The link between healthy eating and mental health
Eating smarter could lead to improved mood and wellbeing
Kathy Cunningham, M.Ed., R.D., L.D. | 9/22/2015, 6 a.m.
It might be surprising to know that there is a connection between mental health and nutrition. Research linking the two is growing at a rapid pace. In one survey, almost two-thirds of those interviewed who did not report daily mental health concerns said that they ate fresh fruit or drank fruit juice every day, compared with fewer than half of those who did report daily mental health problems.
The findings were similar for fresh vegetables and salad.
In addition, participants who complained of mental health issues were more likely to consume unhealthy foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, processed foods, snacks, and high-fat fast foods from take-out restaurants.
While professional treatment of mental illness is essential, making dietary changes which can improve mood should be an integral part of the treatment plan. A balanced mood and feeling of wellbeing depend on a diet that provides adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals and water. There should also be a limited consumption of foods and beverages containing high sugar content.
How nutrients in foods can affect mental health
Carbohydrates: The primary source of energy for the brain is glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates — simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and white bread and rice, provide a quick jolt of energy causing a spike in sugar in the blood. They offer little in the way of nutrients but also exacerbate low mood. The effect of an excessive intake of sugary beverages and foods on the brain has been shown to be similar to that of drug abuse.
People who consume too much sugar may experience fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, poor concentration and forgetfulness. Depression and crying spells are also common.
By contrast, complex carbohydrates release glucose slowly providing a steady source of fuel for the brain and B vitamins for the body. Examples of healthy complex carbohydrates include whole-wheat products, oats, wild rice, barley, beans and soy.
Some complex carbohydrates from leafy greens — spinach, romaine, turnip and mustard greens, and broccoli, for example — are also high in folic acid. Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin that supports the function of the nervous system. It aids in the production of neurotransmitters or chemicals that are used by nerves to send signals throughout the body. Deficiencies in folate as well as other B vitamins have been linked to higher rates of depression, fatigue and insomnia.
Broccoli also contains selenium, a trace mineral that plays an important role in the immune system functioning, reproduction and thyroid hormone metabolism. Some studies suggest that low levels of selenium contribute to depression.
Protein: Proteins help maintain our skin, organ, muscle and immune function. Next to carbohydrates, protein is the most abundant substance in the body. The amino acid tryptophan, a building block of protein, influences mood by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is sometimes called nature’s Prozac. Low levels of serotonin is associated with depression.
Lean protein sources, including fish, turkey, chicken, eggs and beans, or a meat substitute such as textured vegetable protein, help keep serotonin levels balanced. Protein and carbohydrates team up to improve mental health. To increase the effectiveness of protein, complex carbohydrates can actually facilitate the entry of tryptophan into the brain, thus reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety and improving overall cognitive function.