Food, Gut and Mental Health

Photo by Ola Mishchenko on Unsplash

I recently attended an online lecture with Margret O’Brien, nutrition and lifestyle coach, though Iron Mill College. The main message was that it has been proven by research that good nutrition supports good mental health and poor nutrition can contribute to mental health problems. This post will share some of the main points which caught my interest during the talk.


Mental health is best considered as part of a holistic approach to health and not just on its own. Margaret highlighted that most disease in the western world is rooted in four main areas:

  • poor nutrition,
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • poor quality sleep
  • unmanaged stress

If we can eat a balanced nutritious diet, exercise regularly, take steps to sleep well, and manage our stress our mental and general health health will be well supported. The talk focused on the nutritional aspect.


Apparently our brains have a huge demand for nutrients; using 30% of our body’s total requirement. The need to satisfy this high demand indicates why good nutrition is so important for our mental functioning. The hormones that are synthesised in our bodies which are used to function mentally and to keep us in balance all require quality nutrients. Many modern convenience foods give us energy but lack the nutrients we need.


Fibre, which we get from unprocessed seeds, grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables, is an important part of a healthy diet. It slows down the digestion of sugars so that we get a more even level of sugar released into the blood and a more even mood and feeling of wellbeing, rather than a huge spike followed by a dip in glucose level with the accompanying lethargy, we get from processed foods. Also fibre feeds the good bacteria in our gut and the bi-product of this is butyric acid which is protective to the gut and dampens down inflammation in the body/brain supporting good mental health.

So our diet needs to include plenty of fibre through eating whole foods, but also sufficient water (around 2 litres a day suggested) that is required to be absorbed by fibre and avoid constipation. We also need water so that our bodies are well hydrated


Essential fats are extremely important as the brain is made mostly from fat ! Omega 3 is an essential fat that is often lacking in people’s diets, although it is readily available in oily fish or fish oil supplements. A lack of this nutrient has been shown to be linked to ADHD, depression, bipolar, Alzheimer’s and other problems.


Research studies show that the brain affects the gut (think how you feel before taking an exam !) but it also works the other way around; the gut affects the brain.

To get nutrients out of food and into our body efficiently requires our digestive system to work well. We rely on healthy types of gut bacteria to aid this process. The gut biome (the various types of bacteria present in our gut) if affected by our diet. If our diet is poor then our biome will be adversely affected. Cravings we have for certain foods are one way that these bacteria exert their influence over us ! Probiotics, supplements which can be used to introduce new gut bacteria, may some day be used to treat mental health problems

Sugary foods do not make for a good gut biome. Margaret suggests gradually making changes to reduce sugar intake such as starting with ditching the sugary breakfast cereal in the morning. She suggests that making one small change at a time is best to sustain positive change.


Stress is linked to the depletion of nutrients in the body. The stress response is designed to keep us safe from danger so that we will survive to live another day, so the stress response always gets first priority to access what nutrients are available. Hence, if we are regularly stressed out our bodies and immune system will not get the nutrition needed and may crash. A poor immune system means disease gets a foothold. It’s important we learn about what stresses us and how we react to stress and then make positive changes to reduce this burden on our wellbeing.


To sum up; a good diet is essential for mental health support, proven by research. To switch towards a balanced diet of whole foods containing plenty of fibre, all essential amino acids, essential fats (check you are getting sufficient omega 3) and complex carbohydrates, and moving away from processed sugary foods, is recommended. And 2 litres of water per day. We also need to learn to manage our stress levels so that the nutrients can be used to restore our bodies to health, rather than being used to fuel a stress response.

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