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“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.”
Up until just a decade ago, the impact of diet on our mental health was not seriously considered. Doctors did not receive any substantive training in the role of nutrition on mental wellness, and instead were taught to treat mental health disorders primarily with pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy. Well, times, they are a-changing!
A large trove of clinical studies conducted worldwide has supported the relationship between diet and nutrition with psychological wellness. In like manner, studies are increasingly demonstrating how nutritional deficiencies and poor dietary habits actually contribute to mental health disorders.
This new direction involving a more comprehensive approach to treating mental health disorders has spawned a new term, “nutritional psychiatry.”
Today’s mental health professionals are much more apt to refer their patients to a nutritionist who can help overhaul the diet and introduce needed nutritional supplementation as needed. Adding this holistic aspect to the overall treatment plan, along with encouraging regular physical exercise, can lead to an increase in clinical results.
About the Mind-Body Connection
While the recent focus on nutrition and how it relates to mental health is a significant boon to the profession, the mind-body connection to wellness is not new at all.
For thousands of years Eastern medicine centered on this intrinsic connection, until a shift occurring in the 1700s when Western medicine separated treatment of the mind and body as two distinct entities. In the last 100 years, however, a slow but steady retrenchment back to the ancient view of the human person as an integrated organism has been gaining ground.
There is a distinct difference between the word “mind” and the word “brain.”
The mind is where we experience and process our emotions, thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. The brain is the machine that allows these executive functions to happen. Brain health is also positively impacted by a nutritious diet, which can then lead to enhanced functioning of the mind.
Cultivating a healthy mind-body connection involves several practices. These include nutrition and diet, physical exercise, meditation practices, and relaxation techniques such as yoga or deep breathing. Working together, these elements can be a powerful catalyst toward achieving a healthy, balanced state of being.
Eating Right for Optimum Mental Wellness
Sound nutrition affects our physical health, our brain health, and our mental health.
Numerous studies have shown that kids who are not provided with (or choose) a nutritious diet have a much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders. Clinical studies demonstrated a correlation between a diet high in processed foods, high sugar intake, and simple carbs.
According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, entitled, “Understanding nutrition, depression, and mental illnesses,” the most common deficiencies identified in individuals with a mental health disorder include B vitamins, amino acids, certain minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Diet has a direct impact on all facets of health throughout our lifetimes, affecting how effective our immune system is functioning, our ability to regulate stress, and how all body systems are functioning as parts of the whole.
When recovering from or managing a mental health disorder, the foods we eat will directly impact the healing process.
Examples of dietary choices that will benefit mental wellness include:
>> Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These include fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, tuna, and mackerel, chia seeds, olive oil, flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans, eggs, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and broccoli.
>> Whole grains. Whole grain foods include oats, brown rice, quinoa, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat breads and pastas, whole wheat couscous, and bulgar.
>> Nuts and legumes. These include raw nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and peanuts, and red beans and lentils.
>> Fresh fruits and vegetables. Leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, carrots, cucumber, and fresh fruits, such as oranges, apples, grapefruit, kiwi, and berries.
>> Supplements. Dietary supplements, when prescribed by a nutritionist or functional health practitioner, might include folate, vitamin B12 and B-complex, calcium, chromium, selenium, iron, and zinc.
Combining these healthy dietary choices with regular physical activity will work in tandem to produce increased levels of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins—all helping to improve mental well-being. Adding these lifestyle shifts to the core treatment protocol of psychotherapy and medication, individuals recovering from a mental health condition are likely to experience augmented clinical results.
The Importance of Gut Health to Mental Wellness
Much is being discovered about the two-way connection between our gut and our mental health. The gut microbiome is the 300 to 500 microorganisms that reside in our gastrointestinal tract. The balancing act between the good gut bacteria and the harmful gut bacteria is ever changing, influenced by such things as consuming too many starchy or sugary foods, out of control stress, taking antibiotics, and getting too little sleep.
Certain dietary choices can help improve gut health, and thereby improve mood and mental wellness. These include:
>> Fermented foods, such as kefir, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, and kimchi
>> Lean proteins
>> High fiber foods, such as peas, asparagus, leeks, beans, oats, and berries
>> Garlic and onion
>> Bone broth
>> Whole grain fiber
Other actions to improve gut health include drinking lots of water, identifying food triggers or allergens and eliminating these from the diet, taking a probiotic with live cultures, eating slowly, practicing relaxation techniques, and getting plenty of quality sleep.
Mental health disorders so often leave patients feeling helpless and out of control. It is encouraging to learn that by tweaking our diets we can improve our sense of mental well-being significantly. By reducing sweets, caffeinated beverages, and salty processed snacks, and increasing healthier food options, patients can make a significant difference in their state of mind and overall feelings of wellness.
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