Hungry? Beware – reaching for the chips or soda could be at the root of your mental health. After all, we really are what we eat. As it turns out, recent studies have shown that diet and mental health are more closely linked than we realize.
“A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” says Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.”
Mental health conditions are more common than you think in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point during their lives. As of 2018, “mental illnesses, such as depression, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the United States for those aged 18-44 years old.”
These alarming statistics, coupled with the fact that the Western diet is often filled with junk food, made scientists wonder if the two were linked. Does nutrition affect the brain as much as it does the body? To find out, about ten years ago, researchers began to look into the relationship between diet and mental health.
The last decade of study has shown that, “the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality, whole-foods diet”, reports Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University. He goes on to note that, “the risk of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) doubles.”
Now researchers are even thinking that food allergies may play a role in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Food and Mental Health
Most of the recent studies have revolved around the connection between a healthy diet and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Although direct evidence connecting diet and mental health hasn’t been found yet, currently there are trials in progress to obtain it.
Meanwhile, we do know that a healthy diet affects brain health by:
- Boosting brain development.
- Changing brain proteins and enzymes to increase neural transmitters, which are the connections between brain cells.
- Increasing good gut bacteria. This promotes a healthy gut biome, which decreases inflammation. Inflammation is known to affect both cognition and mood.
- Raising serotonin levels through various food enzymes, which improves mood.
We know that a nutrient-rich diet produces changes in brain proteins that improve the connections between brain cells. But diets that are high in saturated fats and refined sugars have been shown to have a “very potent negative impact on brain proteins,” Jacka says.
Additionally, a high sugar, high fat diet decreases the healthy bacteria in the gut. Some study results have shown that a diet that is high in sugar may worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia. And, a 2017 study of the sugar intake of 23,000 people by Knuppel, et al., “confirms an adverse effect of sugar intake from sweet food/beverage on long-term psychological health and suggests that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health.”
Foods For Brain Health
It sounds logical that the foods that are best for the body would also be the ones that promote brain health. This is supported by the results from a large European study that showed that nutrient-dense foods like the ones found on the Mediterranean diet may actually help prevent depression.
The nutrients that may help brain health include:
- Zinc – low levels of zinc can cause depression.
- Omega 3s – may improve mood and do help improve memory and thinking.
- B12 – A report by Ramsey and Muskin that was published in Current Psychiatry in 2013y, noted that “low B12 levels and elevated homocysteine increase the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease and are linked to a 5-fold increase in the rate of brain atrophy.”
- Vitamin C – The report by Ramsey and Muskin also noted that, “Vitamin C intake is significantly lower in older adults (age ≥60) with depression.”
- Iron – iron-deficiency anemia plays a part in depression.
Eating nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, leafy greens, colorful vegetables, beans and legumes, seafood, and fruits will boost the body’s overall health – including brain health. Both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which eliminates sugar, were found to significantly improve symptoms in the patients who took part in one study on diet and mental health.
Adding fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, pickles, or kombucha, to your diet can improve gut health and increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate sleep and stabilize mood. About 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so it is understandable that eating these foods can make you feel more emotionally healthy.
The next time you reach for the chips and soda, ask yourself if they are benefiting your brain. Then, grab some cultured yogurt or an apple instead. Remember – every bite counts!
Note: Dietary changes shouldn’t substitute for treatment. If you are on medications for a mental health disorder, don’t replace or reduce them with food on your own. Speak with your doctor about what you should eat, as well as what you shouldn’t. Medications will work better in a healthy body than an unhealthy one.
Questions? We Can Help
In Getting to Know Anxiety Drs. Rosen and Gross offer readers an overview of today’s challenging mental health issues and the most current treatment methods available, as well as practical strategies for mental and emotional self-care.
For more information about the relationship between your diet and mental health, talk to the professionals at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida help. Contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.