Food & Mood—The Nutrition Connection

What we eat and drink, including how much and how often, has a big impact on how we feel emotionally. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (, depression affects almost 1 out of every 14 Americans and it’s even more common in older adults affecting almost 1 out of every 5 aged 65 years or older. And according to this same source, anxiety disorders affect nearly 1 out of every 5 adults in this country.

While we need carbohydrates to fuel the brain, the type and amount of carbohydrates we eat affects our blood sugar levels. Blood sugar imbalances (either too high or too low) can cause us to feel tired, irritable, forgetful, have difficulty concentrating and even feel dizzy, let alone cause us to feel depressed.

And when we skimp on protein at a meal or throughout the day, we may not be getting enough of the essential amino acids the body needs to produce neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) that support mood and motivation.

Other nutrients that help guard against anxiety and depression include B-vitamins (B-6, folate, B-12), choline, magnesium, and the omega-3 fats (especially DHA and EPA). Classic symptoms of B-vitamin deficiency include: depression, vague fears, emotional instability, decreased ability to cope with problems, confusion, forgetfulness, and irritability. Choline plays an important role in the production of neurotransmitters (including serotonin). And adequate magnesium is needed for healthy (calm) nerves, and low levels are associated with lower levels of serotonin.

The omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA and EPA) are important for both the structure and normal functioning of the brain and nervous system. DHA accounts for about 40% of fatty acids in brain and omega-3s influence serotonin status. Fish eaters have been reported to have lower rates of depression.

Many of the most commonly prescribed anti-depressants (SSRis) are given to elevate serotonin levels to support mood, but these drugs are associated with a number of common side effects. Supporting normal neurological functioning with a healthy diet is one way to decrease the need for (or at least the amount of) these drugs to reduce the risk of side effects.

Dietary steps you can take to support your mood and reduce the risk of depression and/or anxiety include:

  • Control your blood sugar by minimizing or avoiding sugar, refined grains, starchy vegetables (like potatoes)
  • Obtain adequate essential amino acids by having some protein (meat, fish, poultry, legumes, milk products) at each meal
  • Choose foods rich in B-vitamins (B-6, folate, B-12), choline, & magnesium—including dark green leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach), legumes (beans, lentils), whole grains, nuts/seeds
  • Enjoy small fatty fish (like sardines) 2-3 times/week (or equivalent from plant sources like flax, chia) to get the omega-3 fats (especially DHA & EPA) your brain and nerves need
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