Food and Mood

We’ve known for a long time that what we eat affects our physical health.  But research is just starting to demonstrate the connection between food and mental health as well.  Several studies show that individuals eating a poorer quality diet (more processed food, more sugar, more deep-fried foods, less vegetables) are more likely to be suffer from mental illness (1).  There are a number of ways that food is thought to affect our mental health and I am currently conducting a research project (did you know that I work in research as well as in clinic?) to try and understand the different ways that food affects mood.

One aspect of the diet that is critical is protein content.  Our brain functions through the production of chemicals called neurotransmitters and low levels of some (like serotonin) are thought to contribute to depression and anxiety.  These neurotransmitters are made of certain components of protein and if the diet doesn’t contain enough, the brain can’t make enough (2)! This doesn’t need to be a big piece of steak, vegetarian sources of protein can meet these needs if combined correctly. 

Another vital component is dietary fat.  Some people think that fats are bad for us or that they make us gain weight but the true is that some are healthy and some are unhealthy.  Some fats, like the trans fats found in deep-fried foods, are associated with poorer mental health where as omega-3 fatty acids are associated with better mental health and can be an important component of a mental health treatment plan (3). Omega-3 fats also decrease inflammation in the body – a process that is know to be associated with depression (More to come on this - The connection between inflammation and mental health deserves its own post!)

These is also a relationship between sugar and the brain.  The brain demands a steady supply of sugar – it needs a lot and unlike other organs, can’t make it. When this supply is disrupted, it impacts brain function (4).  This can happen when we eat foods that cause big changes in our blood sugar levels.  I recently published a case report sharing the results (with permission!) of a treatment plan I prescribed one of my patients.  This patient was eating a diet very high in carbohydrates and found a significant improvement in her anxiety when she ate more balanced meals.  If you want to read more about this research, click here

Other dietary factors that seem to impact mental health include the effects of food on the bacteria in our digestive system, the effects of food allergies and sensitivities and the role of different vitamins and minerals in supporting healthy brain chemistry.  To learn more about nutritional psychiatry, check out this recent article in the Huffington Post.  If you would like to use nutrition to support your own emotional wellness, let’s create a specific, individualized plan together at your next appointment.

References:  

  1. Opie RS, O’Neil A, Itsiopoulos C, Jacka FN. The impact of whole-of-diet interventions on depression and anxiety: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Public Health Nutrition. 2014; 18(11): 2074-2093. doi: 10.1017/S1368980014002614
  2. Sathyanarayana Rao TS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, et al. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illness. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008; 50(2): 77-82. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.42391
  3. Huan M, Hamazaki K, Sun Y, et al. Suicide attempt and n-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cells: a case control study in China. Biol Psychiatry. 2004; 56(7): 490-6.
  4. Aucoin M, Bhardwaj S. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification. Case Reports in Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 14;2016.