Nutrition & Mental Health: How Nutrition Affects Mood

a woman feeding a child a tomato

24 April 2024

a woman feeding a child a tomato


By Dr. Arianna Carughi
Scientific Advisory Board Member

Discover how nutrition directly affects our mental and emotional well-being, our responses to stressors, and how we manage stress. Learn about the crucial role of nutrition in influencing stress levels and mood through various mechanisms.

Impact of Nutrition on Stress Levels

Stress is a normal reaction to the pressures of everyday life. While some stress can be motivating and temporary, chronic stress can have negative effects on both physical, mental, and emotional health.1 Stress can weaken our immune system which increases our susceptibility to getting sick. It increases inflammatory processes in our bodies which can lead to pain and tension. Stress impacts our mood: we get irritated or angry more frequently, we may have lower productivity at work, we feel tired, anxious, or sad. Stress is a major contributor to certain types of sleep disorders.1 We say that stress and sleep loss are inseparable companions! Sleep loss affects our mood, our immunity, our energy level, and overall health. It also affects our appetite: people under stress tend to either eat too much or too little.1 Eating too much can lead to weight gain and eating unhealthy foods. Eating too little can lead to nutrient deficiencies. In both cases, the diet can aggravate stress and affect our mood. We can see that there is a two-way relationship between food and the mind. This means that mood can influence our eating habits, and in turn, what we eat, our diet, can impact how we react to stress, our mood, and emotional well-being.1-4

Role of Nutrients in Brain Health

Nutrition plays a crucial role in influencing stress levels and mood through many mechanisms. An adult human brain, which accounts for about 2% of a body’s mass, uses 20% of its total metabolic energy.2 It is always “on” even while we sleep.

A host of vitamins and minerals are necessary to keep this metabolism going! The brain uses nutrients to support its function and structure. Essential fatty acids, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, are important for brain health and may help to reduce stress levels.1,2 Stress can increase the production of free radicals, leading to oxidative stress, which can damage brain cells. Antioxidants, like vitamin C, carotenoids and polyphenols found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds can help to combat this damage.2,3 These nutrients also may reduce inflammation in the brain and in turn affect areas of the brain such as the hippocampus which is associated with learning, memory, and mood regulation. Amino acids in proteins are precursors of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that regulate mood, appetite, sleep, attention, learning, memory and more.2 In essence, a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich diet is essential to supply the brain what it needs every day for optimal functioning.

A group of nutrients that deserve a closer look are the B vitamins as they play an essential role in the body’s stress response and overall mental well-being. These vitamins are involved in many physiological processes that can influence the body’s ability to cope with stress. They are critical for converting food into energy. Stress can increase the body’s energy needs, and a sufficient supply of B vitamins ensures that the body can meet these demands.2,5 Thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3) and B12 play a role in maintaining the health of the nervous system, and a well-functioning nervous system is essential for managing the stress response. B vitamins are also involved in the synthesis and regulation of hormones released during the body’s stress response, such as cortisol and adrenaline. B vitamins, such as pyridoxine (B6), folic acid, and cobalamin (B12) are also involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.5 Serotonin creates a long-lasting feeling of happiness and well-being and dopamine a sense of pleasure. Finally, B vitamins support immune function, which can be compromised during periods of stress. It is important to maintain adequate levels of all B vitamins, as they often work together in the body. Deficiencies in B vitamins can lead to increased stress sensitivity and a reduced ability to cope with stressors.2,5

Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are important for brain health and may help to reduce stress levels.1,2

Amino Acids
Proteins are precursors of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that regulate mood, appetite, sleep, attention, and more.2

Antioxidants
Vitamin C, carotenoids, and polyphenols found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds can help combat oxidative stress in the brain.2,3

B Vitamins
Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B12 play essential roles in the body’s stress response and overall mental well-being.2,5

Gut-Brain Axis and Mood Regulation

One of the most intriguing scientific developments of recent years is the discovery of the importance of microorganisms in the gut as intermediaries between the foods we eat and what happens in the brain. Colloquially referred to as the “gut-brain axis,” this two-way communication between the brain and our intestinal tract plays a crucial role in regulating not only digestive functions but also influencing mood, behavior, and even cognitive functions.6 The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms collectively known as the gut microbiota. These microbes play a significant role in producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are crucial for regulating mood. Serotonin, as mentioned above, is often associated with feelings of happiness and well-being, and approximately 95% of serotonin in the body is produced in the gut.3,6 Certain foods, such as those high in fiber (prebiotics), and fermented foods (probiotics), can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These bacteria help maintain gut barrier function, produce neurotransmitters, and modulate immune system activity, all of which influence brain function and mood.6 Maintaining a healthy gut through proper diet, exercise, and stress management can help support optimal mood regulation.

Nutrients as Nootropics

Another exciting area of research is how nutrients in our food can act as nootropics – substances that may improve cognitive function, memory, creativity, and motivation. These include vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are essential for brain health and function. Examples include omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil), vitamin B complex, and magnesium. Nootropics that enhance alertness, focus, and energy levels can indirectly improve mood by increasing motivation and reducing feelings of fatigue or lethargy. Of special interest is L-theanine, an amino acid primarily found in tea leaves. L-theanine is known for its ability to promote relaxation without sedation and is often used to reduce stress, improve focus and enhance cognitive function.7 Studies have demonstrated that L-theanine can attenuate the physiological and psychological responses to stress, including reducing heart rate and cortisol levels. By modulating stress responses, L-theanine can help promote a sense of calm and well-being, thereby improving mood and cognitive function. L-theanine in combination with caffeine can help mitigate the jittery effects of caffeine while preserving its cognitive-enhancing benefits.7

Factors Contributing to Mental Well-Being

While nutrition plays a significant role in influencing stress levels and mood, other factors such as environment, lifestyle, access to social and spiritual support, and overall health also contribute to our mental well-being and happiness.

Environment
The physical and social environment can significantly impact mental well-being.

Lifestyle
Healthy lifestyle choices, including regular physical activity and stress management, are crucial for mental well-being.

Social Support
Connecting with others and having a support system can positively impact mental wellbeing.

Strategies for Effective Stress Management

Here are some strategies you can include in your daily life to effectively manage stress, promote a positive mood, and enhance overall well-being:1

  • Exercise regularly.
    Physical activity lifts your mood and helps you get better sleep, reduces stress, and improves self-confidence.
  • Eat a healthy diet based on nutrient-rich foods.
    A balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids can help you cope with stress. Consuming foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrate can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can cause mood swings and increase stress. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels through a balanced diet rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats can help to stabilize mood.
  • Get adequate sleep.
    Lack of sleep can exacerbate stress. Aim for 7 to 9 hours per night and maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Take time to relax and time to care for yourself.
    Relaxation techniques such as yoga and tai chi, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, or meditation can help clear your mind and improve your mood and ability to deal with stress. Engaging in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing can act as a distraction from everyday stress.
  • Connect with others!
    Social interaction can provide a sense of belonging and self-worth, lift your mood and lead to positive thinking.

NeoLife Products for Stress Management*

Consider the following NeoLife products to help manage stress and keep you on the go.* Elevate, Super B, and Herbal Rest & Relax are designed to support mental calmness, energy metabolism, and overall mental wellbeing.*

A nootropic energy drink to increase alertness, focus, mental energy while supporting mental calmness.* Each serving provides 100% of the Daily Value (DV) of vitamins B6, B12, D, and folate, as well as 300% DV of vitamin C. Elevate combines 120 mg of naturally sourced caffeine from green tea with 200 mg of clinically researched Suntheanine®‡, a patented and pure L-theanine source.

An extra high potency formula which provides the perfect balance of eight B vitamins to help support energy metabolism, our body’s stress response, and overall mental well-being.* Features Threshold Controlled Technology for sustained release of B complex nutrients over a six hour period.*

A blend of eight herbs, including lemon balm, passion flower, and chamomile, to help promote calm relaxation, restful sleep, and refreshed awakening.*

‡ Suntheanine® is a registered trademark of Taiyo International, Inc.

References:

  1. Stress and Health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Updated Oct 2021. Accessed March 11, 2024. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/stress-and-health/.
  2. Rucklidge, JJ et al. Nutrition Provides the Essential Foundation for Optimizing Mental Health. Evid Based Pract Child and Adolesc Ment Health. 2021 Feb; 6(1): 131-54. doi: 10.1080/23794925.2021.1875342.
  3. Selhub, M. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Publishing. Published Sept 18, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2024. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626.
  4. How to Boost Mental health Through Better Nutrition. American Society for Nutrition. Published April 18, 2023. Accessed March 11, 2024. https://nutrition.org/how-to-boost-mental-health-through-better-nutrition/.
  5. Calderon-Ospina CA, Nava-Mesa MO. B Vitamins in the nervous system: Current knowledge of the biochemical modes of action and synergies of thiamine, pyridoxine, and cobalamin. CNS Neurosci Ther. 2020 Jan; 26(1): 5-13. doi: 10.1111/cns.13207.
  6. Appleton J. The gut-brain axis: Influence of microbiota on mood and mental health. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2018 Aug; 17(4): 28-32. PMID: 31043907.
  7. Sohail AA, et al. The cognitive-enhancing outcomes of caffeine and L-theanine: A systematic review. Cureus. 2021 Dec; 13(12) :e20828. doi: 10.7759/cureus.20828.
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