We all know that what we eat is important for our physical bodies. However, what we consume can be just as important to our mental health. After all, the brain is a part of the body! The food we eat has the ability to affect how our physical body feels, thereby impacting our mental health. In addition, food can cause the release of certain chemicals in the brain, greatly affecting our psychological experience. This has become an important piece in mental health treatment, and many holistic addiction treatment programs and mental health clinics are beginning to offer nutritional counseling and dietary education as part of their programs.
You may be sick of hearing about sugars and health. Of course, not all sugars are inherently bad. Sugar from fruits consumed in moderation can actually be beneficial. A 2009 study found that intake of sucrose, a plant-based sugar, was linked to higher anxiety levels in rats.In a 2015 study, it was found that higher sugar intake was linked to increased risk of depression. Because of spikes in blood sugar caused by the high glycemic index of sucrose, taking in too much sugar causes a rise in anxiety and a subsequent fall. This “crash” when the blood sugar drops can leave one feeling depressed, tired, and in need of more sugar. This up-and-down creates a cycle in which we need more sugar, causing further anxiety.
Caffeine is a stimulant most often consumed in coffee, tea, chocolate, and sodas. Although there has been dispute about whether or not caffeine causes any clinically-observable anxiety disorder, it has been linked to panic attacks. Especially when consumed in high amounts, caffeine can be quite unhealthy. Like sugar, caffeine can cause a “crashing” feeling when it wears off. As a stimulant, it can help us focus and give us energy; the downside is that this effect can also exacerbate panic disorders and cause a tired feeling. Also like sugar, we often find ourselves craving more caffeine when its effects wear off.
In a 2011 study of Spanish university students, researchers found that high intake of trans unsaturated fats correlated with higher incidence of clinical depression. Trans fats have been a focus of health experts in recent years, as they raise bad cholesterol and lower the good cholesterol levels. Trans fats are often found in fried foods, fast food, and cakes and baked goods. If you already have some risk factors for developing major depressive disorder like a family history or a history of trauma, it may be best to steer clear of trans fat. In addition to aiding your mental health, lowering your intake will help keep your arteries clear and heart beating strong!
Time of Eating
It’s not just about what you eat, but when you eat. Skipping meals throughout your day and eating late at night have both been linked to a decrease in focus and energy. We all get busy from time to time and skip a meal. However, you may find yourself getting in the habit of skipping meals regularly. This decrease in concentration and inability to focus on what we need to do can cause a dip in job performance, our ability to perform daily tasks, and participate in relationships in our lives. Although not directly linked to a clinically-observable mental health disorder, eating at inconsistent times does indeed cause a lack of focus, which can lead to a decrease in psychological well-being.
Folates is a type of B vitamin found in many foods. Many green vegetables, fruits, nuts and beans, and whole grains contain folates, especially in the form of folic acid. Folates have many physical health benefits such as reducing the risk of certain cancers, reducing risk of birth defects, and lowering the risk of heart disease. In addition, studies have found that low folate intake is linked to higher rates of depression. Furthermore, higher folate intake increases the efficacy of antidepressant medication in those experiencing major depressive disorder. So eat your fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains!
You may have heard of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3’s are found in fish, fish oils, and nuts and seeds such as chia, flax, and soy. Like folates, these fatty acids are healthy for the heart and the physical body. They act as an anti-inflammatory, and actually decrease inflammation in the brain. Eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids raises your level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the brain, and heightened EPA levels have been shown to be helpful in treating patients with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. Furthermore, a 2008 study found that high EPA levels are linked with lower anxiety. There is some dispute in the psychiatric community about how effective omega-3’s are, but it’s safe to say that as far as we know they can only help your brain!
Vitamin D is a vitamin we often receive from sunlight. You can also get vitamin D from fortified dairy products, fatty fish, and egg yolks. Vitamin D activates genes that regular the immune system and release neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Multiple researchers and studies have found that there are vitamin D receptors in regions of the brain linked closely with depression, and that increased intake of this vitamin helps improve mood. Perhaps more importantly, vitamin D deficiency has been found to prolong the recovery process from depression. On a non-dietary note, exercise and spending time outside has also been linked to increased moods, so getting outside is an all-around good idea for those who may be at higher risk of depression!
Water is one of our most basic needs. It’s important for quite a few foundational physical functions, but also affects the brain! Research has found that dehydration impairs short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memory. When the brain has to work harder, we become stressed. Because of this relationship, dehydration has been linked to heightened levels of stress. Staying hydrated throughout your day can actually ease some stress! Water may not be the best tasting beverage to you, but it’s perhaps one of the most important things we can consume for our health.
These are just a few ways that what we eat can affect our mental health. There are of course many foods, chemicals, and habits that can create a change in the brain. As time goes on and researchers continue to seek understanding, we know more and more about how our diet may affect our mental health.