Improving mental health through diet and exercise: simple strategies you can add into your daily routine

Improving mental health through diet and exercise simple strategies you can add into your daily routine image cover

This blog post has been written by William Cheong Sxe Chang, a student of Medicine at the University of Sheffield. William did a medical student placement at Minds Ahead to gain an understanding of mental health needs amongst children and young people in education.

In present times, the rapid rise in mental health conditions makes it ever more necessary for us to tackle this serious concern. You might be aware of the multitude of therapeutics facilities available for the treatment of mental health diseases. These intended treatments differ greatly from each other; with pharmacological treatment targeting at a cellular level, or cognitive behavioural therapy that helps mould the way we think and behave. By now, it’s evident that mental health encompasses our mind, behaviour, and thoughts. To address this comprehensively, a holistic treatment approach considering both biology and psychology is crucial. This blog aims to explore preventive measures at an individual level, enhancing mental well-being through focused discussions on the impact of diet—particularly fish oil—and exercise. 


Diet, neurotransmitters and the impact on our mental health 

The relationship between diet and mental health conditions is a complex one. Present research shows that a poor diet can increase the risk of developing worsening mental health. In some cases, poor diet can lead to comorbidities such as diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and obesity which in turn lead to poor mental well-being. Furthermore, a healthy diet can also prevent the rise of complex degenerative diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many more other diseases (“Healthy diet,” n.d.)! 


Happy molecules to support our mental health  

There are four important happy molecules that make us positive, this includes dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin (Watson, 2021). These are also called neurotransmitters, that carry messages across our cells, and they play an important role in regulating our behaviour, thinking and emotions. Dopamine is associated with rewards and motivation; whereas, serotonin is associated with happiness, focus, and calmness. 

A low amount of dopamine and serotonin can lead to depressed mood, fatigue, lack of motivation, brain fog, and difficulty with concentrating. Henceforth, antidepressants are a popular conventional treatment that works by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain (Belujon and Grace, 2017). 


Omega-3-fatty acids and well-being  

One of the most important foods is Omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that are not produced by the body and should be consumed through dietary means. There are three main types of Omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). ALA can be acquired mainly from plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. EPA and DHA are most commonly acquired from fishes and seafood. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for various bodily functions, such as healthy brain development, heart health, and reducing inflammation. Ultimately, omega-3 fatty acids have the ability to prevent or moderate various mental and psychiatric disorders such as depression and bipolar disorders (Nasir and Bloch, 2019). 

Omega-3 fatty acids also play a pivotal role in the synthesis and functioning of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to the production and maintenance of dopamine receptors in the brain, ensuring their proper functioning. Furthermore, Omega-3s aid in the facilitation of serotonin transmission by supporting the structural integrity of cell membranes in brain cells, allowing for efficient signaling and uptake of serotonin (Healy-Stoffel and Levant, 2018). 

The metabolism of Omega-3 fatty acids is complex. ALA is broken down in the body into DHA and EPA. DHA is crucial for infant brain development and is required for maintaining normal healthy brain function in adults. On the other hand, EPA is anti-inflammatory; in other words, it reduces inflammation in the body. A high level of inflammation has been associated with a higher risk of depression because it suppresses the production of serotonin in the brain (Lee and Giuliani, 2019). 

Unfortunately, the human body isn’t highly efficient in converting ALA into DHA and EPA. On average, only about 1-10% of ALA gets converted into EPA, and a mere 0.5-5% into DHA (Burdge, 2006). Moreover, this conversion process relies on cofactors—essential molecules and enzymes. These cofactors are vital for facilitating the conversion of ALA into EPA or DHA. Among these, zinc stands as an essential cofactor required for this conversion to occur. Without it, the body’s ability to convert ALA into EPA or DHA is hindered. 


The mental health benefits of exercise

Exercise is crucial to an individual’s overall well-being. Not only does it improve our physical health, but it also significantly reduces our chances of developing mental health problems. People who exercise infrequently are more likely to develop mental health issues compared to their more active peers (Smith and Merwin, 2021). 

Exercise boosts the release of dopamine and serotonin, leading to overall better mental well-being, a happier mood, increased concentration, and performance (“Exercise Boosts Dopamine Release, and this Requires Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor | NYU Langone Health,” n.d.). 

It is recommended that individuals exercise for at least 40-50 minutes a day. Aerobic exercises such as brisk walking or running can increase the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, while also suppressing the stress hormone cortisol (Heijnen et al., 2016). 

Other forms of exercise, such as weightlifting, have shown significant reductions in low mood, fatigue, and loss of motivation compared to their less active counterparts (“Lifting weights might lift your mood,” 2018). Moreover, weightlifting can strengthen the immune system, musculature, and bones, which can in turn prevent and slow down the progression of osteoporosis—a common age-related degenerative disease that causes thinning of the bone and leads to avoidable low-impact fractures.


Simply incorporating both aerobic exercise and weightlifting into your routine can provide tremendous benefits to both your physical and mental health. It is recommended to perform 3 days of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises and 2 days of weightlifting alternatively in a week, while also assigning a day for rest to avoid overtraining (Kim et al., 2019). 

Incorporating these straightforward approaches into your daily routine can yield numerous benefits. This article emphasises that poor mental health isn’t solely tied to our thoughts; factors like diet and exercise also wield a significant impact on our mental well-being.

Recognising and implementing these simple strategies can create a holistic approach to nurturing mental health. 

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Belujon, P., Grace, A.A., 2017. Dopamine System Dysregulation in Major Depressive Disorders. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology 20, 1036. 

Exercise Boosts Dopamine Release, and this Requires Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor | NYU Langone Health [WWW Document], n.d. URL al-club-2022-articles/exercise-boosts-dopamine-release-this-requires-bdnf (accessed 12.1.23). 

Healthy diet [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 12.1.23). Healy-Stoffel, M., Levant, B., 2018. N-3 (OMEGA-3) FATTY ACIDS: EFFECTS ON BRAIN DOPAMINE SYSTEMS AND POTENTIAL ROLE IN THE ETIOLOGY AND TREATMENT OF NEUROPSYCHIATRIC DISORDERS. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets 17, 216–232. Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., Colzato, L.S., 2016. Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise—A Review. Front Psychol 6, 1890. 

Kim, Y., Lai, B., Mehta, T., Thirumalai, M., Padalabalanarayanan, S., Rimmer, J.H., Motl, R.W., 2019. Exercise training guidelines for multiple sclerosis, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease: Rapid review and synthesis. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 98, 613–621. 

Lifting weights might lift your mood [WWW Document], 2018. . Harvard Health. URL (accessed 12.1.23). 

Smith, P.J., Merwin, R.M., 2021. The Role of Exercise in Management of Mental Health Disorders: An Integrative Review. Annu Rev Med 72, 45–62. 

Watson, S., 2021. Feel-good hormones: How they affect your mind, mood and body [WWW Document]. Harvard Health. URL your-mind-mood-and-body (accessed 12.1.23).