Your food, your mood

Image @mongequentin via Instagram

Image @mongequentin via Instagram

My name is Maya. I have just turned 40, and have suffered from episodes of depression and anxiety since my teens. I have tried many approaches with varying degrees of success over the years, from hypnosis and homeopathy, to acupuncture and talking therapies.

Losing a job in my early twenties lead to panic attacks and anxiety. And in my late twenties I found myself in the GP's office with a prescription for Prozac and instructions to take them until menopause. 

While I accept that for some medication is literally a life saver, I was determined not to be medicated for the next 20 years. So I began a journey of research that lead me to a greater understanding of the inner workings of my brain and body. I started my career in PR and magazines, and then worked as a freelance stylist, but decided to retrain as a nutritional therapist four years ago. Now I am qualified, I am even more passionate about empowering others to live well and thrive with mental health conditions. 

Many people who have mental health issues can pinpoint a phrase that someone said to them that had a profound effect. For me it was the suggestion that I view the episodes of anxiety and depression as seasons – bad weather that would pass. This simple idea freed me for the terror that I was sinking into madness and would never return to myself. Now, when I feel the waves of fear or low mood approaching, I can hunker down and use the tools I’ve learnt, and know that, just like a thunderstorm, it will pass, and there will be sunnier days.

I describe coping during an episode like a house of cards: you can get up and go through all the motions, all of the things that you know should help, but one tiny slip and everything can come crashing down around you. I am continually learning to understand the delicate balance between mind, body and spirit. I know that wellbeing is not a final destination, but a journey with many challenges along the way, so it’s vital to have as much support and many resources to help you cope when the next storm hits. 

Image: @mongequentin via instagram

Image: @mongequentin via instagram

One thing I know for sure (to borrow from Oprah) is that you cannot have a healthy body or brain without giving it the right raw ingredients. Diet is not the only answer for depression but it is a fundamental and often-overlooked part of the puzzle. The typical modern western diet rich in high-fat dairy products, and fried, refined and sugary foods, has been linked to an increased risk of developing depression. Diets rich in fish, fruit and vegetables are associated with a lower risk. Many studies look at the relationship between single nutrients and depression. The symptoms of deficiencies in many B vitamins, folic acid and vitamin C include depression, apathy, anxiety, irritability, confusion and fatigue to name a few. 

Depression comes in many varieties and we are all biochemically different. For example, some of us need to take extra care because our livers may not detox stress hormones as effectively as others, so their effects linger for longer. Or we might break down and excrete ‘feel good’ chemicals such as serotonin more quickly than others, so the mood-enhancing effects don’t last as long. 

Nutritional therapy seeks to treat the whole person and not just the diagnosis, so when a client presents with depression, there may be many factors to consider – genetic influences, stress levels, thyroid function, blood glucose control, nutrient deficiencies and side effects of prescription medication, for example. Our approach considers the whole body and mind, and how what we put into our bodies can affect the fine balance between them. 

Many mainstream medical approaches to depression centre on serotonin and other chemicals in our brain and body that help to regulate and improve our mood. Antidepressant drugs typically work by increasing and maintaining levels of these ‘feel good’ chemicals (known as ‘neurotransmitters’ by the professionals). 

However, we can support these ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters ourselves by ensuring good levels of nutrients in the diet, especially B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and vitamin C, all of which are readily available in a range of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds.

Of course, we are only just starting to understand more about how what we eat affects how we feel – physically and emotionally – and there are new discoveries in many areas of research all the time. Some scientists are looking at the role of inflammation, and there is evidence to suggest that anti-inflammatory diets rich in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats such as omega 3s from oily fish are associated with a lowered risk of depression and related conditions. 

The relationship between the gut and the brain is also a hot area of research. We nutritional therapists have a saying: everything starts in the gut! The balance of healthy gut bacteria has an influence on serotonin. Food allergies and intolerances are also linked to depression. And many common prescription medications, such as the contraceptive pill and antibiotics, can lead to mood imbalances and nutritional deficiencies.

Nevertheless, there are some known ways that food can influence mood: 

Image: @jeninuferu via instagram

Image: @jeninuferu via instagram

·     Stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine stimulate the adrenal glands (which make the ‘fight or flight’ neurotransmitter, adrenaline) and can lead to anxiety and insomnia. 

·     Sugary and refined foods such as sweets, biscuits, and fizzy drinks result in spikes in blood sugar, and then rapid drops that can lead to anxiety, mood swings and a cycle of addiction. 

·     Carbohydrates – pasta, pastries, cereals, breads and bagels, for example – initially increase the production of ‘feel good’ serotonin, but can often be followed by a crash and become addictive.

·     Protein in meat, milk products, fish, beans, eggs, nuts and soy products – are made up of amino acids that are essential for the production of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters such as dopamine and noradrenaline

·     Tryptophan – another amino acid the body uses to make serotonin – is found in turkey, milk products, bananas, almonds, soy products, cottage and ricotta cheese. 

While it’s safe to eat nutrients in food, supplementing specific nutrients can interfere with medication and should be done with the support of a trained nutritionist.

We live in a time where we are surrounded by so many choices and opinions when it comes to food and what we should be eating – my aim is to provide you with practical and effective advice on how to support yourself, your mind and your body with food. 

I’m really excited to share with you the knowledge I’ve learned on my journey in the Sunday Surgery. So please say hello@survivingsundays and let us know if there are any nutrition queries you need answered. 



Maya Oakley is a registered nutritional therapist and the writer of Nourished London

@nourishedlondon on Instagram





Emma Mainoo