Expert Nutritional Therapist Julie Pichler from Vagus Wellbeing shares her insight into how food supports your mental health 
It turns out that old saying, “you are what you eat,” was right! Did you know that nutrition plays a key role in our mental health? 
Nutrition affects our brain chemistry, which in turn affects our mood, memory and concentration. We now know that diet alone can reverse depression, which doesn’t look to belittle social and environmental issues such as stress, work pressures, bereavement and illness, but rather goes to show that there’s so much more involved than a chemical imbalance in our brains. You may have heard of serotonin, which is known as our ‘happy’ neurotransmitter, along with dopamine which is associated with reward and pleasure. It’s been traditionally thought that a shortage in these chemicals can make us feel down, but we now know that the whole body is involved in making these substances, not least our gut. 
Our digestive tract hosts our second brain, home to over 100 million nerve cells, which makes intuitive sense in terms of feeling butterflies when we’re nervous, or having an upset stomach when we’re stressed. There is an orchestra of nerve, immune and hormonal signals all communicating with each other, and letting the brain know the lay of the land. 
Our food choices directly affect our brain function and how we feel, because it provides the building blocks for all of our cells and tissues. Food can be friend or foe, what we eat and drink being our biggest interface with the outside world, so a big part of our immune system is also present in our digestive tract, looking out for bacteria and viruses such as those which cause food poisoning, to keep us healthy. When we become sick, the immune system response invokes us to feel like retreating (to avoid infecting others) keeping warm and resting (to conserve energy), often behaviours which can resemble depression. 
Many nutrients are needed for good brain function and positive mood, such as B vitamins, magnesium, Omega 3 and zinc. If we don’t fuel properly, we can be prone to low mood, concentration, or anxiety. Our gut bacteria also need feeding through our fruits and vegetables and fibres such as beans and lentils to keep us healthy, and making vitamins themselves. Trials are beginning to show that live bacteria (prebiotics) can influence our mood, showing promise as a source of treatment for mental health conditions in the future. 
So, what is best to eat? 
No single food is the magic bullet, but incorporating variety from these food groups on a regular basis, will help increase your friendly bacteria, reduce inflammation and promote neurotransmitter balance: 
1. Fish and Seafood 
Our grandparents intuitively knew that fish was good for the brain, and it's true. Omega 3 fats, particularly found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel, stimulate the brain to grow and change, and help to reduce levels of inflammation. 
Seafood such as clams, mussels, scallops and oysters are also rich in zinc which help ensure efficient neurotransmitter messages from one brain cell to another, and also a key nutrient in a well-functioning immune system. 
2. Chickpeas 
Chickpeas are a great source of B6, needed to convert our food into energy, support the blood cells to carry oxygen to the brain, as well as make neurotransmitters. They contain the essential amino-acid tryptophan supporting the sleep hormone melatonin. Low B6 can result in trouble concentrating, nervousness, irritability and sadness. 
3. Nuts and seeds 
Almonds, cashews and brazil nuts are a great source of magnesium, the ‘calming mineral’, with a deficiency shown to contribute to low mood. Flax, pumpkin and chia seeds sprinkled on oats or salads are also a great choice. 
4. Dark green leafy vegetables 
Spinach, sprouts, asparagus, cabbage and kale are your ‘go to’ for folate, the natural form of folic acid you may have heard given to pregnant women to support brain and spinal cord development in babies. Well, it's just as beneficial for adult brains with low levels of folate linked to depression and low energy. 
5. Fermented foods 
Foods such as kimchi, kombucha, miso, kefir and sauerkraut are not only in trend, but are chock full of probiotics (live bacteria) which support the friendly strains of bacteria in our gut. Increasing the diversity of our bacterial strains has such positive effects on our overall health, the brain is just one organ to benefit. 
So, next time you’re doing your food shop, save this list of 5 food groups to your phone and see what new food you can pick up, to give your brain a boost. 
For more expert advice please visit Julie on her website 
Questions, or comments? I'm here to help. You can leave a comment or query below, or contact us if you want a confidential conversation. 
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