May is Mental Health Month! In observance, we thought we’d share some of the most recent findings about how diet affects mental health.
Depression, anxiety and other common mental health conditions are largely treated with pharmacotherapy and behavioral therapy. Prescribed medications often come with unwanted side-effects. But what if there were preventative and alternative treatments for debilitating mental health conditions, without such adverse effects? Developments in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry are making progress.
Within the field, scientists have found some intriguing associations between diet, inflammation, oxidative stress, the gut micro-biome, epigenetic modifications, neuroplasticity, and mental health.
Diet & Depression
Diet-quality has long been associated with chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain forms of cancer. The link between diet and mental health conditions such as depression is a relatively new discovery, though.
A 2017 randomized controlled study published in the journal BMC Medicine, called The SMILES trial, found that people with moderate to severe depression can significantly improve their condition with diet.
It’s the first study of its kind to actually prove that diet can treat depression successfully. In the study, 32% of people on a healthier diet (a modified Mediterranean diet) decreased their symptoms of depression so low that they no longer met the criteria for diagnosed depression! This is a significant finding, because it proves that mental health can be regulated and treated by changing what you eat.
Sugar, Inflammation & Mental Health
Sugar and refined carbohydrates can have some seriously detrimental effects on the brain over time. High sugar intake has been associated with an increased risk of chronic inflammation associated with mental illnesses, along with cognition, mood, depression and anxiety.
Inflammation is an important process that the body uses to heal naturally. Normal inflammation is the result of a healthy immune system. Chronic, or persistent inflammation can lead to cell damage and increased risk of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
In addition to inflammation, sugar can have a negative effect on brain functions in multiple ways. Too much sugar intake has been linked to brain atrophy, or shrinkage, and loss of memory. A 2002 animal study linked a high fat, refined sugar diet to reduced cognitive functioning, memory and learning.
Gut Health & Serotonin
Did you know that approximately 95% of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, pain, appetite, and sleep, is produced in your gastrointestinal tract?
That means your gut actually has significant influence on your emotions and mental state. That “feeling something in your gut” saying isn’t just an empty expression afterall.
How can you achieve a healthier gut? You need “good bacteria” (from foods like yogurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha and apple cider vinegar), and less “bad bacteria” (processed foods). Probiotics (a supplement containing live bacteria) can positively influence your gut microbiome if you’re just not that into kraut.
Fruits and Vegetables & Overall Well-Being, Creativity, Curiosity, and Positivity
A recent study released in the British Journal of Health Psychology looked at 405 participants and how what they ate affected their daily moods and behaviors — specifically, whether fruit and vegetable consumption had any impact. Over a period of 13 days, the participants reported what they consumed and how they felt overall.
In particular, the researchers were looking at something called eudaemonic well-being, “a state of flourishing characterized by feelings of engagement, meaning, and purpose in life.”
In their findings, the researchers reported that greater well-being, creativity, curiosity, and positivity was present in the individuals who reported consuming higher amounts of fruits and vegetables. Ultimately (although specifics on the reasoning of the findings were not examined in this study), it was concluded that eating fruits and vegetables may indeed be a causal factor in the promotion of creativity, curiosity, positivity, and overall happiness in life!
Age, Diet and Mental Health
In addition to the findings above, the topic becomes even more complex when you consider someone’s age.
For example, one study found that dietary factors influence mental health in young adults (18-29) and mature adults (30+) differently. Referring to the study, The Guardian reported that young adults who consumed fast food more than three times each week had uniquely higher levels of mental distress.
This could be related to the link between increased depression and anxiety with pro-inflammatory foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. The results suggest that at various times in our life, different foods might have a different impact on our mental state.
The Indirect Mental Health Effects of a Good Diet
There are also indirect effects of eating a healthier diet. That is, when you improve your physical health through better nutrition, you more reason to feel good about yourself.
Physically becoming healthier through your diet can help you:
- Feel more positive — “I set a goal, and I achieved it.”
- Reduce stress — The constant pressure to eat better is gone — you’re doing it!
- Boost your confidence — Eating healthy and managing your weight helps you look and feel your best.
- Have more energy — You’ll feel less weighed down and bloated from junk food.
- Reduce worry & guilt — The continuous remorse for not taking better care of your physical health can be forgotten. You’re taking charge of your health.
- Increase self-reliance — You know you count on yourself to improve your own circumstances, and that feels good.
Try It for Yourself!
Improving your diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean grass-fed meats certainly won’t do you wrong. Try eating healthier for a few weeks or months and see how it makes you feel. And then you can see for yourself whether the above claims may be founded in truth — whether eating healthier gives you a clearer mind, makes you feel better, and helps sweep your worries and anxiety away.