Long ago I went back to school to gain my license to practice psychotherapy. By adding this to my RD, (registered dietitian), I thought I would be better able to help my clients overcome the blocks they had to taking action on changing what they didn’t like about their health. We all know nutrition affects physical health. How we eat has a direct effect on our health and, as such, an indirect effect on our emotional well-being. Little did I know then that nutrition also has a direct effect on our mental health. This can occur in two ways: direct nutrient intake and nutrient intakes effect on our gut’s inhabitants, bacteria, or our microbiome.
Back when I first started as an RD, taking mega doses of vitamins was all the rage. People were spending oodles of money on vitamin multi-packs until researchers realized that in order to metabolize all those vitamins we were using up other crucial nutrients. It turns out that taking too much of some nutrients can cause a deficiency in others leading to a diminishment of health and well-being. Did you know, however, that there is exciting research going on that demonstrates how nutrients can take on a role of reducing psychological and psychiatric symptoms? The question that is being asked is, “can diet be used to curb mental disorders?” The answer is a resounding yes! According to studies reprinted in Psychology Today, research is showing how levels of omega-3 fatty acids are an integral component in the prevention of depressive symptoms and suicide. Studies show that men with the lowest levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their cell membranes have the highest rates of suicide. Other research showed the decrease of depressive symptoms in patients who consumed the omega-3 fat, eicosapentaenoic acid. What’s not clear is whether taking supplements is as beneficial as eating foods containing the nutrients.
So, how to eat for good mental health? The Mediterranean diet has been studied for years due to the good health enjoyed by people who follow the diet. The Mediterranean diet has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, low sugar, low red meat, and is high in fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown decreased rates of depression in patients fed a modified Mediterranean diet. This is on top of the cardiac benefits proven years ago.
Another area of research on mental health and nutrition is with trauma victims. For example, when we are highly stressed, our bodies use up magnesium and zinc. A study in New Zealand showed an improvement in recovery from trauma by reducing anxiety after giving a mineral rich supplement. There is also work going on with depression and our ability to absorb the B vitamins known as folates. This is all fascinating and makes perfect sense. If food has a profound effect on our heath, why wouldn’t it have a profound effect on our mental health?
Lastly, but no less important, is the effect of diet on our microbiome. There is intense study going on to understand the influence of our gut microbiome on our mental health. Gut bacteria communicate directly with many parts of our bodies including the brain. We have known for years of the connection between irritable bowel syndrome and symptoms of depression and anxiety. It used to be thought that our stress created the gastrointestinal symptoms. What if we’ve had it all wrong? Perhaps the symptoms are caused by our gut bacteria being out of whack and the anxiety or depression is part of those symptoms? How will this change how treatment is determined?
Stay tuned for more information. Until next time, eat healthy, be happy!