“Let food be thy medicine” — Hippocrates
As with our physical health, our body—and what we put into it—is responsible for much of our mental health. How we feel and what we think depends, in part, on how well the system of our body functions.
When emotional, behavioral, or psychological issues arise, our body or mind gives us warning signs in the form of symptoms, and we may seek counseling services to explore our problems. While therapy gives us tools to explore our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, could it also be possible that our psychological health is being negatively affected by what we eat? In today’s post, I will explore the association between nutrition and mental health, while hopefully giving you some insight into Citron Hennessey’s mental health services in Manhattan.
How to Define Healthy Food
It would be difficult to give advice on what is healthy for everybody, simply because each body requires different nutrients. However, most research defines a healthy diet as one containing whole foods, including fresh-cooked meals featuring vegetables, fruits, fish, and nuts. In contrast, processed foods, including sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, and high-fat dairy products, have been found to adversely affect our mental health. For example, a study by Jacka and colleagues found that a diet including white bread, sugar, and processed meats has been found to correlate with depression and anxiety in women.
In 2009, a group of researchers in Barcelona found that the Mediterranean diet leads to better cognitive, mental, and physical health, as well as better quality of life, thanks to its antioxidant features and fatty acids, such as omega 3. In fact, another study by Bonaccio and colleagues in 2013 found out that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with mental health more than it was associated with physical health.
The Mental Health Effects of Nutrition
The effects of nutrition on mental health are seen in early infancy, and they even impact development in the womb. In 2008, Brown and Susser performed a famine study that looked at children who were born during the Dutch Winter of Hunger in the Second World War. In this study, they found a relationship between lack of nutrition in the womb and schizophrenia.
Depression and anxiety stem, in part, from a chemical imbalance in our bodies. Take depression for example. Imbalances in serotonin, a chemical messenger found in the brain, gut, and muscle tissues, are attributed to many of our depressive symptoms. For instance, when this specific chemical messenger is released too quickly, our bodies feel deprived of it and produce many symptoms of depression, such as low mood, low sex drive, poor sleep, loss of appetite and reduced pleasure in daily activites. Scientists now know that our gut carries a significant amount of serotonin, which helps explain how what we eat can increase or decrease the symptoms of depression.
To this point, Akbarlay and colleagues found that individuals who implemented a processed food diet experienced depression five years later, while a whole foods diet was observed as a protective factor for depression. Lastly, it turns out that eating well not only contributes to improved mental health, but the nutrients in our food can even positively affect our memory and learning. While looking for solutions for mental health concerns, it might be helpful to implement a balanced diet to complement psychotherapy.
Use Good Nutrition as a Basis for Improving Mental Health
Even though eating well may help adjust our psychological symptoms, it might also be difficult to find the motivation to start improving nutrition, since poor mental health can also contribute to unhealthy eating habits. As a therapist in training, I find it useful to ask clients about their eating habits because I think that it gives a good base for physical balance, and if addressed properly, improved eating habits can go a long way toward helping my clients overcome their depressive or anxiety symptoms. It becomes easier to explore our feelings and behaviors when we have balance in our bodies.
Next time you think of eating potato chips or a “healthy” protein bar that is full of sugar and preservatives, try snacking on some fresh fruits or nuts. Even better, replace the milk in your coffee with a plant-based milk. Experiment with changing your health habits. There are countless easy ways to become more mindful of connecting food intake to mood. You can find more tips in the following links:
Akbaraly, T. N., Brunner, E. J., Ferrie, J. E., Marmot, M. G., Kivimaki, M., & Singh-Manoux, A. (2009). Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 195(5), 408-413.
Bonaccio, M., Di Castelnuovo, A., Bonanni, A., Costanzo, S., De Lucia, F., Pounis, G., … & Iacoviello, L. (2013). Adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with a better health-related quality of life: a possible role of high dietary antioxidant content. BMJ open, 3(8), e003003.
Brown, A. S., & Susser, E. S. (2008). Prenatal nutritional deficiency and risk of adult schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 34(6), 1054-1063.
Jacka, F. N., Pasco, J. A., Mykletun, A., Williams, L. J., Hodge, A. M., O’Reilly, S. L., … & Berk, M. (2010). Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(3), 305-311.
Munoz, M. A., Fito, M., Marrugat, J., Covas, M. I., & Schröder, H. (2008). Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with better mental and physical health. British Journal of Nutrition, 101(12), 1821-1827.