, there are also other natural strategies.

For example, by getting at least of 30 mins of sunshine a day, you can increase your Vitamin D3 uptake - a vital component that boosts the production and function of mitochondria. However, make sure you stay safe in the sun.

Exercise can also help, as it is directly responsible for increasing our aerobic capacity (our fitness). With greater fitness comes a greater need for the body to produce more mitochondria to act as energy carriers to the working muscles.