Diet and Exercise – Why can it be beneficial for our mental health and well-being?

by | 11 Jul 22 | Body

A lot of us know the physical benefits of a healthy diet and regular exercise, but we still seem to be lacking in the knowledge and understanding of just how beneficial these are to our mental health and wellbeing. Let’s have a look at some of these benefits and see what changes we can make TODAY to help improve our emotional wellbeing and mental capacity.

Firstly, let me tell you a little about inflammation and how in the last few years scientists have realised just how much of an effect it can have on our mental health. Brain states that produce mental illness tend to activate inflammation and inflammation is equally capable of producing depression, anxiety, fatigue, and social withdrawal.


Eating a healthy, balanced, or ‘clean’ diet can help improve overall health, mood and energy levels, whilst eating a diet high in processed food or refined sugars impairs brain function and worsens symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. Let’s see why:

Your brain needs fuel in order to function, just like your body, and good quality fuel helps to keep everything running well and effectively, by nourishing the brain and protecting the cells from damage such as oxidative stress – this includes foods full of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants as well as complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids/proteins, and water, which can support healthy brain activity.

If you only consume poor-quality fuel such as refined sugars and processed foods, damage is caused to the brain tissue, encouraging inflammation and oxidative stress. Saturated fats also harm the brain by preventing the conversion of other foods into nutrients your brain needs. Oxidants, or oxidative stress, have been shown to negatively impact mood and mental health.

Those that eat ‘Traditional’ diets, like the Mediterranean, and Japanese, (high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood, with modest amounts of lean meat and dairy) as well as the Arctic and Sub-Arctic diets (high in essential fatty acids), have been shown to be at 25%-35% less risk of depression than those consuming a typical ‘Western’ diet (high in processed foods and refined sugars). Also, many of their unprocessed foods are fermented so act as natural probiotics, helping manage the level of inflammation throughout their bodies as well as mood and energy levels. Diets high in essential fatty acids and low in saturated fats also slow the progression of memory loss and other cognitive problems.

Serotonin is the key chemical that stabilises our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness, whilst also helping with sleep and appetite. Interestingly, 95% of it is produced in the gastrointestinal tract which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells which are highly influenced by the billions of good bacteria in your intestines. These good bacteria protect against bad bacteria and toxins, limit inflammation, improve nutritional absorption from food, and activate neural pathways between the gut and brain, improving your mood and energy levels. Restoring bacterial balance in the gut can be achieved through probiotics and fasting.

During fasting there is an increase in a self-cleansing process in cells called autophagy which is where damaged and dangerous parts of cells are removed or repaired. Both fasting and autophagy are shown to reduce inflammation which as we’ve heard, benefits our mental health.


Exercise is beneficial for all aspects of health, to a degree, and is often advised and even prescribed at times for those struggling with mental health issues because of all of the benefits that come from partaking in it. Let’s take a look at some:

When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These interact with receptors in your brain to relieve your perception of pain or stress, as well as triggering a positive ‘high’ in the body, like that of morphine. Through exercise, they relieve tension and stress, boost physical and mental energy, and enhance well-being. They help concentration also. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.

Endorphins aren’t the only neurotransmitters released during physical activity though: Exercise also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and one we’ve already looked at, serotonin. These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood. For example, regular moderate exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in your brain, raising your levels meaning a boost in your mood and overall sense of well-being as well as helping improve your appetite and sleep cycles; Dopamine is an important chemical messenger involved in how we feel pleasure, reward, motivation, memory, attention and even regulating body movements; Norepinephrine helps provide more energy to the body.

Regular moderate exercise can help boost your immune system and reduce the impact of stress. By adding mindfulness to your activity, and focussing on your movements, your breathing, how your body feels as you exercise, you can also interrupt or distract from upsetting or distressing thoughts.

When regular exercise becomes a habit, it can cultivate your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You’ll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement. It can also help you build resilience and cope with mental or emotional life challenges in a healthy way, instead of resorting to negative habits or behaviors that ultimately only make things worse.

Exercising with others has even more benefits than working out alone! There’s the social aspect of a shared experience and meeting new friends; Having extra, external motivation to help you push through when you’re struggling; Increasing your performance by ensuring you don’t miss a class or break the habit; Actually releasing more endorphins – yes that’s right! We tend to have more fun when exercising with others and smile more, and you guessed it, smiling increases endorphin levels! That also then helps you feel better when pushing yourself harder during that activity and you’ll complete it feeling more energised!

Overall benefits of a clean diet and regular exercise

  • Alleviates symptoms of anxiety, depression, and many other mental health issues
  • Increases cognitive function – focus, memory, thinking
  • Increases energy levels Promotes better sleep
  • Improves self-esteem and emotional well-being

How can we personally reap these benefits?

Start TODAY – don’t put off until tomorrow something which you can do today.
Set yourself small, achievable, goals, and feel the mental rewards every time you cross one off.
Introduce probiotics into your diet – a healthy gut = a healthy you.
Increase intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood.
Limit consumption of processed foods, refined sugars, and saturated fats.
Look into Intermittent Fasting
Find a physical activity you enjoy and plan it into your diary – join a gym, find a sports club, download an exercise app, or if you really can’t think of anything you enjoy, go for a brisk walk. Even start with 5-10 minutes a day, every day and aim to build up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 times a week.

Join a group – a dance class, a running group, a gym, yoga, or a pilates class. If you would feel more comfortable with people you know, find a friend or 2 or 3 who would be willing to go on the health journey with you. It has been proved 20% more likely for those who started a weight-loss program with friends, to complete it, rather than doing it alone, plus the friend group is also way more likely to maintain their weight loss.

Pay attention to how you feel after eating different foods, not just immediately, but even the 24-48 hours after. If you want to really establish how foods make you feel then try eating “clean” for a couple of weeks (cutting out all processed foods and refined sugars), monitor how you feel, then reintroduce foods back into your diet slowly and see how you feel after each reintroduction. You may just surprise yourself!

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