There’s increasing amounts of evidence to suggest that diet has a role to play in the care and treatment of those with mental health problems. The diet that we eat today is very different to the one our ancestors would have had. Due to increased food production and modern manufacturing techniques our intake of nutritious and fresh produce is at an all-time low. At the same time the amount of fats, sugar and alcohol we’re ingesting has risen sharply. So what impact is this having on our mental health?
Worldwide, around 450 million people suffer from a mental health issue and around 25% of people will be affected by a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Problems in mental health have been steadily increasing and research indicates that depression may become one of the most widespread disorders within 20 years. It’s thought that this increase mirrors the changes in our diet, with intensive farming making some of our best-loved foods less nutritious. Research has found success with treatments involving diet for disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and depression. And this suggests diet has a big impact on our mental well-being.
To stay healthy your brain needs essential nutrients like amino acids, complex carbohydrates, fatty acids and vitamins. Neurons, which allow the brain to communicate messages to itself, are connected to other neurons by ‘dendrites’. These are ‘branches’ composed mostly of fat which comes from your diet. Similarly neurotransmitters, chemicals which relay signals between neurons, are created using amino acids, which again, come from the food you eat. As the brain is made up of around 60% fat, the kinds of fats we eat can affect it’s substance and structure. Large quantities of saturated fats, like lard and trans-fats found in many crisps and ready-meals can prevent the brain’s production of vital nutrients like eicosapentaenoic acid.
Fortunately, there are many foods which can nourish or brain and help to improve mood or mental-well being. Many foods can help the brain release a good balance of neurotransmitters which won’t lead to problems. Chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are vital and a a deficiency in these can lead to a bad mood, sleeping problems or lethargy. Ingesting large amounts of junk foods, deep-fried foods and sugar can all lead to deficiencies in these chemicals as can alcohol. Consuming fish, fruit, eggs and certain cheeses can help you avoid a deficiency and promote good mental health. Drinking caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee can lead to a shortage of GABA, a neurotransmitter which plays a role in stimulation. A lack of GABA can lead to increased irritability or excitement and you may find it hard to relax. Eating green vegetables, nuts and eggs can help maintain your GABA levels and keep your brain healthy.
Deficiencies in vitamins have also been shown to play a role in a number of mental health issues. A lack of regular vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B, vitamin C and folic acid can contribute to a number of common mental health problems. Some effects of deficiencies include depression, poor memory, a lack of concentration, anxiety or psychosis. Research indicates that eating foods such as wholegrain vegetables, bananas, and dairy products can ensure you maintain healthy vitamin levels. Nutritional supplements, like one-a-day multivitamins, can also help keep these levels high but are no substitute for a healthy and a balanced diet.