The Science of Self Care: Food and Mood

Part III – Food and Mood: The connection between food, gut health and mental health

About the Author Megan S. Maisano, MS is health writer and Army veteran who specializes in nutrition communications and has a background in psychology. Her academic, professional, and personal experiences have convinced her that wellbeing doesn’t simply come from food, fitness, or mental health, but a peaceful balance between the three. (MS, Nutrition Communications Tufts University, BS, Psychology United States Military Academy)

Think food and mood aren’t connected? Think again. We know that a poor diet can lead to feeling lousy physically, but did you know that what you eat might also influence how you feel mentally too? In Part II, we covered the gut-brain axis and learned how a stressed brain can impact our gut and a stressed gut can affect our brain. This week, we’ll discuss the relationship between food and mood — because nutrition can shape more than just our waist line.

Food and Our Gut Health

As we’ve learned so far in this blog series, a happy microbiome leads to a happy gut, which in turn results in a happy human. Our gut microbiota also play an important role in producing nutrients and vitamins such as amino acids, vitamin K, B-vitamins, and short-chain fatty acids.¹⁻³ While research studying the best food for the microbiome is in its early stages, there’s no doubt that what we eat affects our gut bacteria. They eat what we eat.

For example, emerging research indicates that our microbiome might benefit from diets rich in prebiotics and probiotics. Don’t know the difference between the two? We’ll break it down:

  • Prebiotics: promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. You can think of it as “power foods” for our microbiota. We sure don’t want our gut bugs going hungry. If they don’t have enough prebiotic food, they settle for the gut lining. If we lose too much of this lining, then we’re more prone to infection and inflammation.⁴⁻⁵ So, keep those little guys happy by eating plenty of prebiotic fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.⁶  
  • Probiotics: live bacterial cultures – the good kind. These guys help keep your microbiome balanced by protecting it from bad bacteria, improving digestion, and enhancing our immune response.⁷⁻⁹ Emerging research shows that healthy probiotics may prevent and treat conditions like IBS, diarrhea, and ulcerative colitis.7-8 So, add bugs to your diet naturally with fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and cheese, or non-dairy options such as kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso.⁸⁻⁹

Food and Mood

Food and Mood: Healthy Gut FloraWe know that our mental health is influenced by many factors. One factor that’s gaining a lot of attention lately is our diet. In addition to its influence on our gut health, and thereby our mental health (see last week’s blog), the food we eat can directly impact our cognitive functioning as well. Food and mood have an undeniably symbiotic relationship.

Our brain is always working and relies on nutrients like amino acids, fats, vitamins, and minerals to function its best. So, diets deficient in such nutrients very well might have a negative impact on how we think and feel.

For example, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed) influence neurotransmitter activity, brain cell membrane fluidity, inflammation, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).¹⁰⁻¹¹ Similarly, zinc (found in oysters, crab, and chicken) affects hippocampus function (memory and emotion), cytokines (immune system messengers), and has been linked to depressive symptoms when deficient.¹⁰⁻¹² Deficiencies in the B vitamins and vitamin D have also been linked to depression.¹⁰ ¹²⁻¹³

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests a connection between dietary patterns and mental health. Specifically, diets rich in fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains (similar to the Mediterranean Diet) have been associated with decreased incidence of  depression and/or anxiety.¹⁴⁻¹⁹ On the flip side, diets rich in red and processed meat, highly refined foods, and added sugar (similar to the Western Diet) have been associated with increased risk of mental health conditions.¹⁴⁻¹⁶ ¹⁹

Why is this important?

Nutrition psychiatry is a new and exciting field. While we have much to learn, what we do know is that the love triangle between diet, gut health, and mental health holds great promise. Within the next few years, expect to see nutrition counseling as a valuable, inexpensive, and sustainable treatment augmentation for psychiatric conditions.

Learn more about the Actified Approach to care. We are proud to offer rapid-onset treatment options that can be integrated into the holistic treatment of mental health. We can act with you to develop the best care plan that considers your overall wellness. If you have a question about how this post pertains to your wellbeing, send an email to

Coming up next week

Part IV, Fostering the Gut-Brain Axis to Feel Better will discuss five lifestyle habits that target the gut-brain relationship and improve how we feel – both physically and mentally. To keep up with this blog series, subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address in the field at the top right of this page.


  1. LeBlanc, J. G., Chain, F., Martín, R., Bermúdez-Humarán, L. G., Courau, S., & Langella, P. (2017). Beneficial effects on host energy metabolism of short-chain fatty acids and vitamins produced by commensal and probiotic bacteria. Microbial Cell Factories16, 79.
  2. Kennedy, D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients8(2), 68.
  3. Fernstrom, J. D. (1994). Dietary amino acids and brain function. J Am Diet Assoc, 94(1), 71-77.
  4. Hansson, G. C. (2012). Role of mucus layers in gut infection and inflammation. Current Opinion in Microbiology15(1), 57–62.
  5. Sun, J., Shen, X., Li, Y., Guo, Z., Zhu, W., Zuo, L., … Li, J. (2016). Therapeutic Potential to Modify the Mucus Barrier in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Nutrients8(1), 44.
  6. Holscher, H. D. (2017). Dietary fiber and prebiotics and the gastrointestinal microbiota. Gut Microbes8(2), 172–184.
  7. Gareau, M. G., Sherman, P. M., & Walker, W. A. (2010). Probiotics and the gut microbiota in intestinal health and disease. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology &Amp; Hepatology, 7, 503.
  8. Parvez, S. , Malik, K. , Ah Kang, S. and Kim, H. (2006), Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 100: 1171-1185.
  9. Wolfram, T. (2018). Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You. Retrieved July, 2018 from
  10. Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Akbaraly, T. N., Amminger, G. P., Balanza-Martinez, V., Freeman, M. P., . . . Jacka, F. N. (2015). Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3), 271-274.
  11. Logan, A. C. (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional. Lipids in Health and Disease, 3(1), 25.
  12. Rao, T. S. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. J. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry50(2), 77–82.
  13. Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Ferrans, C. E. (2010). Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues in Mental Health Nursing31(6), 385–393.
  14. Lai, J. S., Hiles, S., Bisquera, A., Hure, A. J., McEvoy, M., & Attia, J. (2014). A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99(1), 181-197.
  15. Jacka, F. N., Mykletun, A., Berk, M., Bjelland, I., & Tell, G. S. (2011). The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health study. Psychosom Med, 73(6), 483-490.
  16. Sanchez-Villegas, A., Delgado-Rodriguez, M., Alonso, A., Schlatter, J., Lahortiga, F., Serra Majem, L., & Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2009). Association of the Mediterranean dietary pattern with the incidence of depression: the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra/University of Navarra follow-up (SUN) cohort. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 66(10), 1090-1098.
  17. Skarupski, K. A., Tangney, C. C., Li, H., Evans, D. A., & Morris, M. C. (2013). Mediterranean diet and depressive symptoms among older adults over time. J Nutr Health Aging, 17(5), 441-445.
  18. Sanchez-Villegas, A., Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A., Estruch, R., Salas-Salvado, J., Corella, D., Covas, M. I., . . . Serra-Majem, L. (2013). Mediterranean dietary pattern and depression: the PREDIMED randomized trial. BMC Med, 11, 208
  19. Jacka, F. N., Pasco, J. A., Mykletun, A., Williams, L. J., Hodge, A. M., O’Reilly, S. L., . . . Berk, M. (2010). Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Am J Psychiatry, 167(3), 305-311