Nutrition is a highly underrated lifestyle factor which can markedly improve some mental health disorders.
Nutrition Impacts Your Mental Health for Better and Worse
We are swamped with so many claims about the latest greatest diet that it’s hard to know what to believe. Science has confirmed the positive effects of healthy nutrition on mental health beyond any doubt.
The Nutrition Journal published a paper showing that prevalence of mental health disorders has significantly increased in developed countries in correlation with the Western diet. Nutritional deficiencies were shown to correlate with the incidence of mental health problems. The most common nutritional deficiencies found in the Western Diet are iron, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium vitamin A, and magnesium.
B-complex vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, minerals, and amino acids that are the building blocks of the brain’s neurotransmitters that directly impact mental your health. The same paper reported that high consumption of fish and seafood was associated with a lower incidence of mental health disorders due to omega-3s.
According to the study, nutrition plays a significant role in:
- Depression – linked to deficiencies in Omega-3, B-complex vitamins, and magnesium.
- Bipolar disorder – up to 80% of bipolar people are deficient in some B vitamin, and most American patients have low levels of Omega-3. Taurine and vitamin C deficiencies have also been linked to the condition.
- Schizophrenia – Studies have shown the disorder to correlate with increased consumption of sugar. Better prognosis for schizophrenic patients is observed when living in countries or areas where high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids are consumed.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – Studies found that a supplement containing St. John’s Wort worked better than SSRI drugs to reduce recurring thoughts and compulsions.
Proper medical diagnosis and a clear understanding of treatment options should always be the first plan of action when treating mental disorders. Altering one’s diet and/or supplementation can be an important part of a treatment plan. New well-designed clinical studies are being published daily on the positive effects of nutritional and supplement therapies on all types of mental conditions.
What Nutrients Does Your Brain Need?
Preventing and correcting nutritional deficiencies can be an important step in improving and allowing people to effectively manage their mental health.
One study from Lancet Psychiatry confirmed that nutrition is a significant component of high prevalence common mental health disorders like depression. The quality of a person’s diet is a determining factor in both physical and mental health. The reason is simple; a human brain requires certain nutrients to function properly and stay healthy.
To perform optimally, your brain needs an adequate intake of key nutrients, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3, essential amino acids, B-group vitamins, vitamin D, and minerals like zinc, magnesium, and iron. Scientists have determined that the Mediterranean diet provides these essentials and benefits your mental health the most.
The Mediterranean diet is characterized by high consumption of omega-3s and is recommended for optimum heart and brain health. It’s not a classic diet where you eat certain foods for a couple of weeks and then stop. The Mediterranean diet works best when adopted as a way of life long-term. It has proven to have positive effects on depressive patients, studies show.
According to Dr. Sarah McKay in “Mediterranean Diet. The best diet for your healthy aging brain“:
The Mediterranean diet plan …
- extra-virgin olive oil as the main source of dietary fat
- lots of fruits, nuts, vegetables and pulses
- lots of fish and seafood
- some dairy products and red meat
- moderate intake of red wine (hooray!)
How Food Affects Your Emotions
Even though it’s a well-known fact that food plays a role in our overall health, the connection between nutrition and mood and mental health has not been very clear. Science is confirming that what you put in your mouth directly affects what goes on in your head– largely because of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, sleep, inhibits pain, and mediates mood. Up to 95% of serotonin is produced in a person’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Your GI tract is lined with millions of neurons and acts like “a brain” of sorts, called the enteric nervous system. This means that your digestive system can guide your emotions in the same way that brain centers regulate hunger, satiety, and other eating behaviors.
The function of your brain neurons are greatly influenced by the bacteria in your GI tract, called your microbiome – which can be both good and bad for you. A healthy balance of gut bacteria is necessary for a strong immune system and plays an important role in your overall physical and mental health. Studies are revealing how variations and changes in the composition of the microbiome influence physiology and contribute to diseases ranging from inflammation to obesity.
Foods To Avoid
Science has shown that mental disorders can be helped greatly by lifestyle habits. A healthy lifestyle characterized by regular physical activity and well-balanced diet can support management of symptoms associated with mental disorders. Some foods support your mental health, while others deteriorate it. The foods below are foods generally recommended to avoid in excess if you have mental health issues:
- Excessive caffeine – While studies show that caffeine can improve depression and increase some cognitive skills, too much caffeine contributes to anxiety and psychotic/manic mental health disorders.
- Alcohol – Alcohol can worsen underlying mental health conditions whether diagnosed or not.
- Sugar – High sugar intake is linked to low brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Low BDNF levels have been shown to correlate with depression and dementia and may be a critical factor in Alzheimer’s.
- Excess salt – Your cells need salt to function properly, but too much has been linked to cognitive decline.
- Trans fat – Trans fat has been linked to depression and heart disease.
- Fast food – Fast food is full of unhealthy ingredients referred to above, like trans fat, salt, and sugar. Also, the food fills you up but often lacks the essential nutrients your body and brain need.
Foods to Eat to Improve Your Mental Health
The Harvard article Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food explains it like this:
Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.
Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from “low-premium” fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them. Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.”
Foods that support mental health are going to be abundant in the nutrients your brain needs for optimal operation. Foods that help your brain are:
- Salmon and other fatty fish
- Whole grains
- Leafy greens
- Yogurt with active cultures
- Dark chocolate
- Seeds and nuts
The food you eat has a significant influence on every aspect of your physical and mental health. Science is showing that prevalence of mental health disorders correlates with nutritional deficiencies and increased popularity of the Western diet. On the other hand, a well-balanced diet abundant in different nutrients proves to be an effective management option for mental health conditions.
Although more research on this topic is necessary, one thing is for sure – nutrition is an important factor to consider in the management of your mental health.
Kathy Mitchell is a travel and beauty blogger. She likes to go out with friends, travel, swim and practice yoga. In her free time, you can find Kathy curled up reading her favorite novel, or writing in her journal. She is a regular contributor to ConsumerHealthDigest. You can find out more about Kathy by following her on Google+. Facebook, and Twitter.