how diet affects mental health

How Diet Affects Mental Health and Outlook

Every person has neurotransmitters that send signals, telling the body and mind how to feel and act. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA, and endorphins are a few examples. For many years, these neurotransmitters were thought to be in the brain only. However, recent research shows most neurotransmitters are located in the gut and send signals to the brain through the vagus nerve.

As food passes through the digestive system, it influences how neurotransmitters respond. This finding means what you eat can affect your mood, and that diet and outlook on life are directly connected.

Inflammation, Diet, and Mental Health

Multiple studies have proven people with depression have higher levels of inflammation than those without depression. Stress is a significant cause of inflammation due to the body’s release of specific hormones like cortisol when it feels pressure. This is a healthy defense mechanism. However, many people remain in a constant state of stress, starting in early childhood—for example, a child exposed to maltreatment or trauma.

The overproduction of hormones means the body stores hormones it cannot immediately use, like in areas around the waist. Too often, people choose to eat comfort foods to ease stress, leading to weight gain and the potential for other diseases like diabetes, also associated with inflammation. It becomes a vicious cycle that leaves a person feeling sad, exhausted, achy, and a lack of enjoyment for life.

Fats, Sugars, and Mental Health

Plenty of evidence supports an increased risk of depression and anxiety in those who eat foods high in fat and processed sugars. Also, those who reduced the amount of red meats, processed sugars, and saturated fats and began eating fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, and healthy oils saw a significant reduction in depression.

High sugar intake has been linked to increased schizophrenic symptoms. One study found a link between schizophrenia and diabetes. Participants had higher levels of resting glucose. Even when being adequately treated with medication, the connection still exists. This is alarming because both conditions are said to shorten life spans.

There are good fatty acids, like omega-3. The body needs good fatty acids to function correctly. Then there are harmful, saturated fatty acids you find in oils used to fry food, processed cheese, and some of our favorite comfort foods. These fats cause an imbalance in some of the things a person needs for optimal brain functioning, like cholesterol and hormones. When these are out of balance, a domino effect involves inflammation and an increase in depression and anxiety.

Food Can Be An Addiction

Food addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders yet, but it does exist. Some have listed specific symptoms, like having cravings even when you are full, eating more than intended, repeated attempts to stop overeating without success, eating in secret, and being unable to quit eating poorly despite having physical and mental health problems.

These symptoms are very similar to those of all other addictions. Since we know addiction of any kind is a mental health disorder, food should also be considered a mental health disorder.

Food is Mental Health Medicine

It has been proven time and again that certain foods have healing properties. Natural foods have vitamins and nutrients our bodies need. Eating the right foods can also improve how antidepressants work to control depression and anxiety.

Fiber benefits the digestive system and helps maintain good gut bacteria. Most people do not get enough daily fiber, broken down into short-chain fatty acids, beneficial to keeping everything in balance. The recommended dose of fiber is between 19 and 38 mg a day. Fiber is associated with lower rates of depression. Antioxidants also lower depressive symptoms, including the ones you get by eating fruits, drinking teas, or adding spices like curcumin to your vegetables.

Nutritional Psychology

Nutritional psychology is an up-and-coming field that addresses the link between what you eat and how you feel. The nutrients you provide your body and mind improve cognitive processes, perceptions, and actions or reactions. Your moods are stable versus up and down, like after you eat high sugar or high carb meals and then crash.

There are numerous studies proving the connection between diet, depression, and anxiety.

The principles of nutritional psychology align with integrated whole health treatment, which many mental health professionals apply today. They understand treating the entire body is the only way to ensure long-term changes.

A Simple Plan to Improve Mental Health

If you are ready to change your food and your mood, start small. Trying to accomplish everything at once will become overwhelming and lead to you giving up and returning to old food habits. Instead, make one or two significant changes a week. For example, the first week of your plan could include exchanging fried foods for baked varieties. Or replace one soda with the same amount of water.

The second week of your new lifestyle can include increasing the good fats in your diet, eating more oily fish like salmon, and taking omega-3 supplements. You may also want to increase other vitamins and nutrients through supplements. Vitamins B and D, amino acids, and magnesium are vital components of improving mental health. Without them, neurotransmitters do not function correctly. Choose foods rich in these vitamins and take supplements to cover the amount you didn’t get through foods.

Each week swap an unhealthy diet component with a healthy one. Before you know it, you will be feeling better mentally and physically.

Add Counseling for Extra Benefits

Getting advice and guidance from a licensed professional counselor will help you stay accountable and feel less alone in your journey. If you think you have a food addiction, counseling can help you overcome it. Reaching out for help to improve mental health, for any reason, is a sign of strength. It shows you care enough about yourself to seek advice from a professional. So, go ahead, do this for your mental health. Reach out today to learn more about diet and mental health.