How does food and drink affect mental health?

To eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water and monitor their intake of alcohol and caffeine is important for everyone. For people with mental health challenges, this is even more important.

There is some evidence that:

  • a healthy diet is associated with a reduced risk of depression
  • omega-3 fats can improve mental health
  • diets high in refined carbohydrates can increase the risk of symptoms of depression
  • eating well prevents some chronic diseases like diabetes, which also affects mental health
  • being obese can contribute to mental health disorders
  • eating habits can affect sleep and therefore mental health
  • some foods interfere with the medicines used to treat mental health disorders.

Foods containing high levels of tyramine (particularly foods that have been aged, matured or fermented, such as aged cheeses or cured meats) should not be eaten if you have been prescribed a type of antidepressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor.

It is important to drink plenty of water for good mental health. Water is needed to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit signals between brain cells and hormones that control the processes of the body and brain. Even mild dehydration can make you irritable and affect mental performance. Learn more about the importance of hydration and drinking water.

Alcohol is a depressant. While it can make you feel good for a while, drinking too much alcohol can affect your mental and physical health. In the short term, drinking a large amount of alcohol can lead to psychological effects such as impairing your judgment or causing you to deliberately harm yourself or others.

Long-term use of alcohol increases the risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. It can also lead to dependence and addiction, especially in people who have depression or anxiety, and it can increase the risk of suicide. Alcohol also affects sleep and therefore mental health.

Caffeine is a stimulant that acts on the brain and nervous system. It is found in coffee, most teas, cocoa, chocolate, cola, guarana, and energy drinks. Caffeine might have some positive effects on mental health. Caffeine can increase anxiety and alter sleep patterns in some people.

People with mental health disorders can use the same strategies as everyone else to eat a balanced diet, drink enough water, and limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol.

However, some people with mental health disorders might have more difficulty than others because of:

  • lack of motivation
  • loss of appetite, or comfort eating
  • using drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy
  • irregular meals
  • feelings of isolation
  • financial insecurity

If you are struggling to eat and drink more healthily, these strategies might help.

If you concentrate on what you are eating, you will probably eat more healthily. It can be easier to make slight changes than big changes.

Change rarely happens overnight. Take small steps to improve your food and drink intake.

Some of those changes will be easy, others will be harder. You will stick with some and not stick with others. In time, they will become healthy eating habits that come naturally.