Mental health problems are on the rise. Yet there is growing evidence that the food we eat may be a vital ingredient to help us feel better. Is it now a case that not only you are what you eat, but you also think how you eat?

1. Fermented foods

Unpasteurised sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, blue cheese, live yoghurt, miso, tempeh, fermented pickles and kombucha all help to boost the diversity of beneficial microbes in our gut.

While we still have a lot to learn about the effect of the gut microbiome on the brain and mental health, animal studies indicate that the bugs in our guts can influence everything from anxiety to the structure of our brains, and a diverse gut microbiome is supportive of overall health.

Bowl of kimchi
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2. Tea, coffee and dark chocolate

These are rich in polyphenols, which can enhance the elasticity of blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely. In the gut, polyphenols are converted into phenolic acids, which have a protective effect on brain cells.

Tea has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve memory and attention. Caffeine boosts the levels of an enzyme in the brain that has been shown to protect against dementia. And there is evidence that dark chocolate can increase blood flow to the brain and improve working memory and visual function.

3. Leafy greens

Chard, kale, cabbage, spinach, watercress and rocket are abundant in various nutrients like beta carotene, folate, vitamin K and magnesium, which are involved in the function of the brain and nervous system. Consequently, eating lots of leafy green vegetables is linked to slower brain ageing, better memory and reduced dementia risk.

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4. Raw, unsalted nuts

Nuts like almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios and walnuts are valuable sources of polyphenols. When these are digested by our gut microbes, they produce phenolic acids that protect the brain by reducing inflammation and oxidation.

They also help to improve how brain cells communicate, and promote formation of new brain cells. Nuts are a good source of vitamin E, which has been consistently linked with better memory function in old age.

Bowl of berries
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5. Berries

Berries increase the production of a compound that supports the survival of brain cells, with beneficial cognitive outcomes such as improved attention and short-term memory.

6. Beans and wholegrains

These foods are rich in fibre. When microbes in the gut break down fibre, one of the by-products is a group of compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs keep the gut barrier healthy and protect the brain from inflammation and oxidative stress. According to the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey, only 9 per cent of UK adults aged 19 to 64 consume enough fibre.

7. Seafood and seaweed

These provide a range of nutrients that are beneficial for supporting the brain’s antioxidant capacity. Seaweed and seafood also contain iodine, which is critical for brain development of the baby during pregnancy.

8. Oily fish

Fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout, herring and sardines are full of omega-3. Omega-3 fats are irreplaceable when it comes to healthy brain structure and function.

Evidence suggests they may be beneficial for those with mild cognitive impairment and depression. We must obtain omega-3 fats through the diet, which can be achieved by eating one or two portions of oily fish per week, or taking a DHA/EPA supplement.

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Kimberley WilsonNutritionist & Chartered Psychologist

Kimberley Wilson is a Chartered Psychologist and visiting lecturer working in private practice in central London. She is a Governor of the Tavistock & Portman NHS Mental Health Trust and the former Chair of the British Psychological Society's Training Committee in Counselling Psychology. She formerly led the therapy service at HMP & YOI Holloway, which at the time was Europe’s largest women’s prison (closed summer 2016). A former finalist on the Great British Bake Off and an award-winning food producer with a degree in nutrition, Kimberley's work looks at the role food and lifestyle plays in our mental health, including disordered eating, the gut-brain axis and our emotional relationship with food.