18 Apr 2017

How food affects mood

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 18 April 2017

We all know a good meal can change our mood for the better, but Rachel Kelly takes food and mood a step further.

For years she sought medical treatment for severe depression and anxiety. And then she turned to her kitchen cupboards for help.

She runs workshops with the mental health charity Mind and shares recipes that have worked for her in a book, The Happy Kitchen.

Kelly suffered a depressive episode in 1997 while she was working as a journalist at the Times newspaper in London.

She recalls being unable to sleep one night, and says there were alarming physical symptoms that came with it.

“I felt like I had to be sick, I felt like I was falling and the symptoms got worse and worse, I couldn’t sleep and after three days and three nights I found myself in hospital and it was the start of a major depressive episode.”

Kelly says she was unaware of what was happening and actually believed it may have been a heart attack.

She eventually got better and returned to work before suffering second episode.

This time she was ill for a couple of years.

“It was then that I decided to really research and discover and really acknowledge this thing called mental illness.

“It’s a good thing to talk about it. It helps to reduce stigma and it helps people to talk and feel listened to and to acknowledge what’s happening to them.”

She was given medication and therapy to help her: “The two sort of standard treatments.”

The medication she was given had side effects for her, including weight gain.

She says medication has improved and now has fewer side effects but she says medication can be more effective if used with lifestyle changes, such as nutrients and mindfulness exercises.

“There’s quite a lot of work that shows the medication is more effective and in addition, if you are able to tailor it off, you can do that a little bit more quickly.”

Her GP suggested to her the idea of happy foods, which she says was a light bulb moment.

She teamed up with a nutritional therapist, Alice Macintosh, who is her co-author.

They looked at over 150 pieces of nutritional research.

“60 percent of our brain is made of fat and we need much more of the right kinds of healthy fat – most people have too much of the omega 6s and need more of the omega 3s.”

In Israel, she says, if you see a psychiatrist you see a nutritionist at the same time.

She says eating differently can have an impact on the brain in as little as one day.

“Carbonated drinks, refined sugars, aspartame and additives and processed meat and foods, if you can cut that out – and I’m not alone in this – I see differences, people will report a difference in their mood, even in one day.”

She says there are plenty of studies that show gut health can change in four or five days.

“The best antidepressants can take a couple of weeks, or more, to kick in.”

She says reducing sugar is really important for mental health.

“First, sugar feeds the less healthy bacteria… so that isn’t good, secondly it doesn’t help with energy because you get mood swings up and down, you get a sugar rush… and thirdly is around this inflammation of your gut.”

Kelly says the book doesn’t rule anything out but recommends variety as major benefit.

“Get your protein from a variety of sources, so yes get some from meat, fantastic, but get it from lentils, get it from beans, get it from fish, get it from a whole variety of sources because your stomach loves that and so does your brain.”

B vitamins and magnesium are good for anxiety, she says.

“Things like almonds, if you have them in your bag, dark chocolate’s another good one for magnesium.”

Check out Kelly's recipe for Chocolate Brazil Nut Brownies which she says are ideal for when you're feeling fragile.