It has been known for decades that diet and food choices have a significant impact on our physical health but it is only recently that society and the medical community is recognizing the impacts that diet has on our mental health. Mental health issues are thought to be the result of a combination of factors that include both genetics, one’s experiences and environment.
Conventional psychological treatments typically focus on the psychological, emotional and behavioral factors, but exclude diet as a means to help support mental health. However over the past decade there have been an increasing number of studies including randomized controlled trials investigating the relationship between mental health and dietary factors. This article is a review of some of the major studies examining how dietary changes produce significant changes in one’s mood, mental health and anxiety levels.
Emotional Eating as a Source of Anxiety
Do you ever crave something sweet or salty when you are feeling stressed or anxious? This isn’t a coincidence. Eating something with a high fat, salt or sugar content in response to stress activates the reward system in the brain via the dopamine, opioid and endocannabinoid systems. These make us feel good and reinforces the habit that in order to feel better when feeling stressed, we should eat these foods to help calm us down.
If this dietary pattern in response to stress continues long term, we can start developing insulin resistance blocking sugar from being delivered to your cells for fuel. With no sugar being shuttled into your cells, your body then starts releasing more insulin, causing sugar to accumulate in your blood stream, leading to pre-diabetes and eventually diabetes.
When your cells don’t receive sugar as their fuel, the body responds by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help raise blood sugar and bring the body back into balance. With the release of these hormones, comes the cascade of physical symptoms that feel and look like anxiety: rapid breathing, increased heart rate and inability to think rationally.
How to eat to help Manage Anxiety
There is increasingly more support for modifying one’s dietary patterns overall rather than focusing on specific nutrients to add to one’s diet that can support one’s mental health. Research suggests that eating a varied diet of seasonal and fresh fruits and vegetables, quality sources of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, ensures that you are getting the widest range of beneficial nutrients.
A study of over 1,000 women ages 20-93 years old, were assessed for psychological symptoms as well as dietary patterns. Results showed that a dietary pattern that included vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and whole grains was associated with lower odds for major depression or dysthymia and for anxiety disorders. On the other hand a diet that included processed foods, refined grains, sugar products and beer, was associated with a more depressive and anxiety symptoms.
Feeding our gut Bacteria to help our Mental Health
More recent research is investigating the impact and influence that our gut bacteria has on our mental health and how feeding the “good” gut bacteria influences our mood. One California study used a pool of over 100 adults age 25-45 without diagnosed mood disorders to assess dietary intake, gut microbiota and subjective emotional states. Relationships were observed between the kind of bacteria found in participants’ fecal matter and their scores that assessed their mood. They found that men with more Lactobacillus bacteria were less depressed and women with more Bifidobacterium were less anxious.
This early research indicates that certain gut bugs are in part responsible for our mood states and our diet dictates what kind of gut bugs and how much we have. Eating a diet rich in whole foods like seasonal vegetables and fruits, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and quality protein ensures that we are feeding our “good” gut bacteria while in turn, help support our mental health and positive mood states.
Treating anxiety requires a comprehensive plan that involves psychological, behavioral, dietary and lifestyle interventions in order to be most effective in not only reducing symptoms now, but improving the quality of lives for people suffering with these issues by decreasing the risk for relapse. Diet is an incredible tool to help improve one’s mental health that is certainly under utilized. More research is needed to continue to help elucidate how food can be used for specific mental health issues but the evidence is clear that eating a diet rich in whole foods with a balanced plate filled with quality proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, will keep your brain and body healthy. With growing research, and more nutritional psychologists and psychiatrists emerging in the field, my hope is that modifying one’s diet will become a standard to include in all psychological treatment.