When it comes to diet and mental health, the saying, “You are what you eat,” takes on a whole new meaning. The physiological link between nutrition and mental well-being has been demonstrated in multiple studies, and doctors and mental health professionals alike may not often prescribe dietary changes to treat a variety of mood disorders including depression.
Diet and Mental Health
When you think of a well-balanced diet, what comes to mind? Fruits and vegetables are important, but so are healthy fats, protein, fiber and plenty of vitamins and minerals.
The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world. Packed with plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and healthy fats, many people turn to this diet in order to improve their personal nutrition and well-being.
A 2006 study by researchers at the Department of Clinical Sciences at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain found that the Mediterranean diet reduced symptoms of depression in both men and women.
Carbohydrates, often considered the bane of any dieter’s existence, can actually increase serotonin, the “feel good” hormone that people with depression have less of. The key to good mental health and diet lies in the origin of carbs. High sugar, refined fats and processed foods do not provide the same type of healthy carbohydrates found in whole grains.
How Food Affects Your Brain
In nutritional psychiatry, there’s a concept called the gut-brain axis that examines the relationship between microbiomes in the gut and psychological symptoms. The brain is always communicating with the body, and research has demonstrated a strong connection between the brain’s relationship with the immune system, gastrointestinal system and mental health.
A variety of psychological and neurological disorders have been studied in relation to bidirectional brain-gut-microbiome (BGM) interactions, including autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and depression.
Simply put, your brain communicates with your gut all day through small cells called neurons. There are around 100 million neurons in the brain and, surprisingly, around 500 million in the gut. It’s no wonder that these neurons are always sending messages to one another.
With an imbalanced diet, the bacteria in the gut can be thrown off and cause a variety of mental health issues. Changing your diet, therefore altering your gut’s microbiomes, can have a direct impact on how you think and feel.
Eating Right to Feel Good
You can’t cure depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem with a diet change, but eating nutritious and balanced meals does have a direct impact on the severity of symptoms. Dr. Eva Selhub of Harvard Medical School compares the brain to a car and food to fuel. You can keep it running with “low quality” gas, but the less-than-premium fuel ultimately takes a toll on the overall function and capability of the car.
Lower levels of insulin, vitamin deficiencies and fewer antioxidants can lead to greater levels of stress, physical ailments and cell damage, all of which impact how you think and feel.
By paying close attention to your diet and always striving to eat healthily, you can prioritize your mental health and physical well-being.