We often get asked about how the food we eats affects our mental health. We decided to put together this article to explain in more detail how it all works. There’s some fascinating information in here, that everyone can benefit from, so if it gets a bit scientific for you, stick with it. Or if you’re like us and love to know the nitty gritty…you’re welcome!!
The effects of nutrition on our physical performance have been studied for decades. Athletes have worked meticulously with dieticians to improve the performance of their muscles, lungs, and hearts. Rarely do we see academics working with dieticians to perfect their nutrition for mental performance. Just as the possible benefits of good nutrition for the brain have been somewhat dismissed by society, so too have the effects of poor nutrition on our mental status, until recently. it is now becoming abundantly clear that just as food affects our physical well-being, it also affects mental well-being.
Poor nutrition is being identified as a contributing cause of numerous mental health disorders.
We all strive for health and longevity, but as the World Health Organisation succinctly states, “mental health is an integral part of health, indeed there is no health without mental health”.
In Australia, close to 50% of the population will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their life, with depression and anxiety being the most common(6). Mental health disorders are the third leading cause of disability. Multiple contributing factors have been linked to the cause, like genetics, biochemical factors, and major life events. But, discovering and understanding the relationship and possible causation of nutrition on mental health could give us treatment and prevention techniques that are safe, effective, and as easy as what we put in our mouths every day.
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent. When given a balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats from natural, unprocessed sources, the body works efficiently to convert the whole food into its most basic nutrient components. The required nutrients and minerals are absorbed through the gut lining and transported through the blood to where they are needed.
Optimal brain function relies on the chemical reactions that use specific but numerous minerals and nutrients. Some of the most vital nutrients include:
– Amino acids, found in protein rich foods which are converted into neurotransmitters like, serotonin, norepinephrine and noradrenaline. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the brain’s signalling to the body.
– Glucose, from carbs, which is used to spike insulin and increases the availability of amino acids.
– Essential fatty acids (EFA), found in fish, nuts and seeds, assist in the transmission of neurotransmitter signals between neurons. 30% of the brain is comprised of these EFAs
The signals from the brain to the body tell us how to act and feel, and they allow us to act appropriately in any given situations. Mental health disorders are categorised by the lack of appropriate emotions and actions.
The modern diet, while rich in foods and calories, is lacking in these essential nutrients and minerals. If the body doesn’t have access to the vital components of food, it is as if there is a missing puzzle piece when it comes to neurological function; the neurotransmitters are not produced or used effectively. In her comprehensive report, ‘Feeding Minds: the impact of food on mental health’, Dr Deborah Cornah emphasises the importance of this balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, as they are influential for cognitive and memory function, as well as emotional control.
The structure and composition of the gut also indicates a link between nutrition and mental health. A study out of the UCLA division of digestive health proved that just as the brain can send messages to the body, the gut can send messages to the brain. The gut is being referred to as the’ second brain’, with millions of neurons lining the wall of the intestinal tract, and interestingly, along with a percentage of other neurotransmitters, 90% of the body’s serotonin (responsible for contentment) resides in the gut(5). It is thought that the gut may have some influence over our emotions and actions, but when a highly processed and unnatural diet causes damage to the intestines and its lining, it simply will not relay messages as effectively.
There is no denying that there is a strong relationship between what we eat and our mental health. Of course, further studies need to be performed to discover the true extent of the relationship. However, the studies currently available should be adequate enough for us to start utilising the diet, in conjunction with other options, as a safe and easy tool in the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders.
1. Champeau R. (2013) Changing Gut Bacteria Through Diet Affects Brain Function, UCLA Study Shows [blog] Retrieved from:http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/changing-gut-bacteria-through-245617
2. Cornah D. (2005) Feeding Minds: the impact of food on mental health [report] Retrieved from: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/html/content/feedingminds_report.pdf#sthash.1qEmcm53.dpuf
3. Davison KM, Ng E, Chandrasekera U, Seely C, Cairns J, Mailhot-Hall L, Sengmueller E, Jaques M, Palmer J, Grant-Moore J. (2012). Promoting Mental Health through Healthy Eating and Nutritional Care. Retrieved from: www.dietitians.ca/mentalhealth
4. Deans E. (2014) The Gut Brain Connection, Mental Illness, and Disease [blog] Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201404/the-gut-brain-connection-mental-illness-and-disease
5. Hadhazy A. (2010) Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-being [article] Retrieved from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/
6. Mental Health Council of Australia Fact Sheet (2007) Retrieved from: https://mhaustralia.org/sites/default/files/imported/component/rsfiles/factsheets/statistics_on_mental_health.pdf
7. Wurtman R,J. (1994). Food Components to Enhance Performance: An Evaluation of Potential Performance-Enhancing Food Components for Operational Rations.. 13, Effects of Nutrients on Neurotransmitter Release. Retrieved from:: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209058/