It's a widely accepted and supported concept that nutrition plays an important role in physical health. A growing body of scientific evidence now suggests an important direct link between nutrition intake and mental health.
Just as the body requires fuel and nourishment to function optimally, so does the brain. Nourishment for the brain (and body) comes from macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fats, and from micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Poor food choices can adversely affect physical health. What's now becoming better understood is that quality food is also crucial for good mental health.
The role of nutrition in the prevention and management of mental health conditions
The emerging field of nutritional psychiatry aims to improve mental health through dietary changes. Research is discovering that optimal nutrition choices can help protect the brain. For example, a diet that is high in essential fatty acids can slow the progression of memory loss.
Nutrition can play a role in the prevention and management of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Let's take a closer look at some of the elements of nutrition that are tied closely to mental health.
Nutrients for optimal brain functioning and better mental health
Nutrition for better mental health doesn't need to be complex. At a broad level, nutritional concepts that support optimal physical health also ring true for mental health. In general, a varied nutrient-rich diet primarily comprised of minimally-processed whole foods will offer positive benefits. Fruits and vegetables are especially important.
Macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants all play important, essential roles in the brain. Let's take a look at some examples.
Macronutrients for the brain
Macronutrients are the "big" components that food is made up of. Four of the main macronutrients that are important for the brain are carbohydrates, fats, protein, and water.
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the usual source of fuel for the brain.
The brain is made up of around 60% fat. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat and they must be obtained from dietary sources. Fatty acids are essential for optimal brain function and performance.
Some of the most important essential fatty acids for the brain are omega 3 and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a type of omega 3. Low levels of omega 3 have been linked to depression, and the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is also important.
Fatty acids can also produce ketones, which can be used as fuel for the brain when required (for example, on a very low carbohydrate diet).
Water is another important macronutrient for the brain. It's essential for hydration, which helps with attention and focus. Dehydration can also negatively affect mood.
Micronutrients for the brain
Vitamins and minerals also play important roles in the brain, and can therefore affect mental health. Some of the most essential vitamins for mental health include B vitamins and folate. Low levels of these vitamins have been linked to depression.
Several whole foods offer good sources of vitamin B. Examples include leafy greens, legumes, meat, and fish. Folate can be found in foods such as dark leafy greens, fruits, and beans.
Vitamin D is also important for mood regulation. Links have been found between vitamin D and serotonin levels, and also the regulation of sleep, both of which can have a profound effect on mood. The sun is an excellent source of vitamin D, so spending time outdoors on sunny days is helpful for obtaining this key nutrient. Foods such as eggs and milk also offer good levels of vitamin D.
Some of the minerals that can impact mental health include calcium, zinc, iron, chromium, and iodine. For example, studies have found that zinc levels can be lower in people with clinical depression.
Nutrition choices that may negatively impact mental health
Just as there are nutrients that are essential to optimal brain functioning and mental health, there are food choices that can have a negative impact on mental health.
Food deprivation and restriction can negatively affect mood. For some people, skipping meals could lead to grumpiness or an inability to focus properly. Many bodybuilders have experienced a negative impact on their moods in the lead up to a competition. This is the time when carbohydrate-containing foods are typically severely restricted.
Caffeine-containing beverages can offer a temporary mood boost due to their link with neurotransmitter activity. They can also be helpful for improving focus. People have different levels of caffeine tolerance and some people may experience feelings of anxiety when they've had too much, often registered in the body as a "jittery" feeling.
A high sugar intake can have a negative impact on mental health. Sugar offers an immediate and temporary energy boost and then a subsequent crash, which can affect mood.
Sugar has a particularly strong impact on dopamine levels. Dopamine affects the "reward" center of the brain, which is why sugar can be so addictive — it's easy to want more of the euphoric feeling that comes with it.
Processed foods, which are often high in refined sugar, also typically lack the nutrients required for optimal brain functioning. Highly processed diets are linked to a higher susceptibility for developing psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.
Alcohol can initially lift mood but can have a progressively negative effect on mental health. It may cause depressive symptoms in some people, and anger in others.
Other ways food intake could affect mental health
It may not only be the nutritional component of food that either positively or negatively affects mental health.
What is happening in the brain can directly impact what is going on in the gut. Essentially, the gut is very sensitive to emotions. Research also shows that the communication system between the gut and brain works both ways. When there are problems in the gut, messages are sent to the brain. Therefore, gut problems could be a potential contributing factor to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression (and vice versa).
Behavioral theories should also be considered. Healthier food choices require behavioral changes to be made. Some of these behavior changes could have the effect of improving mood. For example, stronger relationships could be formed as a result of making the shift towards cooking at home or eating together at the dinner table. This social element could have a mood-boosting effect that is separate from the mood-boosting effects of the food itself.
What you eat matters
In summary, nutrition is one element that can play an essential role in mental health. Research in the field of nutritional psychiatry is still emerging, and the relationship between nutrition and mental health is likely to be multi-factorial.