Nutritional psychiatry – Commentary on Professor Jacka’s article regarding the links between ultra-processed foods and decreased brain health

Professor Felice Jacka was interviewed recently in the Guardian newspaper regarding her landmark work with the nascent field of “nutritional psychiatry”. The Australian-based scientist, who works out of her lab at the Food and Mood Centre, Deakin University, has been advocating regarding the link between ultra-processed food consumption and mental health.

Professor Jacka’s work emphasises the microbiota gut-brain axis, a bi-directional communication system connecting the enteric and central nervous systems (Appleton, 2018). Key mechanisms involved in most common mental illnesses are mediated via this axis, including altered blood glucose homeostasis and amino acid metabolism, changes to gene expression, immune system dysregulation and mitochondrial health and function. Interactions with the HPA axis, as well as other key axes, such as the HPT axis, HBA, and the HPG axis are also intertwined with this microbiota gut-brain axis. The team at the Food and Mood Centre have demonstrated through their research how ultra-processed foods impact on the composition of the gut microbiome, causing a cascade of changes to the aforementioned mechanisms, resulting in outcomes such as elevated cortisol levels,  increased systemic inflammation and morphological changes to the brain.

Key findings to date from Professor Jacka and her team have demonstrated that greater consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with increased incidence of depression and anxiety symptoms (Lane et al., 2022). The role of dietary quality in other complex mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar, has also been suggested in some of their recent research (Gabriel et al., 2023; Marx et al., 2017).

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Appleton J. (2018). The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 17(4), 28–32.

Gabriel, F. C., Oliveira, M., Bruna De M Martella, Berk, M., Brietzke, E., Jacka, F. N., & Lafer, B. (2023). Nutrition and bipolar disorder: a systematic review. Nutritional neuroscience, 26(7), 637–651.

Lane, M. M., Gamage, E., Travica, N., Dissanayaka, T., Ashtree, D. N., Gauci, S., Lotfaliany, M., O’Neil, A., Jacka, F. N., & Marx, W. (2022). Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Mental Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients, 14(13), 2568.

Marx, W., Moseley, G., Berk, M., & Jacka, F. (2017). Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 76(4), 427–436.

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