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What to eat for balanced emotions

Research shows that your plate holds the key to a brighter, more balanced mind, opening vital new roads to mental health treatment. We explore the burgeoning world of nutritional psychiatry, where feelings and flavours converge. 

Traditionally, mental health has been approached through therapeutic interventions or pharmaceutical treatments. But contemporary research illuminates an altogether more straightforward and accessible path to improving your mood — nutritional psychiatry.

In this promising field, a captivating premise unfolds that shows the foods we consume possess a remarkable ability to relieve stress, elevate mood and even mitigate depression. Nutritional psychiatry explores the role of the gut microbiome and the effects of specific nutrients and dietary patterns on our mental health. What’s more, researchers have found that diet not only alleviates existing mental health issues, but can, in some cases, prevent their onset.

The gut-brain connection

One of the most intriguing aspects of nutritional psychiatry is the gut-brain connection. Just like the brain residing in your head, your gut boasts an intricate network of neurons and neurotransmitters, functioning with a surprising level of autonomy. Spanning the journey from your mouth to your colon, the gut is a bustling hub for trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses, collectively known as the gut microbiome. These tiny microbial inhabitants play a significant role in metabolising tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin, which profoundly affects serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a key player in the orchestra of mood regulation and emotional wellbeing.

An unbalanced gut microbiome, referred to as dysbiosis, characterised by diminished diversity and an overabundance of troublesome bacteria, has been linked to conditions including anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia. A breakthrough animal study has shown the link between an unhealthy diet and dysbiosis, revealing that it allows “bad” gut bugs to navigate their way to the brain via the Vagus nerve.


Probiotics, often celebrated as the champions of “good” or “friendly” bacteria, can rebalance and maintain your gut microbiome by boosting the ratio of beneficial bacteria and promoting diversity. This equilibrium is nothing short of a cornerstone for overall health and bextends its influence over the domains of digestion, immune function and potentially even mental health. Preliminary studies suggest that probiotics could be instrumental in mitigating symptoms of anxiety and depression, while bolstering your capacity to weather life’s stresses. However, this realm of research is continually evolving, with the exact mechanisms, specific probiotic strains, ideal dosages and treatment durations yet to be fully unravelled. Keep in mind that the benefits of a probiotic supplement may be limited if your gut health is already in peak condition. That said, there are scenarios where probiotic supplement may be considered, especially if you have a history of antibiotic use or gastrointestinal issues. They can play a role in cultivating a flourishing gut microbiome, which, in a delightful twist, can exert a positive influence on your mood.

Whenever possible, opt for dietary sources of probiotics, like yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut, steering clear of store-bought supplements, which can sometimes burden your budget. Remember, probiotics should be embraced as a complementary strategy for managing mental health, rather than a standalone remedy. If you’re interested in using probiotics to address anxiety or other mental health concerns, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or registered dietician, who will be able to provide guidance based on your individual needs and circumstance.

What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

In the quest for optimal gut health, the distinction between probiotics and prebiotics often raises questions. Prebiotics are food components that can’t be broken down by human enzymes, primarily dietary fibres that serve as a source of nutrition for beneficial bacteria residing in the gut, but also important phytochemicals such as “polyphenols”. Prebiotics essentially act as food for the probiotics and other beneficial microbes in the gut, allowing them to produce the thousands of different molecules that influence virtually every aspect of our health. Picture them as the gracious hosts that prepare a welcoming environment for probiotics to flourish and, in turn, support a balanced gut microbiome. Sources of nondigestible dietary fibres containing prebiotic compounds can be found in polyphenol-rich foods such as berries, as well as other provisions like garlic, onion, asparagus, bananas, leeks and artichokes.

Mood-boosting nutrients

In our pursuit of mental wellbeing, the bounty of nature offers a wealth of mood-boosting nutrients, each with its unique power to fortify your mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in the likes of salmon, walnuts and flaxseed, act as guardians against neuroinflammation and bolster the growth of new brain cells, enhancing your resilience to life’s challenges. Amid the nutrient-rich landscape, polyphenols take centre stage. Berries, dark leafy greens and the indulgence of dark chocolate shield your brain cells from the ravages of oxidative stress and inflammation, arming your mental defences. Wholegrains, such as quinoa, oats and brown rice, supply a steadfast and reliable energy source. Their fibre content steadies the release of glucose into your bloodstream, maintaining stable blood sugar levels and warding off mood swings. Lean proteins, like poultry, tofu and legumes, lay the foundation for mood and motivation as they help construct vital neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.

In addition to omega-3s, polyphenols, whole grains and protein is the robust support of essential vitamins and minerals, particularly the B-vitamins. B5 and B6 play pivotal roles in stress management by nurturing the adrenal glands, the architects of stress hormones. You’ll find these invaluable B-vitamins in an array of foods, from earthy mushrooms and nourishing fish to creamy avocados and sunny-side-up eggs.

Research has linked a deficiency in B9, or folate, to depression. This vital nutrient is instrumental in synthesising neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, the conductors of mood and motivation. Keep your B9 intake steady with a plate of vibrant dark leafy greens, zesty citrus fruits or the occasional fortified cereal.

And let’s not forget the tranquilising embrace of magnesium, your stress-response sentinel. This mineral maintains a balanced hypothalamic-pituitaryaxis, the key to taming stress hormones. It also wields anti-inflammatory powers, potentially shaping a more serene mental landscape. Magnesium-rich foods, from wholesome nuts and seeds to creamy dairy and hearty legumes, offer your tastebuds a ticket to tranquillity. Incorporate these natural wonders into your diet to unlock the full spectrum of mental health benefits. From resilience to serenity, they can pave the way to your best mental self.

Supplements, though, are not equivalent to whole foods, which come with their own food matrix and the right mix of macro and micronutrients — not to mention thousands of phytochemicals — to ensure your body and brain have the best chance to be strong and resilient.

Dietary patterns and mental health

It is essential to remember we don’t simply consume isolated nutrients; we eat complete diets, where complex compounds interact in intricate ways to shape our wellbeing. Enter the Mediterranean diet, a culinary masterpiece with the most extensive and consistent evidence of benefits for both physical and mental health. The Mediterranean diet is an abundant medley of fresh fruits, vibrant vegetables, hearty wholegrains, lean proteins and the velvety richness of heart healthboosting olive oil. Beyond its unbeatable flavours, this dietary pattern boasts another crucial ingredient: the atmosphere in which it is consumed. Characterised by mindful home-cooked meals enjoyed with loved ones, it encourages not only a satisfied palate, but a tranquil mind. This dietary pattern is notably low in artificial sugars, additives and saturated fats, recognised culprits of adverse effects on gut health.

As a modifiable solution for mental wellbeing, the Mediterranean diet is the subject of ground-breaking insights by Professor Felice Jacka in her pioneering SMILES study. In the study, participants who embraced the Mediterranean-style diet reported substantial improvements in their mental wellbeing, with an impressive 32 per cent achieving clinical remission, meaning they were no longer burdened by depression. These remarkable findings underscore the potent influence of your diet on your mood and overall mental health.

The traditional Mediterranean diet, abundant in unprocessed, whole ingredients and low in foods high in sugar and added fats (not to mention zero ultra-processed foods), is tailor-made to provide your brain with the nourishment it craves. There are many traditional dietary patterns associated with better mental health, which are independent of important factors such as education, income and body weight. The key is to focus on increasing the amount and diversity of whole plant foods (vegetables, fruits, wholegrain cereals, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices) and avoid ultra-processed foods wherever possible to give yourself the best chance for a healthy mind and body.

Professor Jacka, founder of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNP) and the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Melbourne, says we have a collective responsibility to ensure that access to whole foods transcends socioeconomic boundaries. “The healthier choice should be the most accessible, economical and socially embraced option,” she says. “It’s a shift towards a brighter, healthier future that we all have a part in shaping.”

Cultural context

Understanding the role of factors like food accessibility and cultural preferences is a cornerstone of nutritional psychiatry. Looking to food to improve mental health isn’t just about the nutrients on your plate, but also the broader context of your life. Access to a variety of nutritious foods can be a substantial challenge for many individuals. This is often influenced by geographic location, socioeconomic status and even the availability of grocery stores in a particular area.

In some regions, fresh produce and whole foods may be limited or more expensive, making it a challenge for people to incorporate a balanced diet. This food disparity can pose a significant obstacle to those seeking to improve their mental health through nutrition.

It is possible to eat a healthy diet cheaply by focusing on foods such as frozen vegetables, dried and tinned beans and legumes and tinned fish. Indeed, the diet recommended in the SMILES trial was shown to be less expensive than the unhealthy diets participants were originally eating.

Food is also deeply intertwined with culture and cultural preferences play a pivotal role in what we eat. These preferences are often influenced by tradition, family and societal norms. When embarking on a nutritional psychiatry journey, it’s essential to respect and acknowledge these cultural ties to food. While certain dietary changes may be recommended for better mental health, they should be adapted to align with cultural preferences. This allows individuals to make sustainable and enjoyable dietary adjustments that resonate with their cultural background. To overcome these challenges, it’s important to work with healthcare professionals who can help tailor dietary interventions to your unique circumstances and background, ensuring you embrace nutritional psychiatry in a way that enhances both your mental health and overall wellbeing.

Beyond your diet

A recent study, carried out in Nature Journal by Yujie Zhao et al, serves as a reminder that the path to robust mental health is a multifaceted journey that extends well beyond our dietary choices.

The research shows that while dietary change can be a potent tool in the battle against common mental health disorders, including depression, there’s a broader spectrum of lifestyle factors at play. Surprisingly, the study identifies optimal sleep as the most substantial risk reducer for depression. Quality slumber stands as a formidable shield against the shadows of mental distress.

Frequent social connections were also unveiled as protectors, acting as powerful buffers against the onslaught of common mental health challenges. The research reveals the intricate interplay of lifestyle components in our emotional wellbeing. While dietary adjustments may suffice for some, others may require the synergy of antidepressants and therapy in conjunction with other lifestyle enhancements. It’s a poignant reminder that mental health is a complex interplay of various factors and our approach to its care should be just as multifaceted.

Metal Health-boosting recipes – nutritional psychiatry

Breakfast: Overnight oats


½ cup of oats
½ cup milk of choice
1 tbsp chia seeds
2 tbsp Greek yoghurt
1 handful mixed berries
1 handful mixed nuts
½ tsp honey (optional)


  1. Combine the ingredients into a bowl or mason jar.
  2. Stir thoroughly and place in the fridge for 2 hrs or leave overnight.
  3. Take out and top with mixed nuts and any additional fruit of choice.

Lunch: Mediterranean sandwich


¼ small pumpkin
½ red capsicum
½ zucchini
1 Campari tomato
2 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste
2 slices wholemeal sourdough bread
½ avocado
1 handful spinach
2 teaspoons dukkha or crushed nuts of choice
Feta & fresh herbs, to serve (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Slice the pumpkin, capsicum, zucchini and tomato.
  3. Arrange the vegetables in a medium roasting tin. Drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and add salt and pepper.
  4. Bake for 15 mins, add the two slices of sourdough bread to the oven for the last 2 mins to toast it.
  5. Spread the avocado onto the bread, top with the baked veggies and add your slices of tomato and spinach. Sprinkle with dukkha and crumble over feta (if using).

Dinner: Salmon pesto with veggies



For the pesto:
½ cup toasted walnuts
2-3 cups fresh basil
2 tsp capers
3 sardines (optional)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon
2 garlic cloves
5 tbsp water
1 sweet potato
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
3 tsp garlic powder
3 tsp rosemary
1 red capsicum
8 stalks broccolini
1 salmon fillet


  1. Blitz together all the ingredients for the pesto and set aside.
  2. Roughly chop your sweet potato and place in an oil-greased baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and add salt, pepper, garlic powder and rosemary before baking in the oven for 30 mins. At the 30-min mark add roughly chopped capsicum and broccolini stems to the sweet potato and roast together for another 10 mins.
  3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp olive oil on a medium heat. Add the salmon and use the back of a wooden spoon to press down on the middle of each piece of fish for about 20 secs. Leave fish to cook on one side for approximately 10 mins (depending on how you like it cooked).
  4. Once the roasted veggies have cooked, coat your salmon with your pesto paste and serve with roasted veggies. Enjoy!

Article Featured in WellBeing 209

Laura Jennings

Laura Jennings

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