Nutritional Psychiatry

If you have a heart attack, your cardiologist is very likely to speak to you (at least briefly) about what you eat. This is a good thing! The food you eat has a significant impact on your future heart disease risk. If you have an episode of depression, its fairly unlikely that your psychiatrist will talk to you about food. But there is a significant movement aiming to change this!

The food we eat impacts our body. And this includes our brain. Brains are very active metabolically, using a large amount of energy and nutritional resources compared to other organs. The brain relies on the food we eat for the building blocks of neurotransmitters (mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin) and healthy, balanced blood sugar levels for a steady fuel supply.

Inflammation is emerging as a significant factor in the development and progression of mental illness and a key way that diet impacts mental wellness. Individuals with osteoarthritis may have increased levels of inflammation in their knee. It seems that inflammation in the brain can cause anxiety and depression symptoms. A significant cause of inflammation that we can control is food choices. Certain types of fat increase inflammation while others decrease it. Fruits and vegetables have a wide range of anti-inflammatory components.

And there are the micronutrients – vitamins and minerals that we need relatively small amounts of. The North American diet is very rich in calories, people are getting more than enough energy from their food, but because of its processed nature, it is deficient in a broad range of nutrients needed to maintain mental health. Vitamins and minerals play key roles in the production of a range of neurotransmitters (those mood-regulating chemicals) and when deficient, this production is disrupted.

There’s also a new body of research about how the bacteria in our digestive system contribute to mental wellbeing. They actually make a large percentage of the serotonin (happy brain chemical) in our body. And the types of bacteria in our digestive system are influenced (for good or bad) by the types of food that we eat.

These are different mechanism of how food could impact mental health. But as a researcher, I want to understand the evidence. And it turns out, there is lots! There are studies that show that people eating a poorer quality diet (more refined food, more sweets, less veggies and fiber), have higher rates of anxiety and depression. There is also REALLY exciting evidence that diet can be used as a TREATMENT for depression. A randomized clinic trial (consider a top-notch form of research), gave people with moderate to severe depression either diet coaching or no treatment. After 3 months, the people changing their diet had cut their depression symptoms almost in half! And one quarter of them no longer met the criteria for having depression at all!

There are many risk factors for depression and anxiety, including genetics and life challenges, that we can not control. But diet seems to be an important factor which we CAN control. If you are looking to use diet as a way to support mental wellbeing, I would love to collaborate with you!