Nutrition and Mental Health
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
You may be wondering why I, someone studying to become a Registered Dietitian, am writing about mental health.
As a complex and multi-faceted issue that includes social, biological, and psychological dimensions, solutions and treatments for mental health concerns also need to be multi-faceted.
Believe it or not, food has an intricate relationship with mental health and therefore, plays a key role in the dialogue. In fact, it is now thought that nutrition may be as important to mental health as it is to heart health.
Disclaimer: Before we go any further, I do want to say that if you have any concerns about your mental health or well-being, please be sure to seek professional help from an interdisciplinary team. Please do not try to self-diagnose or self-prescribe dietary changes/supplements to address any mental health concerns you may have. This article is simply meant to draw attention to the incredible impact of food that goes well beyond physical health.
Mental illness does not discriminate; it impacts people of all cultures, age groups, education levels, and income levels. Specifically, 8% of adults are expected to experience depression at some point in their lives. Though each person with depression experiences it in a different way, there are some common symptoms. These include feelings of hopelessness, depressed mood, poor concentration, fatigue, low energy, loss of interest in previously-pleasurable activities, and changes in weight or appetite.
Research shows that a healthy diet may reduce risk for depressive symptoms and clinical depression. Specifically, low intakes of healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables, and high consumption of refined sugar seem to be associated with greater risk for depression. Diet quality can also impact the severity of depressive symptoms. Specific nutrients linked to depressive symptoms are B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and antioxidants.
Let’s talk briefly about each of these:
B vitamins include thiamine, riboflavin, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. They help synthesize DNA, maintain the fatty myelin covering over neurons, and help produce mood-altering neurotransmitters, which allow neurons to communicate with each other. Luckily, B vitamins are found in a wide array of foods like whole grains, meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, and leafy greens. If you don’t eat animal foods, it is important to take a B12 supplement or include vitamin B12-fortified foods, like fortified cereals, in your diet.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 is required for healthy cell membranes as well as efficient neuron communication in the brain. Good sources of omega-3 include fatty fish (like salmon and sardines), chia seeds, and flax seeds. Making an overnight chia pudding for breakfast or using salmon instead of chicken in your lunch wrap are simple ways to incorporate more of these healthy fats into your day.
Vitamin D promotes the gene expression of enzymes that produce neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline. Low amounts of these neurotransmitters seem to be associated with the development of mood disorders. For most of us, adequate vitamin D is difficult to achieve through food alone. Fatty fish (like tuna and salmon), eggs, and fortified foods (like dairy milk), are great sources, but taking a vitamin D3 supplement may also be beneficial for you.
Antioxidants can help fight the oxidative stress that leads to DNA damage and subsequently, conditions like depression and anxiety. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants so aim to include a variety of them at most meals. For instance, you could have a spinach and onion omelette for breakfast, roasted red bell peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower with your lunch, and some delicious berries for a mid-day snack.
All in all, the message here is simply to incorporate a wide variety of foods in your diet. It's the overall eating pattern that matters here!
At this point, I would like to reiterate:if you are dealing with any mental health concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to a health professional.
Stay nourished my friends,