Nutrition And Mental Health: The Critical Link

This article was submitted by Eve Pearce.

There are many roads to improved mental health, and many of them are ones we walk ourselves: reintroducing favourite hobbies into our lives, socializing with people who understand our struggles, exercising regularly, and more. One potentially critical factor that is often overlooked is the influence of diet on our mental health. While there is still research that needs to be done, exciting studies are beginning to show us the role nutrition can play in everything from ADHD, to depression, to dementia. It seems clear that changing how and what we eat can be another step towards physical and mental health.

Researching The Link

Scientists face many hurdles when studying the link between nutrition and mental health. Both well-being and diet are self-reported during research, which increases the chances for error, but the main concern is just how much of a given nutrient is in each item of food. Nutrients are what actually affect us, but everything from growing conditions to preparation can change the amount in each apple, peach or pear.

Despite these difficulties, researchers have published papers which begin to shed light on the mind-diet connection. For instance, two separate papers indicate that people who eat a “Mediterranean Diet” – one that’s high in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and olive oil – are up to 30 percent less likely to suffer from depression. The cause of this correlation is not yet known, but the current theory is that the effect comes from a combination of vital nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids. In comparison, studies show that children raised on the “Western Diet” (plenty of red meat, sweeteners, refined grains, and saturated fats) suffer behaviourally in comparison to those raised on healthier diets, with higher rates of both aggression and depression.

The research keeps adding up to the same answer: instead of our diet reflecting our mood, our mood may in fact be a reflection of our diet. Josh Gitalis, a Toronto-based clinical nutritionist, recently spoke to the Canadian Mental Health Association about this connection. He cited studies in which a 5-HTP supplement out-performed SSRI medication, and one in which multi-vitamins appeared to influence IQ in children; these studies need to be replicated, but they are at the forefront of nutritional research. “Too often, people resort to using medications to alter brain chemistry when there’s so many fundamental factors that haven’t been addressed,” according to Gitalis.

Putting Research To Work

As exciting as these studies may be, many people may wonder whether this is “news they can use”. Whether or not 5-HTP turns out to work wonders, it’s unwise to blaze a new trail and trust our mental health to unregulated supplements. However, there are plenty of small, daily changes which can be made to take advantage of nutrition’s effect on the body. To begin with, focus on dietary habits which have an immediate effect. Blood sugar spikes and crashes can aggravate anxiety and depression, for example, so eating regularly and avoiding snacks of refined foods (like sugar and white bread) can make a difference to your daily mood. Over-consumption of (or addiction to) caffeine can also be a problem, since it has been linked to anxiety, mood swings, and physical ailments like headaches. Some people may find that cutting out these foods altogether is the best course for them, but in order to avoid “falling off the wagon”, most doctors and dietitians advise making changes slowly. Adding to your habits – like drinking water regularly to combat dehydration – is generally easier than cutting back on others, but both factors are important.

In the long term, the “Mediterranean Diet” research indicates that a well-rounded diet is far more important than focusing on a handful of “super foods”. For optimum mental and physical health, a range of unprocessed fruits, vegetables and grains should be paired with healthy fats, meat, and fish. One of the upsides of this kind of diet is that it promotes a healthy weight, which is helpful given that levels of obesity are higher among those who struggle with mental illness. However, dieting can result in shame and depression, so a goal of “eating healthier” rather than “losing weight” can be more effective. Myths associated with weight loss and healthy diets should also be untangled before embarking on this project; many are accepted as gospel truth in popular culture, but can be counterproductive when used as dietary rules. Eggs, for example, are unfairly demonized. “Eggs are packed with iron, zinc and phosphorus, as well as Vitamins B2, B12, A and E,” according to Licensed Prescriptions. Another misconception is that vegetables should be eaten without fats, when in actuality many contain fat-soluble nutrients which are absorbed more readily with a drizzle of olive oil.

New research is being published regularly to back up the nutrition-mental wellness connection, and for some people a change in diet may be what brings them closer to a healthier mind and life. All major dietary changes should be discussed with your doctor before putting them into action, particularly if you’re taking medication or need nutritional advice. Just remember that big changes come from small ones, and take that first step.

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