The age-old adage “you are what you eat” holds more weight than we ever imagined.
Not only does our diet impact our physical health, but it also plays a crucial role in determining our mental well-being. In fact, the connection between what, when and how much we eat and our mental state is more profound than we ever thought possible.
Food and mental health
You may already know that diet plays a role in obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. But did you know that the foods we eat can also affect our mental health?
Studies have shown that our diet can impact both our gut and the neural circuits in our brain (which are closely linked), which in turn can affect our mood, appetite, and overall mental health.
It’s a bidirectional relationship – our mental states can affect our metabolism, which can then impact our appetite and feeding behaviour. And in turn, our metabolism and the health of our mitochondria (the powerhouses of our cells) can affect our mental health.
So, what can we do about it?
Here are 8 ways that dietary interventions can be helpful in addressing mental health conditions:
1. Address nutritional deficiencies
Nutrients such as folate, vitamin B12, omega-3 and thiamine, play a crucial role in our brain function and a deficiency in these nutrients can lead to mood swings and other mental health issues. For example, a deficiency in folate can lead to anemia and depression.
A deficiency in vitamin B12 can lead to neurological symptoms such as depression, memory loss, and cognitive decline. Thiamine deficiency is also linked to psychiatric symptoms such as confusion, irritability, and memory loss.
By addressing the deficiency through diet or supplements, it can help to improve cognitive function and reduce symptoms of psychiatric issues.
2. Remove dietary allergens or toxins
Dietary allergens such as gluten, dairy, and soy, can cause inflammation in the body and disrupt mitochondrial functioning, which has been linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Removing these foods from the diet can help to alleviate symptoms such as brain fog, headaches, and fatigue, which can negatively impact mental well-being.
Certain toxins found in foods such as heavy metals and pesticides can also cause inflammation and negatively impact the gut microbiome, which has been linked to mental health.
Additionally, some toxins or allergens can also cross the blood-brain barrier, leading to neurological symptoms and cognitive decline, so by removing these toxins and allergens, it can help improve cognitive function and protect the brain.
3. Avoid ultra-processed food
Studies have shown that a diet rich in nutrient dense whole foods (think meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit) and traditional healthy fats (think butter, lard, olive oil, coconut oil) can play a role in improving mental health.
Ultra-processed foods are typically high in added sugars, poor quality fats, artificial ingredients and preservatives, which can lead to inflammation in the body. Inflammation has been linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods is also associated with a higher risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins has been shown to have a protective effect against these conditions.
Additionally, consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods may lead to weight gain which is associated with negative impacts on mental health such as depression and anxiety.
4. Improve the gut microbiome
Improving the gut microbiome has been linked to improved mental health in several ways.
The gut microbiome plays a role in the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which are involved in regulating mood.
A healthy gut microbiome can also reduce inflammation, which has been linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, a diverse gut microbiome has been associated with improved cognitive function.
Some studies have also shown that probiotics, which are live bacteria and yeasts that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut, may help to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
5. Improve metabolism and mitochondrial function
Metabolism is the process by which the body converts food into energy, and changes in metabolism can affect the body’s ability to produce energy. When the metabolism is not functioning properly, it can lead to fatigue, which can negatively impact mood and mental well-being.
Improving metabolism through diet and exercise can help to increase energy levels and improve mood.
Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of the cell and are responsible for producing energy. When the mitochondria are not functioning properly, it can lead to a lack of energy and fatigue. Improving the overall health of mitochondria can help to increase energy levels and improve mental well-being.
Insulin resistance, metabolic rate, number of mitochondria in cells, and hormones are also closely related to mental health. Insulin resistance can lead to diabetes, which has been linked to cognitive decline and depression. Metabolic rate and the number of mitochondria in cells can have an effect on energy levels, and hormones play a role in regulating mood. Improving these factors can help to improve energy levels, cognitive function, and mood.
6. Burn Fat
Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders, as well as a higher risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, which can negatively impact mental health.
Losing fat can help to reduce the risk of these conditions and improve overall well-being.
7. Build muscle
Regular strength training and eating adequate protein has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. It can serve as a natural mood booster by releasing endorphins and endocannabinoids in the brain.
Strength training and adequate protein can also help to improve cognitive function by stimulating the growth of new brain cells and improving brain connectivity.
Intermittent fasting and fasting-mimicking diets may have an impact on mental health by increasing the production of ketone bodies. These ketones are made when fat is used as an energy source and they may have beneficial effects on the brain, such as improving cognitive function and reducing inflammation.
And, interestingly, this process occurs exclusively in mitochondria. Studies have shown that IF improves mood, cognition, and protects neurons from damage in animal models of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s clear that there is a complex relationship between our diet and our mental health. But by understanding this relationship and making dietary changes, we can take steps towards improving our overall well-being.
So, the next time you reach for that bag of crisps or chocolate brownie, remember that it’s not just your waistline you’re affecting – it’s your mind too.
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