Author: Monica Mame Soma Nyansa
Have you ever wondered, or are you always wondering if your dietary pattern can affect your mental health? Have you ever heard the phrase "you eat how you wanna feel?"
The answer may be a big "yes," according to the growing body of research literature on nutritional psychiatry. The determining factor of mental health seems complex, but increasing evidence points to a strong association between low-quality diet patterns and worsening of mental health.
For over three decades, researchers have studied the relationship between nutrients and how it affects our mental health. Recently, more studies are being conducted to assess how dietary patterns associate with commonly existing mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The brain is one of the largest and most complex parts of the human body. Just as we need energy from food to do physical activities, such as walking and running, the brain requires energy to maintain its structure and function. It consumes 20% of the energy we get from the food we eat. The brain is responsible for our thought process, movement, breathing, and controlling our emotions.
The term mental health is often used on social media, and we all personally know someone who struggles with mental health, yet do we know what it means? Before we move on to talk about the do's and don'ts when it comes to food and your mental health, let's talk a bit about what mental health is and what it isn't.
The basics of metal heath
Mental health problems change the mental wellbeing of a person, specifically with regards to how a person thinks, feels, or behaves, and tends to cause the person distress or difficulty in functioning. A person suffering from mental illness may not look sick physically, especially in mild cases. Mental illness ranges from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Mental health is our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing.
The brain runs on electrical signals and chemical messages to do its work. There are hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions that occur in the brain every second. Chemical compounds called neurotransmitters send messages across the brain from one part to the other. Predominant amongst neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and norepinephrine, and some are implicated in mental illnesses.
Listening to your gut?
Mental illnesses such as depression are related to changes in brain chemicals. For example, scientists found that the levels of serotonin are lower in individuals suffering from depression and have developed medications that boost serotonin levels called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sleep, and prevents pain. Serotonin is synthesized from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Most of the body's serotonin is produced outside the brain, specifically in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and is believed to serve as a link in the brain-gut connection. This might explain why we feel 'butterflies in our stomach' when nervous because the signals are likely coming from the "second brain" in your gut.
This brain-gut connection is helping researchers understand more about the link between digestion and your mental health. The gut microbiome (microbes and their genetic materials residing in the GI tract) also affects the production of serotonin in the GI tract. The microbiome functions to establish and maintain the intestinal lining. Diet and nutrition change the makeup of our gut microbiota. Using fermented milk products containing probiotics have been reported to affect emotional behavior. Research studying the effect of probiotics and prebiotics on mental health show that they might improve mental health via several mechanisms.
Food-mental health connection
One of the ways we can take care of our mental health, as the literature suggests, is to be more mindful of our diet and nutrition. Healthy dietary patterns that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes affect your brain health as well as your mood.
In a study to assess how habitual diet influences the development of commonly existing mental disorders such as depression and anxiety in women, 1046 Australian women between the ages of 20-93 were randomly selected. Using a food frequency questionnaire, a general health questionnaire, and a structured clinical interview, the researchers were able to identify habitual dietary patterns, measure psychological symptoms, and assess the current depressive and anxiety disorders of the women. The dietary pattern was grouped into 'traditional' and 'Western.' A 'traditional' diet consisted of vegetables, fruits, meat, whole grains, and fish, while a 'western' diet was mostly meat pies, processed meats, pizza, chips, hamburgers, white bread, sugar, flavored milk drinks, and beer. The study reports a lower likelihood of depressive and anxiety disorders of women who consumed a traditional diet, while women who consumed a western diet had increased psychological symptoms. The higher the quality of the diet, which was judged by the diet quality score, the lower the psychological symptoms after adjustment for differences in age, socioeconomic factors, education, and physical activity.
Also, on the benefit of fruits and vegetable consumption and its effects on psychological wellbeing, a study by researchers at the University of Otago reported the association of diet rich in fruit and vegetable with increased reported happiness and higher psychological wellbeing, even if it's for a short period of time. The researchers hypothesized that the increased wellbeing might be due to vitamin C and carotenoids, which act as cofactors for dopamine, which boosts motivational states. Or, this correlation could be due to the positive psychological expectancies, such as the perception that consuming fruits and vegetables will make you feel better.
Alcoholic consumption plays a huge part in your mental health
Another major part of our nutrition that could affect our mental health is alcohol. Alcohol is known to have a depressant effect on the brain. Heavy alcohol usage alters brain chemicals and affects its function. Mood disturbances are the commonest effect of alcohol on mental health wellbeing. Epidemiological studies looking at the effect of alcohol dependence on the brain have shown that it could lead to major depression, bipolar disorder, and less likely, anxiety.
The message in a nutshell