Hippocrates, known as the founder of western medicine, once famously said: “Let your food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”
This rings true perhaps more now than it ever has before. Food: so important and complex, at times it seems as though our whole world revolves around it. It’s not just nutrition for our bodies – it’s celebration for a new job, it’s Saturday night family dinners, it’s frustration when we want to lose weight, it’s that tantalizing cheeseburger advertisements between videos. It’s joy, it’s sorrow, it’s temptation, it’s comfort.
Food is also our health – in addition to providing nutrition and energy for our bodies, guess what! Recent research has shown that our food intake can actually impact our mental health! Yes, this means that we have more tools than originally thought to support a mentally healthy lifestyle. Let’s take a look at why and discover ways to improve our eating to boost our mental health.
The Depressing News on Depression, and the Fantastic News about Food
According to a report by the WHO, worldwide depression rates have risen over the past 15 years; teenage depression has seen an even greater increase. Mental health issues impact people in a variety of ways: they can lower someone’s health, decrease their productivity, increase their chance of physical disability, and decrease someone’s quality of life. How and what teenagers eat in this developmental stage of their lives can affect their emotions in the future. As adults, what we eat also impacts our mental health.
Our food choices and antioxidant intake have been proven to be a significant factor when preventing and clinically treating depression. Balanced nutrition positively supports crucial factors in our brain, such as our emotions, memory capacity, and cognition. One of the main reasons for this is due to the interactions between food and neurotransmitters in our brain. Some foods affect the neurotransmitters positively, while others negatively. Perhaps the old saying “you are what you eat,” should be rephrased to: “you feel what you eat.”
Those who follow a Western diet (that is, a diet with a larger intake of carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, and refined or processed foods) have a higher chance of developing a mental health issue, whereas Mediterranean diets, which include a large amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, legumes, and whole grains, displayed “protective effects” against mental health issues. Ensuring a healthy intake of nutrient-rich foods and varied healthy food groups may improve mental health!
Now that we’ve learned that food has extra powers, what is being done about it?
More and more, doctors and therapists today are taking a holistic approach to developing mental health care and treatment plans. Following the latest research, strategies on what people eat and don’t eat are being added to supplement people’s mental health care plans. Nutritional plans that include eating fresh fruits and vegetables as well as fresh meat and fish can help reduce the effects of depression.
This isn’t to suggest that medication and therapy should be disregarded or stopped. Doing so could be very dangerous. On the contrary: such resources are incredibly valuable for many people!
However useful, therapy can often be a financial and time burden, and while medication for mental health issues undoubtedly produces positive benefits for many people, it can also come with a variety of side effects, proving unviable or unbearable for some people. These side effects can include, but are not limited to, “nausea, increased appetite and weight gain, sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction and decreased orgasm, fatigue and drowsiness, and insomnia.” Sounds fun, right?
If you are experiencing these side effects, we encourage you to consider talking to your doctor: other forms of treatment or medication might prove more beneficial to you.
So, what’s exciting about this new research is that it allows for treatment flexibility. Doctors may suggest a nutritional component to a treatment plan in addition to medication or therapy. In some cases, a strict diet may even be suggested in place of medication.
And – if you’re at risk of developing a mental health disorder – following a nutritional plan can actually be preventive against mental health issues.
Since there was little previous focus on the prevention of depression and anxiety before now, this new method is particularly notable: by changing your diet, you have a greater chance of maintaining a healthy mental state and warding off mental illness.
Perhaps the most exciting research completed in the area of examining food’s impact on mental health was conducted by MooDFOOD: a consortium of 13 organizations in 9 European countries that analyzed expert knowledge “in nutrition, preventive psychology, consumer behavior, and psychiatry to investigate the potential of food in the prevention of depression.” This five-year research project resulted in fascinating discoveries about foods’ impact on our mental health: although their research found that taking nutritional supplements does not work to prevent depression, eating the correct nutrient-dense foods does indeed help.
MooDFOOD’s team went above and beyond, providing a booklet on tips for how to eat for mental health. They even prepared an additional practitioner’s guide which we could bring to our doctors when discussing using diet changes to supplement our treatment plans.
Another notable aspect of the latest research is the similar emphasis on people with and without mental health issues. Each previously-mentioned study emphasized that eating nutrient-rich foods does not only help people with or at-risk of mental illness: eating mental-health supporting foods can help all people keep our moods positive or stable.
Let’s examine some of those foods and start improving our moods!
This category includes salmon, tuna, and mackerel. They have a high concentration of vitamin D, which has been recently proven to positively impact mood. In fact, a study was conducted on 40 participants suffering from depression, and they were randomly assigned to take doses of vitamin D. After eight weeks of vitamin D treatment, depression scores improved in patients that took vitamin D supplements.
However, don’t go too heavy on your vitamin D consumption. You most probably won’t overdose on Vitamin D if you’re eating fatty fish. But if you’re relying on supplements to get your intake, talk to your doctor for the correct dosage for you because excessive consumption can be harmful. Some of the symptoms include nausea, weight loss, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, in extreme cases, confusion, heart problems, and kidney problems.
We all know that they’re healthy and essential for our physical health. But who knew that they also impact our mental health. Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients and have a positive impact on the brain’s serotonergic status that boosts our mood. Although they may not cure depression, fruits and vegetables have been proven to play a significant role in preventing it.
Yes! Chocolate can boost your mood! Dark chocolate in particular has been proven to have a mood-elevating impact especially in terms of reducing anxiety and depression symptoms. Participants in a study analysing the effect of chocolate on positive moods were given the option of eating a small portion of chocolate or a cracker, either mindfully and non-mindfully(mindful eating is an eating approach that focuses on people’s sensual awareness of food and how they experience it. Calories, carbs, fat, and protein have little to do with it.) Results showed that those who were instructed to eat chocolate mindfully experienced a higher rise in positive mood than those who were instructed to eat chocolate non-mindfully or crackers mindfully or non-mindfully. The study concludes that chocolate helps boost our mood, but only when consumed mindfully.
Either in a fresh salad or a creamy sauce, mushrooms are another option if you want to boost your mood. Similar to fatty fish, mushrooms have some vitamin D in their composition, which positively helps alleviate depression. Also, some stores are now increasing vitamin D content in mushrooms by exposing them to ultraviolet light.
Chicken & Eggs
They are known to provide a wide range of amino acids, including tryptophan. What is tryptophan, you may ask? Well, it is an essential amino acid (obviously) found in many protein-based foods that plays a significant role in increasing brain serotonin that acts as an antidepressant.
Guys, this is for you! Walnuts contain Vitamin E, folate, melatonin, many antioxidative polyphenols, and large concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids. Research was performed on sixty-four college students to examine the mood effects of walnuts on young males and females. They were randomly assigned to one of two therapy sequences: walnut–placebo or placebo–walnut in a crossover study. Results showed that walnuts seem to boost mood in non-depressed healthy young males; however, it showed no evidence in females.
But ladies, don’t despair! Nuts are helpful for everyone! They are high in tryptophan, which, as mentioned before, is the amino acid responsible for boosting our mood.
The best advice to boost mood would be, eat what makes you happy as long as you’re mindful. Practicing mindfulness and mindful eating can help avoid or combat emotional eating, and will lead to a healthier self overall! You don’t have to follow a strict diet; you only have to find the right balance and realize what works for you, for your body, and for your mind. Happy Eating!