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Foods that can help improve mental health

09 October, 2015
Mental Health Food

Depression is an illness that can affect thoughts, mood, and physical health. It is characterised by overwhelming feelings of sadness, emptiness and worthlessness; it does not discriminate and can strike any person, regardless of race, age, gender, income or education.

Depression is classified as a psychiatric illness and is more common than you may think. It is estimated that 45% of Australians have or will experience depression at some time in their lives. And without treatment, depression can last indefinitely.

Depression can be treated with a number of lifestyle changes that include getting more sleep, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and scheduling social and sporting activities that you enjoy. In consultation with a medical provider, some people suffering from depression may also consider including medication in their treatment. Diet can also play a role in treatment, with a balanced diet helping to alleviate some symptoms or keeping them from getting worse.

Depression can lead to poor motivation and low energy, which can fuel and exacerbate the effects of poor eating habits. This can in turn lead to weight gain, poor body function, and can affect brain chemistry. A good diet will put you in good stead to fighting these symptoms, and will be the foundation to taking action on other strategies that combat depression.

Foods to include in your depression-fighting diet include:

Omega 3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are needed to strengthen the brain’s neural connections as well as the receptor sites for neurotransmitters such as serotonin. They can also be hugely beneficial in terms of cardiovascular health.
Food - Omega 3

Good sources of omega-3 fats are:

  • Flaxseed oil;
  • Salmon;
  • Chia seeds;
  • Walnuts;
  • Mackerel;
  • Oysters;
  • Soybeans; and
  • Spinach.

B Vitamins

B vitamins are important for nervous system function, and are considered an “anti-stress” nutrient. They help relieve anxiety and treat depression by working to produce serotonin, the “feel-good” chemical.Food - B Vitamins

B vitamins to look for include niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and folic acid (B9). They can be found in:

  • Fish;
  • Chicken and turkey;
  • Liver;
  • Peanuts;
  • Sunflower seeds;
  • Pistachios;
  • Dried fruit;
  • Beans;
  • Lentils; and
  • Asparagus.


Tryptophan is needed to produce serotonin as well as melatonin, which is vital for getting enough sleep. In clinical trials, researchers found that lowering tryptophan levels triggers a corresponding drop in brain serotonin production, impacting mood, memory and aggression levels. Supplementing tryptophan intake, on the other hand, helps normalise levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, leaving you feeling happier.

Tryptophan can be found in:Food Trytophan

  • Pumpkin seeds;
  • Soybeans;
  • Parmesan cheese;
  • White and red meat;
  • Tuna;
  • Crab;
  • Oat bran;
  • Beans and lentils; and
  • Eggs.


Carbohydrates trigger insulin response, which enhances the availability of tryptophan in the central nervous system. Combining a small amount of complex carbohydrate foods with tryptophan-rich foods can help convert the tryptophan into serotonin.

Complex carbohydrates are basically those in whole grain form, and are broken down into glucose more slowly than simple carbohydrates. Healthy complex carbs can be found in:
Food - Carbs

  • Oat bran;
  • Wheat germ;
  • Buckwheat;
  • Pasta;
  • Wholemeal bread;
  • Brown rice;
  • Rye Crispbread;
  • Porridge oats;
  • Beans; and
  • Peas.


Skim milk, yoghurt and low fat cheeses that are rich in calcium, vitamin D, and protein are great for fighting depression. Calcium is necessary for our bodies to function properly and, because calcium is needed for healthy brain function, calcium deficiency can lead to anxiety and moodiness. Symptoms of calcium deficiency include muscle cramping, lethargy, shaking, heart palpitations and depression. 

Good sources of calcium include:

  • Skim milk;
  • Yoghurt;
  • Low fat cheese;
  • Spinach;
  • White beans;
  • Sardines;
  • Oranges;
  • Collard greens; and
  • Broccoli.


Damaging molecules called free radicals are produced in our bodies during normal body functions. These free radicals contribute to cell damage, ageing and dysfunction. Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E help combat the damaging effects these free radicals cause.

The brain is particularly at risk of damage caused by free radicals, so in order to preserve mental health, antioxidants are essential. Good sources of antioxidants include:

  • Apricots;
  • Broccoli;
  • Sweet potato;
  • Collard greens;
  • Blueberries;
  • Oranges;
  • Capsicum;
  • Nuts and seeds;
  • Vegetable oils; and
  • Tomato.

Green tea
Good - Green tea

Green tea is an incredibly rich source of antioxidants, and its amino acid, theanine, is known for its depression-fighting qualities. Theanine provides anti-stress relaxation benefits in the same way that caffeine boosts coffee drinkers, by stimulating production of brain waves known as alpha waves, normally seen in those in a relaxed state.


If you’re feeling depressed, turmeric - a bold spice often found in Indian and Asian curry dishes - can help bolster your mood. Containing active compounds called turmerones and curcuminods, turmeric fights effects of depression by attacking multiple underlying targets. The effect is similar to that seen in antidepressant medication.

Dark chocolateFood - Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate contains cocoa, an anti-depressant property that contains serotonin, dopamine, and phenylethylamine. These neurotransmitters play a vital role in brain wellbeing. Dark chocolate also contains a flavour that is structurally similar to valproic acid, used to manage the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder. On top of this, dark chocolate reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines.


Mushrooms are good for your mental health in two ways. Firstly, their chemical properties oppose insulin, which helps lower blood sugar levels and evens out your mood. Secondly, studies suggest that mushrooms are probiotic which means they promote healthy gut bacteria. Since the nerve cells in our gut manufacture up to 90% of our body’s serotonin, intestinal health is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Foods to avoid
Food - to avoid

If we feed our bodies with bad foods, we feel bad. It’s that simple. Too much of a bad thing will always end up doing harm.

When eating to combat depression, there are certain foods you should try to avoid. These include:

  • Refined sugar;
  • Artificial sweeteners;
  • Processed foods;
  • Hydrogenated oils;
  • Foods high in sodium;
  • Alcohol; and
  • Caffeine.

All information in this article is intended for general information purposes only. Information should not be considered medical advice and is in no way intended to replace a consultation with a qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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