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Food, drink and mental health

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Eating a balanced diet and drinking lots of water is important for your mental health.
  • Living with overweight or obesity can affect your mental health.
  • Healthy eating and sleep habits can help your mental health.
  • Alcohol and caffeine use can affect your mental health.
  • You are not alone — there is support and many resources available to help you improve your mental health.

What foods and drinks can affect my mental health?

The foods you eat and what you drink affect all aspects of your health — including your mental health. It is important for everyone to eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water and keep an eye on their intake of alcohol and caffeine. If you have mental health challenges, this is even more important because:

  • eating and drinking healthily may improve your mental health
  • unhealthy eating and drinking habits can make symptoms worse
  • some foods, caffeine and alcohol can affect medicines used to treat mental health disorders

Food

There is some evidence that:

  • A healthy diet (high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes; some amounts of chicken, eggs, and dairy foods; and rarely, red meat) is linked to a reduced risk of depression.
  • Omega-3 fats can help your mental health. These are found in oily fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, perch, herring and sardines, and in smaller amounts in white fish such as cod, bass, haddock and snapper. Eating 2 to 3 meals a week of oily fish will provide you with enough omega-3.
  • Diets high in refined carbohydrates (such as snack foods) can increase the risk of symptoms of depression.

Some other foods that have positive affect on your mental health are:

  • Eggs for brain function, development, memory and learning.
  • Avocados for brain health and healthy blood flow.
  • Blueberries to prevent age-related memory loss, improve movement and thinking.

Try not to eat or drink refined carbohydrates such as biscuits, chips, lollies, white bread and soft drink or juice because they can raise your blood sugar levels too quickly.

Some foods affect medicines used to treat mental health disorders. These include:

  • Foods that have 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 take a type of antidepressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).
  • Grapefruit and grapefruit juice can affect some medicines that are taken for mental health disorders.
  • You should limit your salt intake if you take a medicine called lithium — salt can significantly change the level of lithium in your blood, and place you at risk of overdose.

Supplements

Supplements can sometimes be helpful but always check with your doctor before you take a new supplement, or change your dose. Supplements can have side effects and some may interact with medicines for mental health disorders. For example, St John’s Wort can be dangerous if taken with some antidepressant medicines.

Talk to your doctor, pharmacist or dietitian before taking supplements and always tell them what medicines and supplements you are taking.

Water

For good mental health, it is important to drink plenty of water. You need water 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 your mental performance.

Learn more about the importance of hydration and drinking water.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant. While it can make you feel good in the short term, drinking too much alcohol can affect your mental and physical health.

In the short term, drinking a large amount of alcohol (binge drinking) can impair your judgment or cause you to harm yourself or others by accident or on purpose.

Long-term use of alcohol increases the risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. 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 so can also affect mental health. It can make you feel drowsy and help you fall asleep, but often negatively affects your sleep quality during the second half of the night.

Alcohol can interfere with how well some medicines work and increase their side effects such as drowsiness and dizziness.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that works on the brain and nervous system. It is found in coffee, most teas, cocoa, chocolate, cola, guarana and energy drinks.

The effects depend on the person, how much you’ve had and when you use it. Caffeine can increase anxiety, make you urinate (wee) more, and change sleep patterns in some people, especially if you take it too close to bedtime.

Caffeine is addictive, and many regular coffee drinkers become dependent on it and can have withdrawal symptoms if they cut down quickly or stop using it. Symptoms include not being able to concentrate, feeling irritable and tiredness.

Caffeine can also interact with some medicines used to treat mental illness, so check with your doctor if you drink large amounts of drinks that contain caffeine.

How are food and drink, health conditions, and mental health connected?

We do not know exactly why diet affects your mental health, but it could be due to physical health changes in blood glucose (sugar) levels, inflammation, or effects on the microorganisms that live in the gut (known as microbiome). Eating well also prevents some chronic diseases like diabetes, which also affect mental health.

Living with overweight or obesity can contribute to mental health disorders, and some medicines for mental illness also cause weight gain. If you have a high body mass index (BMI) losing weight through better nutrition and exercise can improve mental health.

Eating habits can also affect sleep, and in this way also your mental health. Try to have your main meal around 2 to 3 hours before going to bed.

How can I improve my eating and drinking habits?

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

Some people with mental health conditions might have more difficulty than others if they have:

  • lack of motivation
  • loss of appetite, or comfort eating
  • use drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy
  • have irregular meals
  • a lack of social support or feel isolated
  • financial insecurity

Tips for eating well for your mental health

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

  • Mindful eating: If you concentrate on what you’re eating, may find you eat more healthily. For example, people who eat while watching television tend to eat too much at one sitting. Practising mindfulness and being aware of what you are doing has its own benefits.
  • Healthy food swaps: It can sometimes be easier to make small changes than big ones. They’re more likely to stick. For example, you can swap white breads for wholegrain breads; white rice for brown rice or other grains like quinoa; swap red meat for chicken, fish or tofu.
  • Adding legumes to your diet like lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans.
  • Including gut-healthy foods: Healthy gut bacteria affect your metabolism, weight and brain function.
  • Choosing healthier fats like those found in nuts and seeds, avocado, salmon and olive oil.
  • Going easy on yourself: Change doesn't usually happen overnight. Take small steps to improve your food and drink intake, make changes and practise positive self-talk.

Some of those changes will be easy, others will be harder. You’ll stick with some, and not stick with others. You can gradually take on new healthy eating challenges. In time, they will become healthy eating habits that come naturally.

When should I see a doctor or dietitian?

If you are struggling with your mental health, you should speak with your doctor. If you are finding it hard to make good changes to your diet that are linked with positive mental health and would like advice from a professional that is suited to you and your situation a dietitian can help you meet your needs.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

For support with eating more healthily, you can visit:

For support to cut down on alcohol you can visit one of the following organisations:

  • Department of Health — for advice on reducing and quitting alcohol.
  • Beyond Blue — for information on how drugs and alcohol can affect how your mind and body work.
  • National Alcohol and Other Drugs Hotline — call 1800 250 015 for free, confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs.
  • Counselling online — for free, confidential professional support if you’re affected by alcohol or drugs, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous — call 1300 222 222 for information on recovery programs for people having trouble with alcohol use.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023


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