Food And Mental Health – Is There A Connection?

Person eating french fries

If your child is hungry, be wary of letting them reach for the chips or soda – junk foods could affect their mood. In fact, recent studies are showing that food and mental health are more closely linked than we realize.

Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research reports that, “a very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.”

Nutrition Psychiatry

In the U. S., mental health conditions are more common than you might think.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health condition some time during their lives. They report that, as of 2018, “mental illnesses, such as depression, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the United States for those aged 18-44 years old.”

These alarming statistics, coupled with the fact that the Western diet is often filled with junk food, made scientists wonder if there was a connection between the two. Could it be that nutrition affects the brain as much as it does the body? To find out, researchers began to look into the relationship between food and mental health about a decade ago.

Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University reports that the last ten years of study has shown that, “the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality, whole-foods diet.” He also points out that, “the risk of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) doubles.”

Because they are seeing that nutrition can play a role in mental health, researchers are now even thinking that food allergies might affect bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Food and Mental Health

Most of the recent studies have revolved around the connection between a healthy diet and anxiety and depression. Although direct evidence linking food and mental health has not been found yet, there are trials in progress to prove it.

Meanwhile, we do know that a healthy diet affects brain health by:

  • Changing brain proteins and enzymes to increase neural transmitters, which are the connections between brain cells.
  • Boosting brain development.
  • Raising serotonin levels through various food enzymes, which improves mood.
  • Increasing good gut bacteria. This promotes a healthy gut biome, which decreases inflammation. Inflammation is known to affect both cognition and mood.

We now know that a nutrient-rich diet creates changes in brain proteins that improves the connections between brain cells. But diets that are high in refined sugars and saturated fats have been shown to have a “very potent negative impact on brain proteins,” Jacka says.

Moreover, we know that a high sugar, high fat diet decreases the healthy bacteria in the gut. Some studies have shown that a diet that is high in sugar may worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia. And, a 2017 study of the sugar intake of 23,000 people by Knuppel, et al., “confirms an adverse effect of sugar intake from sweet food/beverage on long-term psychological health and suggests that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health.”

Foods For Brain Health

It’s logical that the foods that are best for the body should also be the foods that promote brain health. This theory is supported by the results from a large European study that shows that nutrient-dense foods like the ones found on the Mediterranean diet may actually help prevent depression.

The nutrients that may help brain health include:

  • Zinc – low levels of zinc can cause depression.
  • B12 – A 2013 report by Ramsey and Muskin that was published in Current Psychiatry, noted that “low B12 levels and elevated homocysteine increase the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease and are linked to a 5-fold increase in the rate of brain atrophy.”
  • Omega 3s – may improve mood and do help improve memory and thinking.
  • Vitamin C – The report by Ramsey and Muskin also noted that, “Vitamin C intake is significantly lower in older adults (age ≥60) with depression.”
  • Iron – iron-deficiency anemia plays a part in depression.

Eating nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, leafy greens, colorful vegetables, beans and legumes, seafood, and fruits will boost the body’s overall health – including brain health. Both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which eliminates sugar, were found to significantly improve symptoms in the patients who took part in one study.

Adding fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, pickles, or kombucha, to your diet can improve gut health and increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate sleep and stabilize mood. About 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so it is understandable that eating these foods can make you feel more emotionally healthy.  The next time your child reaches for the chips and soda, ask yourself if those empty calories are benefiting their developing brains. Since they probably aren’t, hand them some cultured yogurt or an apple instead. Remember – every bite counts!

Note: Dietary changes shouldn’t substitute for treatment. If your child is on medications for a mental health disorder, don’t replace or reduce them with food on your own. Speak with their pediatrician or mental health professional about what they should eat, as well as what they shouldn’t. Medications will work better in a healthy body than an unhealthy one.