Improving your mood, energy levels and mental health through diet and nutrition

18 November 2021

A recent study has highlighted how the first wave of Covid-19, perhaps unsurprisingly, fuelled a sharp increase in insomnia, anxiety and depression around the globe. The mental health impacts of the pandemic have, of course, been well documented, but it is also true that, for many of us, the past year-and-a-half has led us to eat less healthily, put on weight and drink more alcohol.

Making this connection is important because what we eat - our food, diet and nutrition - can play an important part in affecting our mood, our energy levels and our mental health, as Harley Street nutritional therapist Clarissa Lenherr has highlighted in a recent 'vlog' (or video blog).

As Clarissa explains: "A lot of us already understand that, sometimes, the foods we choose to eat can make us feel really good, put us in a good mood, give us a dopamine hit. But the relationship actually goes further than that. All of the foods we consume have the opportunity to support our mood, our energy and our general wellbeing.

"When we're skipping meals, when we're not eating adequately, when we have a diet that's higher in refined sugars, alcohol and stimulants, unfortunately, this can have a significant effect on our mood."

Boosting your mood with food

Clarissa Lenherr, nutritional therapist, discusses why our food, diet and nutrition can play an important part in affecting our mood, our energy levels and our mental health.

Understanding the links between blood-sugar, energy and mood

In the vlog, Clarissa outlines the links between our blood-sugar levels, our moods and energy levels, as well as how blood-sugar levels can be affected by the types of food we're eating, stress, caffeine, sleep, and exercise (or lack of it).

"When we've got highs and lows of blood-sugar and therefore energy, we can also have highs and lows with our mood. When our energy is high we can feel positive, upbeat and motivated. When our energy and blood-sugars are low we may feel irritable, anxious, moody and have mood swings," she explains.

Sugary snacks or meals high in sugar can create an artificial, short-term surge in blood-sugar levels, she points out. "But 30-45 minutes later, our blood-sugar levels can start crashing and giving us those mood swings and lulls in energy."

Another group of foods that affect our blood-sugar levels is carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates (for example white breads, white rice, white pasta) have had the fibre removed (or refined) from them. This means they can be rapidly digested and so give us a quick release of energy. But this provides us with only a short-term energy boost, Clarissa cautions.

"What we want to be trying to achieve is, instead of a rollercoaster, more of a wave-like, consistent release of energy, [one] which is going to give us a consistent and balanced mood," she emphasises

How best to balance your daily plate

So, what does, or should, this look like in practice? What should we be putting on our plates to help balance our mood? How should we be changing or adjusting our diets to achieve this nutritional harmony?

"First up, ideally a quarter of your plate should be carbohydrates, and complex ones if you can," advises Clarissa. "So, instead of white rice choose brown; instead of white bread choose rye, pumpernickel or wholemeal breads; instead of white pasta opt for wholemeal pastas or pulse-based pastas. These wholegrains have more fibre within them as well as some nutrients.

"Fibre takes a long time for our digestive system to break which gives us a slower, more consistent release of energy, unlike with the refined carbs that give us a peak and a fall. Other wholegrain alternatives could be going for things like oats, quinoa or buckwheat and so on.

"The other quarter of our plate - so half our plate combined - is going to be protein. Protein keeps us really full and satiated. But, when it comes to mood, protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of every cell, skin system, tissue, enzyme, muscle, and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (which also contribute to mood). So, protein is pretty important.

"Ideally, a quarter of your plate should be things such as fish, poultry, red meat, tofu, and tempeh for vegetarians, as well as beans, eggs and so on. The other side of your plate, the remaining half, should then be fruits and vegetables. Because that is going to give you nature's multivitamins. They are going to really help with so many bodily functions and help us to avoid nutritional deficiencies, which can, especially if they affect our energy, unfortunately leave us lower in mood," she adds.

The final element in the nutritional mix needs to be fat, Clarissa highlights. While, of course, at one level fats are bad, they nevertheless do also have an important and positive role to play in providing a balanced diet.

"Fats helps us to produce neurotransmitters, so chemical messengers that help us with mood. They help us to produce hormones, which affect our mood, and they support brain health as well. So, add on fats like olive oil, or things like nuts and seeds, avocado, coconut milk; you’ve got some good fats found in eggs, dairy, things like that," explains Clarissa.

Value of vitamins and Omega-3

Delving deeper into this area in the vlog, Clarissa then addresses how to bring two further key nutrients into your diet to improve your mood and brain health.

"First up, is vitamin D. Vitamin D supports the immune system, bone health, energy, production of those neurotransmitters, such as serotonin our 'happy hormone', dopamine our 'pleasure hormone', and melatonin our 'sleepy hormone'. So, it is a significant factor in so many areas of our health," she explains.

"In the summer, 20 minutes a day in direct sunshine is enough to get your vitamin D. In winter, if you live in the UK, unfortunately it can be difficult to get vitamin D. Dietary-wise you can find it in dairy, fatty fish and mushrooms. But it is very hard to get adequate amounts. "Which is why it is advised, between the months of October to April, supplement are taken with the recommended daily intake, which is 10 micrograms or 400 international units. So, make sure you have got your vitamin D covered," she adds.

The second nutritional key is Omega-3. As Clarissa emphasises: "Omega-3s are really important when it comes to mood. Omega-3s are a kind of essential fatty acid that is found in oily fish and certain nuts and seeds. These fatty acids contribute to brain health, hormone health, and anti-inflammatories to support the immune system, plus they are a really good one when it comes to mood.

"The thing with Omega-3s is we cannot make them naturally like we can with vitamin D and sunshine; we have to rely on our diet. The best sources of Omega-3 come from oily fish. The way to remember this is the acronym 'smash', which stands for salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring."

A couple of portions of fish a week is what to aim for, she recommends. For vegetarians or vegans, or simply those who aren't keen on fish, chia seeds, walnuts and flax seeds can all be an alternative. "You need about five 30g portions to get a good amount of Omega-3s. Or you can consider supplements," Clarissa advises.

However, for those taking blood-thinning medication (for example Warfarin) bear in mind Omega-3s can be contra-indicating, so check first with your doctor, she cautions. "But you can take a supplement if you are not able to get it through your diet or if you have a higher requirement," Clarissa adds.

Role of caffeine in affecting mood

Clarissa concludes her vlog by looking at the pros and cons of caffeine and its effect on mood and brain health.

"For people who have sensitivity to mood swings or have a sensitivity to caffeine, it [caffeine] can trigger mood changes, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, even aggression for some people," she cautions, making it important to be careful not to overdo it.

"My recommendation is to listen to your body. If you notice you have one cup of coffee and you are absolutely fine with that, upbeat and energised, but two makes you a bit jittery, maybe a little bit moody and three makes you feel very anxious; you can then learn your own limits," Clarissa says.

"What I would recommend is stay below 400 milligrams, which is the upper limit of the recommended daily intake in the UK, and 200 milligrams if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. That is about five espresso shots or three cups of filter coffee, or about seven to eight cups of black or green tea. Caffeine isn't just found in coffee, it's found in green tea, black tea, matcha, diet cokes, fizzy drinks, energy drinks and more. There is also a little bit in dark chocolate.

"The one other thing with caffeine and mood is it can disrupt your sleep, so it is important to be making sure you time your caffeine consumption - and that includes dark chocolate - so it is not too late at night. Normally I would say the cut-off is around 2pm to 3pm, so it doesn't disrupt your sleep," she advises

Finally, Clarissa emphasises the importance of moderation, of recognising that sometimes we all need to enjoy a bit of junk food or food that technically is bad for us. The key is not to allow that nutritional spiral to take over your life.

"Take what resonates with you and incorporate that. And don't feel it has to be an all-or-nothing approach, particularly with what you are putting on your plate, though do try to aim for that [more healthy plate] whenever you possibly can. But we do all need to have a bit of moderation and enjoyment in our lives as well," Clarissa says.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.