Mental health has many links to overall health, yet rarely do we hear about the link between mental health and nutrition. Why is that?
Stress and emotions often contribute to our eating behaviours. Real or perceived expectations regarding body image or the influence of diet culture can impact our mental health. Eating disorders affect roughly 9% of the population worldwide, many undiagnosed or untreated. Poor physical health, whether it be a digestive condition or a chronic illness leads back to stress, depression and/or anxiety – and the cycle continues. The interconnectedness of nutrition and mental health is undeniable.
But what do we understand about this relationship? What strategies combine improving nutrition and improving mental health?
Food is more than fuel
It is true that the foods we eat contain the molecules needed to make hormones that regulate our emotions. But beyond nutrients, food is an integral part of the connection with family, friends, community, and culture. Studies from the Blue Zones have integrated findings of diet to culture in a holistic picture of overall health and longevity.
Speaking of culture, our digestive tract and the bacteria that reside there are now being referred to as your “second brain”, with biological mechanisms and relationships being uncovered rapidly in recent research.
Food is also a commodity, and we are inundated daily with marketing and media telling us what to eat, and making convenience culture a barrier to healthy eating. And if you have been to the grocery store lately, you know that fresh produce is not cheap. I bought two tomatoes last week for $4.50! Food can also stress the wallet!
And perhaps most important, our relationship to food is often underappreciated, yet often a good predictor of health outcomes. For example, the ‘Intuitive Eating Approach’ helps individuals forge a healthy relationship to food. ‘Mindful Eating’ is a related yet distinct strategy to help get back in touch with internal hunger cues. It has also been integrated into weight loss strategies effectively in research.
The latter two approaches will be explored in a future newsletter or we can discuss them together in an appointment. Below we cover specific relationships between diet and mental health, highlighting some specific nutrients and strategies.
Diet and mental health
From a whole diet approach, systematic research reviews have assessed the use of dietary intervention on mental health, particularly clinical and subclinical depression and anxiety. While there is some debate over what constitutes a healthy diet in research and related scientific methods, studies do show that high intakes of vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains may be associated with reduced depression risk. Conversely, dietary patterns high in processed foods and sugary products may increase the risk of depression.
There are also several nutrients specifically linked to mental health through research: Protein, fibre, B-vitamins, omega-3 fats, and vitamin D to name a few.
For example, protein is composed of amino acids such as Tryptophan, the building block for the mood-regulating hormone serotonin. A randomized crossover study assessed the effect of a high tryptophan diet on anxiety, depression, and mood. Compared to the low tryptophan diet, the high tryptophan diet led to statistically significant increases in mood and decreased anxiety and depression.
Omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) have clinically demonstrated benefits on depression symptoms, and have been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms. More research is needed to determine dose, efficacy in specific conditions.
Vitamin D deficiency presents similar symptoms to those with depression, and research does show a relationship between the two. While this relationship has not been proven as causal, there is sufficient evidence that Vitamin D supplementation greater than 800 International Units (IU) can improve depression. The effect of which in some studies was comparable to that of anti-depressant medication.
Your gut microbiome, which is fueled by high fibre foods, prebiotics, and probiotics (or fermented foods) has also been linked to mental health. Your “second brain” is perhaps one of the newest and exciting areas in health research. For example, we know that individuals with digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have an altered gut microbiome, and there is a strong correlation between stress and symptoms, including whether or not certain foods can act as “triggers”. Getting enough fibre and other nutrition can be a big challenge for such individuals, which underpins the interrelationship of diet and mental health well.
Many other nutrients are the building blocks or mediate the biochemical reactions to mood-regulating molecules. This is why we need to go beyond the macronutrients and calories. Our bodies need to have a balanced, varied diet to ensure we also give our body the right micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, water) for supporting both physical and mental health.
Stress and visceral fat
We all know there is a relationship between our diet and body composition. But did you know, stress also plays a large role as well?
Visceral fat is the so-called “dangerous fat” that accumulates around our abdominal and internal organs. Too much can increase the risk for chronic disease. Stress regulates cortisol production by the Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which directly influences preferential fat accumulation.
At Preventous, using body composition analysis we can assess visceral fat. If both your visceral fat and your stress levels are high, perhaps you would benefit from a more holistic approach to fat reduction beyond diet alone. Mindfulness-based strategies in nutrition have also been shown to help with weight loss and stress reduction. If you are curious to learn more, we should have a conversation!
Try some of the strategies below:
- Take a daily Vitamin D supplement, which has been shown to boost energy and mood.
- Get your omega-3 fats, which are key structural components of brain cells and can reduce inflammation. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel or trout are great options to have more often.
- Ensure adequate protein, the building blocks of your brain’s neurotransmitters.
- Ensure you are getting enough B-vitamins, also involved in making neurotransmitters.
- Boost fibre in your diet to support your microbiome. Choose a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Increase prebiotic and probiotic foods, also to support those gut microbes. Prebiotics are found in high fibre whole foods, and probiotics are in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi.
- Practice a mindful activity, such as mindful eating, or cooking with relaxing music. Take note and reflect on how the food or experience made you feel before, during, and after.
Nutrition makes the building blocks to support mental health. You have the power to take control of your diet to support your mental health. Together, we can help you find solutions unique to you and your lifestyle.
Let’s get started with an appointment to see how we can improve your mental health through nutrition! Book an appointment with me.
Registered Dietitian MSc