The link between milk and mental wellbeing  


What makes milk so special? It’s not only naturally nutrient-dense and delicious, it also contains a unique combination of fats that help to give milk its creaminess.

Milk fat is one of the most complex naturally-occurring fats, with more than 400 different fatty acids, including a range of phospholipids that are located on the milk fat globule membrane (MFGM). Phospholipids in the human body have a role to play in supporting healthy cognitive processes at every stage of life.  

Researchers have been investigating the link between milk fats and mental health, and initial studies are discovering that milk phospholipids could promote mental fitness and mood throughout our lifespan.

Milk fat supplements may reduce stress in healthy adults

In 2022, a team of researchers set out to get a better understanding of how phospholipids could support mental health. The team comprised of experts from the University of Auckland, the University of Otago, Fonterra and Nutiani, recruited 122 healthy New Zealand adults to see what impact MFGM supplements might have on their stress scores. 

Participants in
the Empower study received a daily supplement of either 1,200mg of MFGM, 600mg of MFGM, or a placebo. It was a randomised controlled trial, so neither researchers nor participants knew which group a participant was assigned to. Each participant was also given a questionnaire that asked them about their sleep quality and how they felt about their wellbeing. 

After six weeks, the people who received MFGM had significantly lower stress scores than the placebo group. In addition, there was a strong suggestion that the MFGM had also reduced participant’s anxiety.

There seems to be a positive impact of milk phospholipids on performance under stress, so this is a really beneficial nutrient you can get from milk.

Dr Maher Faud, Health and Nutrition Science Manager, fonterrA

“There has been a lot of research into the effect of milk phospholipids on cognition and mental health and wellbeing,” says Dr Maher Fuad, Health and Nutrition Science Manager at Fonterra, one of the researchers responsible for the study. 

“There are some indications that milk phospholipids can change the structure of the brain, specifically in areas related to mood. There are other indications that it changes the neurotransmitters in the brain. There seems to be a positive impact of milk phospholipids on performance under stress, so this is a really beneficial nutrient you can get from milk.” 

A growing body of research on milk and mood

Mental health is a vitally important area of research, and scientists now have improved knowledge of the way diet can influence our mood. For example, the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of depression, and probiotics have been found to lower stress levels among students studying for exams. 

“Recently I finished work on a clinical trial in the US where we used our own
HN001 probiotic,” says Fuad. “The results indicate that people on this probiotic strain had a more positive mood and an increase in happiness, as well as a reduction in stress. But it’s important to stress that this was over time – it takes time to get the full results from dietary changes.” 

Dr Maher Fuad, Health and Nutrition Science Manager at Fonterra

The work of Fuad and his collaborators builds on earlier work linking phospholipids to improved cognitive function and wellbeing. For example, a study of young children consuming infant formula enriched with phospholipids has been associated with improved cognitive function, while another trial found that infants who received formula enriched with phospholipids had higher cognitive function at school age than infants fed with standard formula.

MFGM may also
support cognitive function among preschool children. One study found that parents reported improved behaviour regulation among children who consumed follow-on formula enriched with milk phospholipids compared to standard formula. 

In adults, supplementation with milk phospholipids has been linked to
better cognitive performance on memory tests, and improved cognitive performance under stress. And in the older population, phospholipids are linked to reduced cognitive decline. In a study of around 500 elderly patients experiencing moderate to severe cognitive decline, supplementation with a specific phospholipid resulted in improvements in behaviour and cognitive performance.

Fat and stress – we need a little bit of the right types

Fat has had a bad reputation among the general public for many years as a cause of weight gain and obesity and negatively impacting our heart health. Fuad says he’s happy to see that in recent years dietary fat is beginning to lose this stigma, as more people begin to realise the value of ‘good’ fats in a healthy diet. 

“If you take a healthy balanced diet, including fat is not necessarily detrimental to health. Different types of fats may have a positive impact on health in general, with milk phospholipids linked to better psychological outcomes.”

Stress, too, has a reputation for being almost entirely negative. But some stress can have
positive effects on our immune system, and moderate stress levels may be better than low stress levels for academic achievement

One aspect of
the Empower study that Fuad found particularly interesting was that participants didn’t report a reduction in stressors, but felt they were doing a better job of managing their usual level of stress.

“We human beings can’t function without stress. It enables us to perform, so we need a certain optimal amount of ‘good’ stress. If you can manage your stress better, you might be able to handle more, and that could result in improved performance. Of course, we will need to test this theory, but it gives us a hint for the future that could lead us to further studies.”

Fuad feels a personal connection to his research and is excited to be finding ways to support people in coping with stress.

“I was raised in Iraq during a war, followed by sanctions, followed by another war. From the 1980s onward life was very stressful, and people really struggled with mental health,” says Fuad. “Mental health is a complex topic with many aspects to it. Diet is just one of those aspects. Connectedness in society also buffers you from stress, and genetics have a role to play. It’s important to tackle mental wellbeing from different angles, because what works for you might not work for me. A holistic approach is always the best."