It is pretty obvious that what you eat has a profound effect on your physical health and well being.
Eating high fat, nutrient-devoid foods is likely to leave the body lacking in vital nutrients, while also overloading the body with too much fat, sugar, salt and more. The modern American diet is incredibly unhealthy and it is easy to see why our nation has such as big problem with obesity.
We also know that poor diet can contribute to the development of, or susceptibility to, certain diseases. Eating right reduces our chances of heart disease, stroke, it helps us maintain a healthy weight, it helps our brain and other organs work at their optimal efficiency.
What is less obvious, however, is the connection to our diet and our mental health and well being. While it might seem like these two things are quite unrelated, they are actually more related that we ever thought. What new science and research is showing is that not only can diet have a tremendous impact on our physical well being, it can also have a huge effect on our mental health and well being too.
Mental Health and Poor Diet
The research into the link between diet, nutrition and mental health, is often called the “food-mood connection.” While this is a relatively new field of study, evidence does point towards the theory that a healthy diet is correlated to positive mental health and a lower incidence of a variety of mental disorders.
This does not mean that people who eat healthy are immune from mental health disorders, or that those who currently suffer from mental health disorders can be cured by changing their diet. What we are seeing is that, rather, a healthy diet keeps our brain running more smoothly, keeps our chemicals more well balanced, thus leading to an overall more stable level of mental health.
It is, however, true that people who suffer from a variety of mental health disorders can find some amount of relief or improvement of symptoms when they switch to a healthier diet. The evidence is still scant, and there causations are still unknown, but it is postulated that a balanced diet can help people absorb their medication better, as well as keep their brain chemical levels more stable.
Research is, admittedly, lacking, but recent research of populations in Asia that have diets rich in whole grains, fresh vegetables, fish and lean meat, have shown a lower incidence of a number of different mental health disorders. There is a much lower incidence of suicide in these populations and those who eat this diet seem to have better spatial memory than those who consume the standard American diet.
Even research on very “meat and potatoes” oriented cultures like the Norwegian population show lower rates of depression and other mental health issues when compared to the fat-laden, processed-food consuming cultures. The study of 5,000 Norwegians showed that they had lower rates of bipolar disorder, depression and even anxiety.
Other research has also shown that there is a correlation between the intake of sugary, processed foods and higher rates of temper tantrums and anger in children. While this is not a causation, it does point to the idea that proper nutrition in children might help reduce certain behavioral issues.
Nutrients that Support Positive Mental Health
While we certainly need more evidence, current research is showing that certain nutrients seem to be connected to positive mental health as they help the brain function as optimally as possible.
Adding foods that are rich in these nutrients into your well-balanced diet is a great way to help make the connection between your diet and your mental health a positive one.
Magnesium is an important nutrient that might, in higher doses, help you recover from stress and depression more quickly. Associated with the body’s ability to produce energy, magnesium is found in nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
Folic Acid combined with B12
There is a growing body of research that supports the theory that higher levels of folic acid and Vitamin B12 might actually help our bodies better absorb medications, allowing them to be maximally effective. There has also been evidence that these nutrients are important to the production of noradrenaline and dopamine. Low levels of these chemicals are associated with depression.
These nutrients can be found in leafy greens, meat, seafood and dairy products.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, has long been dubbed “brain food.” This is actually completely true. There is a lot of evidence and research that shows that omega-3 fatty acids help improve cognitive functioning and reduces things like age-related cognitive decline.
You can find omega-3 fatty acids in more than just fish. It’s also found in walnuts and flaxseeds.
While this chemical is commonly associated with that sleepy, happy feeling we get after eating turkey on Thanksgiving, it actually does much more than this.
It is an amino acid, which means it is part of the building blocks of a complete protein. This synthesis allows your body to produce chemicals like serotonin, which is associated with feelings of happiness and well being. People who suffer from depression and other mental disorders often have low levels of serotonin in their body.
Meat is a prime source for tryptophan, but it can also be found in soy-based products and dairy.
Though it has been long known that poor health and poor diet are intimately interconnected, it is less obvious that a poor diet can also contribute to negative mental health. Just like the rest of our body, the brain, which regulates mood and emotion, needs energy to fuel daily functioning.
Poor quality fuel leads to a reduced level of functioning in machines, and it works the same with our brains. By fueling our brains with junk, we are actually making it more difficult for our brains to cope with stress, complicated problems and more. This leaves us more susceptible to the development of negative mental health issues or habits.
medicalnewstoday.com, Food Mood connection
journals.plos.org, Food Mood connection
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, Food Mood connection
rcpsych.ac.uk, Veg / Lean meat diet and mental health
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, Norwegian Study
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, Folic Acid and B12
thelancet.com, Additives Child Behaviour Study
Oryoki: Zen-style mindful dining. [Dathun, Buddhism, Shambhala Mountain Center, Reggie Ray, Karme Choling, video]
Does Weak Digestion Sabotage Mental Health?
Author: Frances Masters
Editor: Catherine Monkman
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