How Your Diet Affects Your Mental Health

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It's widely known that the food we eat significantly impacts our overall health and quality of life. However, ongoing research indicates that diet also plays a very important role in social, emotional, and mental health specifically. 

The link between Nutrition and Mental Health

Our brains are directly connected with our gastrointestinal system, commonly known as "the gut”. This connection is called the gut-brain axis and is one of the reasons we know the profound impact of our dietary choices on our brains, and therefore our mood and mental health.

The gut has trillions of living microorganisms that live there and affect each other and the environment in various ways. The gut microbiome is involved in plenty of functions in your body, such as digestion, shape your immune system, help protect you from your pathogens, or regulate your endocrine system, among others. One of the main functions of these microorganisms is the production of neurotransmitters (like serotonin) that send chemical signs to your brain, regulating functions such as sleep, pain perception, appetite, mood, and emotion.

Because of this connection between the gut and the brain, and the importance of good gut health in our overall health, the gut is considered the second brain. There is still a lot of studies and research to be done, however, studies indicate that the foods we eat directly impact the health of gut microbiome communities which affects our brains as a consequence. Therefore, the diet we follow has a direct impact on our mental health and emotional well-being.

Nutrition’s Role in Mental Health

Some studies have revealed correlations between nutrition and conditions like depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The studies show that increasing omega-3 intake to reduce inflammation could potentially prevent certain types of depression.

Another study that was investigating blood glucose levels observed that lowering participants' glucose levels led to heightened irritability and anxiety due to the release of counter-regulatory hormones like cortisol. Poor nutrition habits and the lack of essential nutrients, can disrupt blood glucose regulation through insulin resistance. This disruption can lead to fluctuating glucose levels, which may worsen anxiety symptoms in certain individuals.

The link between nutrition and mental health can be broken down in 7 points:

1. Brain Function and Nutrition

The brain is an organ that requires a constant supply of nutrients to function optimally. Essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids play crucial roles in neurotransmitter synthesis, nerve transmission, and overall brain health.

2. Gut-Brain Axis 

As we’ve previously seen, there is a deep connection between the gut and the brain, which is called the gut-brain axis. The gut microbiome plays an important role in regulating brain function and mood. An imbalance in gut microbiota (dysbiosis) can contribute to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. This imbalance can happen due to poor nutrition, stress, bad habits, etc.

3. Inflammation

Poor nutrition can lead to chronic inflammation in the body, including the brain. Inflammation is no joke, since it has been linked to various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. With chronic inflammation, processes that normally protect your body, end up hurting it. Stress, bad habits and diets high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats are known to promote inflammation. However, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats have anti-inflammatory effects. Lifestyle plays a huge role as well.

4. Micronutrient Deficiencies

Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, have been associated with an increased risk of mental health disorders. For example, low levels of vitamin D have been linked to depression, while deficiencies in B vitamins have been implicated in cognitive decline and mood disorders.

5. Impact of Diet on Mood

The  quality of your diet plays a significant role in mood regulation. Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats have been associated with better mood and lower risk of depression and anxiety, while diets high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats have been linked to poorer mental health outcomes.

6. Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds, have been shown to have antidepressant and mood-stabilising effects. These essential fatty acids are important for maintaining the integrity of cell membranes in the brain and modulating neurotransmitter function.

7. Dietary Patterns and Mental Health

There are certain dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, that have been associated with a lower risk of depression and anxiety. These diets have their focus on whole foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, healthy fats like olive oil, and lean proteins. Also, they limit processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats.

Low-carb diets and mental health

While low-carb diets may initially be feared and demonised by some people, some evidence suggests potential benefits for mental health. For people with certain neurological conditions like epilepsy or Alzheimer's disease, low-carb diets have shown promise in symptom management. Moreover, stabilising blood sugar levels through reduced carbohydrate intake can help mitigate mood swings and improve overall mental well-being, especially to those prone to fluctuations in energy levels.

Additionally, low-carb diets often involve increased consumption of nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, which provide essential nutrients that benefit brain health and overall health.

Tips to improve nutrition for mental health

Improving nutrition for mental health usually involves a lifestyle change. This change not only involves adopting a balanced diet, but also working on stress management, implementing a workout routine, and sometimes can also be helpful meditating, going to therapy and practising mindfulness. These changes need to be maintained in time if you want to notice an improvement in your health.

We want to share a few useful tips to help you in your journey to a better mental health:

  • Prioritise whole foods: Put your focus on nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods provide essential nutrients that will support your brain health and mood regulation.
  • Include omega-3 fatty acids: Don’t forget about omega-3s. You can find it in fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega-3s are linked to reduced inflammation and improved mood, as we’ve mentioned.
  • Maintain stable blood sugar levels: Keeping your glucose levels stable helps provide sustained energy and prevent mood swings.
  • Consume adequate protein: Don’t forget to include protein-rich foods like lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and legumes to support neurotransmitter function and stabilise mood. This will also keep you full for longer, which will prevent you from eating between meals and snacking processed foods.
  • Stay hydrated: It’s important to stay hydrated, as dehydration can affect mood and cognitive function. Drink enough water, and if needed drink electrolytes. 
  • Limit processed foods and sugar: Minimise or fully eliminate processed foods, sugary snacks, and beverages from your diet. These foods can lead to energy crashes and mood fluctuations. Remember there are alternative, healthier options, to your favourite treats.
  • Incorporate probiotics: Consume probiotic-rich foods like yoghourt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi to support gut health, which is linked to mood regulation.
  • Practise mindful eating: Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, and aim to eat slowly and mindfully to fully enjoy and digest your meals.
  • Consider supplementation: If necessary, you can supplement with vitamins or minerals that may support mental health, such as vitamin D, B vitamins, magnesium, or folate. However, before supplementing we always recommend discussing it with your doctor first. Supplements should not be a priority, the priority is to take the nutrients from the food you eat.

It's important to remember that while diet plays a significant role in mental health, it is just one aspect of a comprehensive approach to mental well-being, which may also include therapy, exercise, stress management techniques, and/or medication. In case you need help, don’t hesitate to consult with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to develop a personalised meal plan that works for you, your goals and your mental health needs.

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