Most of us are familiar with the fact that our diets affect our physical health but have we ever asked ourselves “how does diet affect mental health”?
If what we put into our bodies has such a profound effect physically, why can’t’ it affect our brain and how it functions.
Nutrition is actually important for total body health and that includes our brain function and emotions.
We have all heard the saying, “Garbage in equals garbage out”.
I’d say that pretty much sums it up.
Let’s see what science has to say about this topic.
Ways Diet affects mental health
Your brain is constantly “on”, 24/7, even when you sleep your brain is still hard at work.
It stands to reason that the brain would require a constant supply of energy in order to carry out its many functions.
Just like an expensive car, performs best when supplied with premium fuel, your brain requires a nutritional diet.
More and more research is finding that a nutritious diet isn’t just good for the body, it is good for the brain too.
According to psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant clinical professor at Columbia University, “Diet is potentially the most powerful intervention available. By helping patients shape their diets, we can improve their mental health decreasing the risk of psychiatric disorders”.
Did you know that 1 in 4 Americans and 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer some type of mental illness each year and that depression is the second leading cause of disability after heart disease?
What’s worse is that it doesn’t just affect adults. Half of all long-term mental disorders begin by age 14.
Recent studies have shown that the risk of depression increases 80% when you compare teens with the lowest quality diet (what is known as the Western diet) to those who eat a high-quality whole foods diet. The risk of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) also increases.
There is even some interest in the possibility of food allergies being linked to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
We really are what we eat as the saying goes.
When we eat real, whole food that nourishes us it ensures we can build the enzymes, brain tissue and neurotransmitters required to transfer signals and information from various parts of the brain to the body.
Of course, when we load up on pop and chips we are NOT giving our brain or body what they need to function properly.
Yet when we are feeling anxious or depressed that is what we crave, very counter-intuitive.
A diet rich in omega 3’s and zinc may cause a change in brain protein helping to increase connections between brain cells.
This is important through all stages of life.
However, a diet high in saturated fats and sugar can have a very negative impact on brain proteins.
Fills gut with healthy bacteria
Trillions of good, beneficial bacteria live in the gut. Their role is to fight off harmful bacteria and keep your immune system at its’ peak.
Some gut bacteria even make brain-powering B-vitamins.
Food that contains beneficial bacteria (probiotics) helps maintain a healthy gut environment. A healthier gut will decrease inflammation, this, in turn, affects mood and cognition.
A diet that is high-fat or high-sugar is bad for the gut and brain health. Some research even suggests that a high-sugar diet worsens symptoms, as well as increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Nutrition and the brain
It is believed that certain foods may play a role in causing mental disorders or in making symptoms worse.
A brain-healthy diet follows the same principles as a heart-healthy or weight loss plan.
It is important to limit high-fat and high sugar food.
Instead, eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil or avocado, and whole grains.
In other words, why not follow the Mediterranean Diet or something very close to it.
It is an ideal diet for optimal physical and mental health.
Recent large European studies have shown that this diet may help prevent not just treat symptoms of depression.
The trick is to select whole foods that pack maximum nutrition with the least amount of calories.
These nutrients might be particularly effective against mental disorders:
People with low B-12 levels show more brain inflammation as well as higher rates of depression and dementia. Low folate also creates a low mood.
Low iron has been linked to depression
These healthy fatty acids are known to improve thinking, memory and possibly mood.
Zinc affects our ability to react to stress. Zinc can be found in oysters and mussels.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt with live cultures provide good gut bacteria and may help reduce anxiety.
Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain
Always work with your doctors and take any medication as prescribed.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet will not only help improve your mood but may also help your medications work more efficiently.
Be sure to discuss with your doctor what you should eat, not just what you shouldn’t.
Hopefully, in the near future a simple, 5-minute nutrition analysis will become a part of every psychiatric visit.
How you can manage your mood through food
Eating regularly is important because if your blood sugar drops you may feel tired, irritable and depressed.
Blood sugars can be kept more stable by eating regularly and consuming healthy foods that slowly release energy over time. This is true for diabetics and non-diabetics alike, we all have blood sugar fluctuations. It is much more severe in diabetics.
Slow-release foods would include:
- whole-grain bread
A few tips to help make it easier
- start your day right with a healthy breakfast
- try eating smaller portions spaced more regularly rather than a large lunch and dinner
- avoid sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks and alcohol as they make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly
Not drinking enough can make it more difficult to think or concentrate.
You may also get constipated which never feels good.
Try to drink between 6-8 glasses each day.
Tea, coffee, juices and smoothies all count towards your fluid intake. Just beware that these may contain caffeine or sugar that may be counter-intuitive.
Fruit and veggies
Fruit and vegetables contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and fibre that is essential to our physical and mental health.
You will certainly increase the range of vitamins and minerals you receive each day by choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables.
If you choose a rainbow of colours you are more likely to be consuming a wider range of nutrients. It also looks more appealing which makes it more appetizing.
You can opt for fresh, frozen, tinned or juiced and they all count towards your daily intake.
Sometimes, our gut health is reflected in how we feel.
When you are stressed or anxious, your gut slows down (constipation) or speeds up (diarrhea).
When you change your eating patterns it may take your gut a few days to adjust so give it time.
Make changes gradually.
If you are feeling stressed and believe it is affecting your gut try doing some relaxing breathing exercises.
Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemical your brain needs to regulate your mood.
It also helps keep you full longer so is an important part of any weight management plan.
Protein can be found in a variety of foods such as lean meat, fish, eggs, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds.
Your brain needs fatty acids such as omega-3 and 6 to help keep it functioning well.
Healthy fats include oily fish, poultry, nuts (walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (sunflower and pumpkin), avocados, milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs.
Avoid trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils, this will not be good for your mood in the long-haul.
Caffeine is a stimulant. This means it will likely give you a quick burst of energy followed by feeling anxious, depressed and may disturb your sleep or even cause withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop.
You will find caffeine in tea, coffee, chocolate, cola and other manufactured energy drinks.
How does diet affect mental health?
There is increasing evidence that a healthy, well-balanced diet affects both our physical and mental health.
Our diet affects our brain’s growth, development and mood.
Feeding it the highest amount of nutrients with the lowest calories is a significant part of any weight management plan.
When our blood sugars drop we may feel cranky, irritable and depressed.
To avoid this, eat smaller portions of a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables frequently throughout the day.
Ensure you eat a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables each day, as in the Mediterranean Diet, in order to get a wide variety of essential vitamins and minerals.
I am not in any way a medical practitioner, please do not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. We only share our experiences. We are affiliates, this means that if you purchase something from a link or ad on this site we may receive a small commission. This in no way affects the price you pay,
Were you aware of the fact that diet affects our mental health?
What diet do you follow?
Leave your comments or suggestions in the comment section below.