Why is what you eat related to your mental health?
There's a little truth in every wives tale and "you are what you eat" is no exception. The food that you choose to put into your mouth has a run on effect to your gut health, and in turn, your mental health.
The term "mood food" has been popping up on government websites and in research for a few years. This is largely based around nutrition research which shows the benefits on mood from eating a whole food, Mediterranean style diet full of fresh vegetables, fish, quality low refined oils, and fruits. This kind of diet is also highly antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and can reduce your risk of depression by up to 42% (3). Some would say that depression is inflammation of the brain - research pending, but you can see why a diet so anti-inflammatory would have positive effects on an inflammatory state (1).
Depression seems to affect approximately 20% of the population at any one time, likely more so in the last year (2). It is particularly prevalent among young adults and individuals with a disability - those more likely to be isolated and under stress (1). The rising number of prescription anti-depressants/ sedatives, with numerous side effects and low reported efficacy is worrying, when there is so much that can be done around habits and lifestyle (often without spending much). So I'm going to give you the low down on how to support your mental health with food, and with lifestyle. After all, naturopath principle #4 is "Doctor as teacher" (Docere).
Food as medicine
Here's the 'you are what you eat' part. A modified Mediterranean diet has shown the most benefit for depression, relieving symptoms for up to three years (2). In fact, fresh fish consumption was directly correlated with a reduced risk of depression in several studies (2). As fruits and vegetables make up a large portion of any healthy diet, they contain antioxidants and *may* positively affect serotonergic (happy neurotransmitter) status (2). Fast food and ready-to-eat meals were negatively associated with mental health status, likely due to their pro-inflammatory ingredients and super processing. Pro-inflammatory dietary patterns are high in in "sugar-sweetened soft drinks, refined grains, red meat, diet soft drinks, and margarine and low in wine, coffee, olive oil, green leafy, and yellow vegetables" (2, 3). Basically, this diet helps to downregulate inflammation and therefore neuroinflammation. Plus, you get all these wonderful hormone building and stress reducing components...
The brain is largely made up on fat (self-made cholesterol, and polyunsaturated fatty acids) and uses approximately 400 calories a day worth of energy (3). The production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, uses amino acids (from protein), B vitamins, zinc, iron and a few other co-factors. Therefore - to assist your brain in functioning optimally, you need to eat sources of these foods, in addition to carbohydrates to fuel that energy use and antioxidants to prevent the precious fatty acids from oxidizing. Fish and seafood do hit most of those components, but vegetables such as kale, beans and legumes also contain good quality folate and are naturally anti-inflammatory (2, 3). While these are best included rather than not, there are daily and weekly targets to hit if you want this to be a 'therapeutic' diet.
If you perfer list forms:
- Fatty fish - 2 times per week
- Fruits and vegetables of varying colours (++ antioxidants) - minimum 2 fresh cups everyday
- High tryptophan foods (amino acid used to make serotonin) are cheese, pumpkin and sesame seeds, chicken, turkey, oats, and eggs - include everyday
- Quit smoking and high sugar foods - all they do is deplete your nutrient stores and create oxidative stress.
If you require more assistance, please book an appointment. Humans are too different from each for a whole treatment protocol to be the same.
I can't even list to you the importance of a balanced microbiome in treating mental health, but one important thing to remember is that a healthy gut produces the majority of your serotonin (your happy neurotransmitter). Our neurotransmitters are what tell our brain what emotions we feel and can be influenced by our gut microbiome. They (scientists/naturopaths) call the gut our second brain for a reason. A review of research shows that some probiotics (strains of microbes) can change the neurotransmitter balance in our brain. Bifidobacterium adolescentis NK98 and Lactobacillus reuteri NK33 increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) contents (2). This is important because BDNF has a role in brain plasticity and neurotransmitter sensitivity - i.e. how resilient our brain is and how responsive is it to our neurotransmitters. An increase in BDNF appears to decrease depression behaviours. So our gut health changes the way our brain responds to stressors and makes important neurotransmitters. We can support our gut health in three ways: eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and grains; eating plenty of plant fibre; probiotics if needed.
*If you have any gut issues like food intolerances, IBS, painful bloating - your gut might need some extra loving with guidance from a naturopath*
Vitamin D - helps protect our brain and modulate inflammation through the immune system. Vitamin D deficiency is scarily common (3). So many studies have shown improvements in mental health with a simple 10-15 minutes of sun exposure a day as it helps to balance serotonin levels (3). How nice does drinking your morning tea/coffee in the sun sound? Sunshine, done.
Social interaction - find someone/ some people who you feel comfortable with, and just spend time with them. Social interaction allows for expression of emotions and thoughts, allows room for growth, and usually you feel better for it.
Stress management - whatever this means for you (saying no, meditation, me time, breathing techniques, exercise, reading etc). Chronic stress changes how our brains are wired so our responses are more controlled by fight or flight rather than reasoning, and prevents us from creating new neurons (to rewire our brain)(2). Stress also breeds inflammation, and as I mentioned, inflammation is not fun for the brain.
Fish oil - acting as an anti-inflammatory agent and also balancing the pro-inflammatory mediators that come from a lot of western foods (fried, packaged, high sugar foods) (3). Fish oil supplementation was shown to improve depression symptoms for up to 3 months after stopping the fish oil (2). Hint: you can also just eat fatty fish regularly too.
Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. Sources include: fatty fish, seafood, grass fed beef, and less so in flax seeds. Omega 6 is pro-inflammatory. Sources include: processed oils - vegetable, canola & corn oil, as well as packaged food as they need to make the product cheaply. The balance between these two fatty acids is one of the reasons why I have recommended fish oil. It is largely omega 3 fatty acids and therefore anti-inflammatory.
If you feel medication is the best course of action for you, this article by no means suggests otherwise. I merely recommend additional options.
There is so much more I could talk about on this topic, but we would be here all day! So, for now, here's a sneak peak into some of the things that go into a mental health plan in regards to diet.
(1) linked here
(2) linked here
(3) linked here
(4) linked here