Brain Food: The Connection Between Nutrition and Mental Health

The stigma of mental illness

On the topic of wellness, we often think about eating healthy foods, being active, and getting enough rest. But being well encompasses more than just our physical bodies. Mental health is trending in the primary healthcare setting, and for good reason. It has been estimated that 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year.(1)  Each year, 18% of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).(2)  Meanwhile, 16 million adults (6.7% of the population) experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.(3)

Unfortunately, nearly 60% of people with a mental illness don’t receive treatment.(4) This disconnect may in part be due to the stigma people with mental disorders face. Resources and coverage for mental health are not equal to those for physical illnesses. Additionally, the severity of diseases that are “invisible” are often minimized and misunderstood by the media and the general public.

As mental health is an important component of well-being, care should incorporate appropriate psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, as well as exercise and nutritional therapy.

But how does food affect mood?

The studies have it: Our food and mood are connected in many ways. On a molecular level, even our neurotransmitters (the “feel good” chemicals in the brain) are affected by the food we eat. Glucose, the building-block of carbohydrate-rich foods like potatoes and grains, is responsible for the production of serotonin in the brain.(5) Serotonin is a well-studied neurotransmitter responsible for balancing mood and anxiety. To keep a steady blood glucose level, it is best to eat whole-grain carbohydrates, like whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal.

How else does nutrition affect brain chemistry? Healthy fats have been shown to have significant mental health benefits. In particular, the consumption of polyunsaturated fat sources like flaxseed, fish, and olive oil are beneficial in the prevention and treatment of depression.(6) Other studies have suggested that dietary flavonoids—tiny nutrients in fruits and veggies known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects—have an important role in learning and memory.(7) An overall healthy eating pattern, including high levels of fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and fish was protective against depression, while a high intake of fast food and processed pastries was associated with increased depression risk.(6)

It’s not only what we eat, but how we eat that affects the way we feel. Intuitive eating practices, such as being mindful at mealtimes, respecting one’s body, and listening to internal hunger signals, have been shown to positively affect symptoms of depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and poor self-esteem.(8)

Although nutrition is an important component of a healthy life, remember not to let food take up too much of your “mental real estate.” Worrying about what and when to eat is not ideal; instead, listen to your body, and a healthy relationship with eating will begin to blossom.

The role of the RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) have a special place in the care team when it comes to mental illness. Because food and the brain are connected on both a chemical and psychological level, medical nutrition therapy is a necessary component for maintaining mental health. Apart from depression and anxiety, other mental conditions that benefit from nutrition guidance include:

  • Addiction/alcoholism

  • Disordered eating

  • Negative body image

  • Antidepressant therapy

Keep in mind—our brain and body are connected in many ways that we often don’t realize. Having a whole-body approach to health and wellness honors both our physical and psychological selves and helps us feel our best.

 

Resources:

1. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers

2. https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

3. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression

4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4461054/

5. http://bit.ly/2aXX3MF

6. http://bit.ly/2z8s779

7. http://bit.ly/2hUHKe7

8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24631111

*Contributed to by CVwellbeing Intern Stephanie Zahares