The Importance of Nutrition to Your Mental Health 

 May 19, 2020

Most of us know that poor nutrition can lead to a myriad of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, or stroke. Yet, many aren’t aware that what you eat also affects your mental health. 

Doctors and researchers are making exciting inroads into how your nutrition can affect your mental health. This new field of study is often called nutritional psychiatry.

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Connecting Nutrition and Mental Health

The Center for Disease Control notes that, after heart disease, depression is the second-leading cause of disability. Doctors and scientists have also found that what you eat plays an important part in how you feel. For those who suffer from depression or anxiety, this is welcome news. 

What this means is that you can shape your diet and, by doing so, improve your mental health at the same time. Eating a diet consisting of a lot of whole, unprocessed foods and lots of fruits and vegetables can help you feel more balanced and better on the whole.

The Gut-Brain Axis

The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in your body, running from your brain into your digestive system. The gut-brain axis, or GBA, is the communication system between your mind and your gut.

Your digestive tract is not just your stomach. This vital system encompasses your mouth and throat, stomach, intestines, and everything in between. It also includes your gut’s microbiome – a vast interconnected network of microorganisms.

When your gut is imbalanced and unhealthy, this is communicated to your brain through the vagus nerve. This imbalance may cause all kinds of issues, including insomnia, high blood pressure, brain fog, anxiety, and depression.

Your Gut and Serotonin

Serotonin is considered a neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a chemical substance released by the body that help regulate things like sleep, mood, and appetite. Your body produces these transmitters throughout your body. 

In the case of serotonin, 90% is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Your digestive tract is also lined with millions of neurons, so this key system doesn’t just digest food and provide energy; it can also help guide your emotions. 

There are also billions of bacteria in your gut, making up your internal microbiome. These good bacteria protect your intestines, limit inflammation, decide what to absorb and what not to absorb, protect your gut from harmful bacteria, and activate the neural pathways from your digestive system to your brain.

People who have Japanese or Mediterranean diets tend to be less depressed and anxious than others who dine on lots of processed foods. Scientists and doctors believe this is because these specific diets are chock full of unprocessed grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood, and healthful oils. This is compared to a more Western diet that is satiated with processed sugar, refined foods, lots of red meat, and dairy. 

Some of the foods in these more healthful diets are naturally fermented, like kimchi or nato, which act as probiotics in your gut to keep your microbiome healthy. Along with providing energy, the microbiome in your gut also limits inflammation.

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Inflammation and Mental Health

Doctors initially hoped that depression and anxiety were inflammatory conditions and easily treatable with anti-inflammatories. Unfortunately, this particular supposition did not prove to be accurate, but inflammation may be one cause of depression.

When areas of your brain or body become inflamed, this state can lead to other psychiatric conditions like depression or severe anxiety. Stress and other environmental factors can induce inflammation, which can lead to depression, in part.

Since diet plays such a massive part in the inflammatory process, controlling inflammation in the body can lead to better mental health. Studies have shown that a diet high in saturated fats and carbs can increase inflammatory factors, whereas foods high in fibre and vegetables reduce these effects.

What Works for You

When exploring if changing your diet might help radically alter your mental health, it helps if you start with a blank slate. Eat a clean diet with no processed foods or refined sugars for two to three weeks. Take detailed notes of how you feel when you wake up, at noontime, and night. Track your sleep with an app and fitness watch, if possible.

Add some foods back into your diet, taking note each time you do to see how the addition affects your physical and mental state. It is crucial to add new food items one at a time to gauge how you feel after each one.

One exceptional supplement is Omega-3 fatty acids that are primarily found in fish oil. One of the benefits that fish oil provides is smoothing out brain cells’ membranes, so that serotonin and other neurotransmitters have an easier time communicating with different parts of the body. 
The traditional diet of Japan is rich in seafood and, thus, fish oil, and they also have an incredibly low rate of depression and heart disease. Fish oil may be effective on mental disorders like anxiety and depression, and it has also shown to be beneficial for those who have arthritis, Crohn’s Disease, ADHD, and more.

Final Thoughts

There are many simple things you can do to alleviate your symptoms if you’ve been facing the challenges of depression or anxiety. Exercise, proper sleep, and diet are three ways to improve your mental health. 

Diet, in particular, plays a critical role in guiding our emotions through the production and absorption of serotonin, creating a healthy microbiome, and reducing inflammation. As with any new addition to your health and wellness regimen, start slow, and observe your body’s reactions. 

Hopefully, by tweaking the amount of fibre, fruits, and vegetables in your diet and adding beneficial supplements like Omega-3 fatty acids, you may be able to lighten your mood.

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