It’s an age-old adage, yet one that modern medicine has more than vindicated; nutrition and mental health are linked, and real food plays a significant role in a person’s physical and mental well-being.
Most of us learn that the food we consume is digested by the body and converted into energy and the building blocks of our cells. Every macronutrient – every carbohydrate, protein, and fat – contributes to our daily total kilocalories. Caught between those macronutrients are the micronutrients – the vitamins and minerals, and the lesser-known substances such as carotenoids and polyphenols.
But what you eat significantly impacts your nutrition and mental health more than you might expect.
March is National Nutrition Month, and as good a month as any to highlight how simple dietary considerations might help you improve your mood and contribute not just to your well-being but to psychiatric treatments and positive long-term recovery for conditions such as substance use addiction, clinical depression, and anxiety disorders. Amend Treatment provides chef prepared meals, offers wellness assessment, and nutritional screening to support making the changes mentioned in this article.
Do You Listen to Your Gut?
Meet the enteric nervous system – the neural pathways of the gastrointestinal tract, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas, which closely coordinates digestion and other involuntary processes. The existence of these nerves is nothing new. But what has changed over time is our understanding of the way gut health impacts the mind and especially interfaces with our central nervous system – so much so that the gut has been called the second brain.
The big breakthrough in the relationship between nutrition and mental health comes from recent research into this second brain’s role in mood management and mental health.
New research shows that the bacterial microbiome of our gastrointestinal tract – the entire system that begins in the mouth and inevitably ends where all meals do – plays a role not just in the breakdown of food for the basic building blocks of life but in the well-being of our immune system, inflammatory responses, and the management of neurotransmitters, including ones that contribute to mood, cognition, and stress responses.
In other words, picture the way your stomach can be a reflection of your mood. Stress levels can impact digestion and appetite and even trigger nausea. Something awful can make you feel sick to your stomach. Betrayal can feel like a gut punch. Your stomach churns when you’re nervous.
But the connection may go both ways, more than we might have guessed in the past. Much research is needed, but it may be that how we treat our gut flora – including the food we eat – can directly impact our mood and mindset, make us more or less susceptible to negative thoughts and anxious behavior, and improve or exacerbate conditions such as depression and anxiety.
But what does treating your gut flora “right” look like?
Can Diet Help Treat Mental Illness?
Certain foods can promote better physical health – less red meat, more vegetables and fiber, less processed sugar, and fewer oils and fats. The same general advice follows for mental health, as well.
A randomized controlled trial on the effects of dietary changes on mental health following two groups of people with similar symptoms undergoing the same levels of treatment found that, while both groups improved with continuous treatment, the group that additionally made healthy changes to their diet by switching from processed sugars and junk foods to whole foods, oatmeal, and a diet higher in vegetables and seafood saw significant improvements over the other group.
Other studies on the effects of small dietary changes have seen similar results repeatedly, so much so that nutritional psychiatry has become an increasingly popular specialization and topic of research.
Some research suggests a correlation between high sugar intake and rates of ADHD, for example. Does that mean sugar causes ADHD? No, it’s important not to mistake one factor for a cause.
One of the problems with our understanding of the link between nutrition and mental health is that we see the patterns but don’t know all the mechanisms behind them.
It could be, for example, that households, where children were more likely to consume more sugar were also more likely to experience a confluence of other factors that might otherwise contribute to the development of ADHD. Meanwhile, children who grow up with healthier diets may also have otherwise healthier environments and experience fewer risk factors.
But the research showing the effects of dietary changes on nutrition and mental health, especially in cases of psychiatric treatment, is significant for highlighting how making better food choices can directly impact your mental well-being.
Developing a Healthier Relationship with Food
Messaging about eating healthier can be confusing and complicated. One study says it’s best to go low-carb. Some people say fat is the enemy. Others say you should consume more butter or eat only meat. Which expert is right, and who is wrong?
First, be wary of extremism. Unless specifically recommended by your physician for a health issue, an exclusionary diet is unlikely to be a good fit for the average person.
You do not need to go completely vegan or follow a carnivore diet to reap the benefits of healthy food choices.
Start with small, manageable compromises for both the palate and the wallet. Fewer processed types of meat and more seafood. Switch to sourdough instead of white bread. Replace sweets and candy with satiating snacks like air-popped popcorn, or high-fiber, high-protein that keep you full for longer.
You don’t need to make all these changes at once. It starts small, in the grocery store, in the kitchen, or on your phone. Subscribe to cooking channels that inspire you to make interesting, healthier meals on a budget. Try something out that looks good. Pick a cuisine that intrigues you.
Sometimes, it’s challenging to make these changes alone.
Work with someone who knows what they’re doing. A dietitian specializing in mental health can help people with conditions like depression learn how to manage their intake a step at a time, even when struggling with low to no motivation for cooking or meal prep. They can help people with eating disorders develop healthier, more positive associations with balanced diets and identify harmful triggers.
If you or a loved one have struggled with nutrition and mental health, a treatment program may be a helpful first step towards regaining control. Amend Treatment can be your partner in long-term recovery.
One Part of a Bigger Picture
When faced with difficult situations, one of our more unfortunate tendencies is the urge to simplify. Still, with mental health especially, it’s often impossible to blame a single cause or look to one potential treatment as a sure thing.
Diet can play a role in treatment, but it’s often part of a more comprehensive, holistic approach that may include interpersonal relationships and social health, behavioral therapy, addressing external stressors, cultivating positive coping mechanisms, and medication through facilities like Amend Treatment.
Do not underestimate the power and importance of food and the great benefits of a balanced, healthy diet.
Many things in life are out of our hands, but we can control and take advantage of what we eat and how we choose to treat food. This March, let nutrition and mental health become a source of empowerment and a path toward better health.