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The Link Between Diet and Mental Health

The Link Between Diet and Mental Health

Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels

You may have heard the expression, “You are what you eat”, but you may not know that what you eat could be the very root of your mental health. Your brain is always processing and transmitting information, and it requires a great deal of energy to do this. The average adult’s brain in a resting state consumes nearly 20% of the body’s energy. It needs a constant supply of fuel. What type of food you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and ultimately good or poor mental health.

According to the CDC, nearly 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with some form of mental illness during their lives. There are many complex factors that can affect a person’s mental health—stress, levels of physical activity, drugs, genetics, and other environmental factors.

The relatively new field of Nutritional Psychiatry focuses on how a person’s diet can prevent, treat, or improve mental health disorders. Researchers are discovering that the diets of people with mental disorders such as anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD are lacking key nutrients especially essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Insufficient amounts of Vitamin B9 (folate), for example, has been associated with depression. Vitamin D deficiency is one of the factors in the cause and development of schizophrenia. Replenishing these nutrients with daily supplements has been shown to effectively reduce the patient’s symptoms.

There is a direct link between your gut and your brain.

Serotonin, the body’s natural “feel good” chemical, is a neurotransmitter that helps curb pain and regulates your appetite, sleep, and moods. About 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells or neurons. These neurons improve how well you absorb nutrients. Serotonin causes blood vessels to contract which helps send information across the nervous system. This triggers neural pathways directly from the gut to the brain. Studies have linked a decrease in serotonin to mood disorders, depressions, and memory problems. Foods that naturally boost serotonin include salmon, eggs, seeds, and spinach.

The Modern American Diet (MAD) or the Standard American Diet (SAD) has shown a marked decrease in nutrients since the 1950s. In some parts of the country, our life expectancy is lower than in several underdeveloped countries, and that’s because of our diet. The largest diet study in more than 15 years, “The State of U.S. Health, 1990-2010,” compared the American diet to that of 33 other countries. What these scientists found was shocking.

The American diet is characterized by low consumption of fruits and vegetables, high amounts of meat, dairy, fat, and sugar, and processed foods (fast food/junk food). By far, our greatest risk for disease, disabilities and death is our diet. What we eat is more dangerous to our health than any other factor.

The Link Between Diet and Mental Health

Source: The State of US Health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors. JAMA. 2013;10.1001/jama.2013.13805

“Diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”

~ The Lancet Psychiatry

What are the best foods for optimal brain health?

Researchers from Hellenic Open University, Greece, led by Konstantinos Argyropoulos, M.D., Ph.D., found that the Mediterranean diet rich in vegetable, fruits, seafood, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and legumes was associated with a decrease in depression and was more likely to guard against depression later in life. In 2006, Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, M.D., M.Sc., associate professor of neurology, Columbia University-National found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet were protected against Alzheimer’s disease. Those patients with AD who ate a Mediterranean-type diet lived an average of four years longer. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (walnuts, flax seeds), omega-3s (salmon, mackerel), phospholipids, cholesterol, B vitamins and vitamin D all show beneficial effects on mental health.

Size matters.

Rachel A. Whitmer, PhD, a Research Scientist of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, CA, and member of the American Academy of Neurology studied the abdominal fat of 6,583 people aged 40 to 45. The study found that those with the highest amount of abdominal fat were nearly three times more likely to develop dementia in their 70s than those with the lowest amount of abdominal fat. Moreover, extra belly fat may be linked to brain atrophy. Research by Mark Hamer, a professor at Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences in Leicestershire, England found that carrying excess belly is linked to shrinkage in brain size, especially lower volumes of gray matter.

Treating depression with food.

Felice Jacka of Deakin University in Australia led the Australian study known as the SMILES Trial (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States). She followed 67 men and women with moderate to severe depressions. Half of the participants followed a modified Mediterranean diet, while the other group continued to follow their unhealthy diets. After three months, without any changes in exercise or body weight, those who followed the healthier diet experienced the greatest benefit to their depression symptoms.

Start eating well at an early age.

Several studies show that maternal and early-life nutrition can determine a person’s mental health later in life. Poor nutrition, especially during the formative years have been implicated in the onset of depression and psychotic disorders. Sugar is one of the biggest threats to human health including mental health. Not only is sugar addictive, but it has been linked to depression, anxiety, addictive behavior, memory loss, and compromised cognitive ability.

“We teach the kids that, through healthy eating, their minds can be clearer, their aches and pains can be relieved, and their futures can be brighter.”

~ Dr. Rachel Fortune, Medical Director at Newport Academy

Nutritional medicine has become an important element of psychiatric practice. Psychiatrists can recommend nutritional supplements and then adjust the doses according to each patient’s responses. For example, supplements containing amino acids have been shown to alleviate depression. Scientific evidence points to nutritional supplement/treatment in controlling and at times preventing depression, anxiety disorders, ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia, eating disorders, autism, and addiction.

Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors

Photo by Max Delsid on Unsplash

The evidence is clear that what we eat plays a vital role in our mental health, and that our diet can prevent and treat depression and other mental health disorders.

If you’d like to learn more about how your diet can affect your mental health, or if you’d like to talk to someone about another mental health issue, please call us at 718-577-2583 to set up a free 15-minute consultation. All American Psychiatric Practice. We’re here to help you.


The Link Between Diet and Mental Health


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