By Annamaria Vesely
We eat when we are happy and when we are sad, we eat to celebrate and to mourn–and for every occasion in between. Our mood routinely affects what we eat, but did you know that what you eat can affect your mood? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” We are all living in an unprecedented time that brings with it all types of stress: financial, emotional, physical, mental, and relationship stress. During this trying time of increased stress and isolation, maintaining good mental health has never been more important.
Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field that studies the age-old link between what we eat and how we feel. The link between health and food has been recognized for millennia, and even the original Hippocratic oath linked “dietetic measures” as not only a legitimate approach to healthcare but as the first line of defense against ill health. Hippocrates also penned “in food excellent medicine can be found, in food bad medicine can be found,” recognizing the link between food and health.
Mental health disorders and dysfunction are real, complex, multifaceted, and require teams of skilled, interdisciplinary professionals to help manage them. Life experiences can also alter brain chemistry and function to produce mental health disorders that are not easily undone or mediated. In addition to medical and mental health treatments and approaches, nutrition can help equip the body with the tools needed to recover and rebuild. Just like reducing sodium can help lower your blood pressure, maybe eating more leafy greens can give you a natural boost in regulating your brain chemistry. Since the brain regulates our emotions and mood, and our diet provides the nutrients we give the brain to work with, it makes sense that what we consume has an impact on how well the brain functions.
In November 2019, a review of the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology provided an overview of the state of the field. Solid experimental evidence is just starting to support the hypothesis that better food equates to a better mental health state. A meta-study of nutrition/mental health studies shows an “unequivocal link” between overall diet patterns and mental health. In a randomized control trial, adult patients with severe clinical depression were provided “personalized dietary advice and nutritional counseling support, including motivational interviewing, goal setting, and mindful eating”. The goal was to optimize diet quality and adhere to recommended dietary guidelines. Through this study, they were able to demonstrate “significant improvement” in patient mood and reduced anxiety level. There is also significant evidence that low-quality diets missing key nutrient categories exacerbate mental health disorders and cognitive decline. A very strong link between poor-quality diet, stress response, and mental health offers a promising outlook for those that struggle with anxiety, depression, or mood issues. Increasing fresh fruits, vegetables, and replacing red meat with lean white meat such as chicken or fish, can offer huge improvements in our ability to handle stress and reduce anxiety/depression.
So then what should you eat to give yourself the best brain food? Diets that produce a healthy microbiome in your small intestine can help elevate your mood. Serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate your mood, is mostly produced in your small intestine. What foods lead to a happier gut? Diets high in a variety of vegetables, whole unprocessed grains, plenty of fish/seafood, fruits, and nuts. Keeping your gut happy will help keep you happy!
- Diet and Mental Health: Does food affect your mood?
- Associations between fruit and vegetable consumption and psychological distress: results from a population-based study
- Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses
Peer-edited by Johanna Bishop