Dietary intake in relation to perceived psychological distress

What is psychological distress?

Psychological distress is a general term that is used to describe unpleasant feelings or emotions that impact the level of functioning. The term “distress” is frequently used to describe patient discomfort related to signs and symptoms of acute or chronic illness. Psychological distress does not only result in negative views of the environment, it can also affect others and the self too. Besides that, signs and symptoms of psychological illness can be varying, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors.

Prevalence of psychological distress in Malaysia

According to National Health Morbidity published in 2019, it showed 2.3% (about half a million people) of the population in Malaysia are having depression problems. It was found that mental health service is solely lacking in Malaysia as many hospital treatments focus more on symptom remission, but not provide extended care to ensure the patients can reintegrate into society. In fact, in order to achieve general health, an individual should maximize the capability of using cognitive and affective abilities psychological health.

Association of dietary intake with psychological distress 

Nutrition plays an important role in prevention, development and management of diagnosed psychological problems. 



Firstly, there is a positive association between complex carbohydrate intake and psychological distress. Complex carbohydrate helps to increase healthy gut bacteria that is associated in regulating mood and mental disorder. Besides that, it is important to eat an appropriate amount of complex carbohydrate as inadequate intake can cause the increase of cortisol level and cause lethargy and irritation. A diet rich in whole grain foods such as wheat, brown rice, millet and oats helps to develop a healthy nervous system and thus beneficially influence on overall mental health status.


Proteins are an essential nutrient required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters.  Foods rich in high quality protein can be found in meats, milk, eggs, beans, peas, and grains. The protein rich foods help increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain which directly affect brain functioning and mental health. Based on previous studies, low levels of these neurotransmitters is the main cause of low mood and aggression. 

Omega 3 Fatty Acid

Omega 3 fatty acid, especially alpha linolenic acid, ALA shows effectiveness in balancing plasma cholesterol level and decreasing depression. Besides that, sufficient intake of long chain PUFA, especially DHA can prevent the acceleration of cerebral aging. Therefore, a diet including good fats and oil can lower risk of getting mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, sleep trouble and aggressive behavior.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are vital to health development and are strongly associated with psychological problems. Vitamin B1 (thiamine) can be found in foods such as beef, nuts, oats, eggs, yeast, nuts and seeds is important in balancing blood sugar level, which helps to suppress depression and stabilize mood. Besides that, vitamin B-12 plays a vital role in synthesizing and metabolizing serotonin and helps to prevent nerve damage and impaired brain function such as dementia and brain atrophy. Moreover, Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, not only has an impact on bone health related problems but deficiency of this vitamin has a potential to activate receptors in brain cells and has a direct impact on the central nervous system to cause negative emotion. Apart from vitamins, minerals deficiencies especially in iron, copper, magnesium and zinc have profound effects on metabolism and tissue structure in the body. Thus, it can also result impair mental function, such as nervousness, restlessness, unsteadiness and easily fatigue.

Figure 1.1 Graph displaying the anxiety score among students with poor eating habit in different faculties


Dietary intake plays an important role in psychological health problems. It is suggested more intervention can be planned and conducted on the association between psychological distress and dietary intake. At the same time, it is important to understand that the causes of psychological distress are many and varied. Thus, future research is needed to understand the potential connections between food and mental well being.