The Connection between Nutrition and Mood

It seems logical that what goes into our bodies would affect our brains and therefore our emotions, but the relationship between diet and mood is often overlooked even by health specialists. We often turn to a special food or drink if we encounter a hard day, but that is more often something that we personally associate with good times rather than chemically altering our brains.

New research by nutritional psychiatrists is illuminating the relationship between certain foods and mental health. Not only are there causal relationships between high carbohydrate diets and anxiety and depression, but, in many cases, emotional problems like stress reinforce poor dietary behaviors.

New Questions about Common Health Conditions

It has long been known that the immune system plays an important role in common mental health conditions like stress and depression. Emerging research suggests that inflammation in the brain may be a critical factor in these mental health problems, and that small proteins known as cytokines may be a crucial intermediary.

Cytokine levels are elevated among depressive patients, but these levels may vary depending on a multitude of factors including age, gender, and menstrual cycle. Initially thought to function exclusively for the immune system, it is now apparent that cytokines may serve in many roles beyond an immune response.

Are Healthy Foods also Good for Mental Health?

It has generally been assumed that foods that provide nutritional benefits also support mental health, but there may be some foods that produce more mental health benefits than others. For example, a number of studies have determined that omega-3 fatty acids can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Similarly, probiotics have been shown to improve anxiety and mood disorders.

Of course, a change in diet would probably be insufficient to remedy a serious mental health condition, but it may help in cases where symptoms are milder or when used in conjunction with more traditional treatments like counseling or medications.

Although studies have suggested links between certain nutrients and various mood disorders, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about causality. For most of us, our diets remain too varied to pinpoint the presence or absence of key nutrients as the principal factor for a mental problem.

Most health experts support the argument that depression and other mental health issues are influenced by multiple factors, of which nutrition could play a significant role. However, it is important to keep in mind that although the science is yet to confirm a direct link between food and mood, there is almost universal support for the idea that poor health can strongly contribute to declining mental health.

So, the jury may still be out on if key foods can help improve your emotional wellbeing, there is little doubt that eating poorly and developing health conditions like obesity or chronic pain can damage your mental health.

Why the Mediterranean Diet Is So Good for Your Mental Health

If you have investigated dieting, then you have probably heard of the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet generally consists of

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • White meat
  • Olive oil

The Mediterranean diet may also include moderate amounts of cheese, red meat, and wine.

Nutritionists laud the Mediterranean diet for its low amounts of animal protein and saturated fats as well as high levels of antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Several studies concluded that the Mediterranean diet produced substantial health benefits including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

In at least two small studies, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to improvements in mental health conditions. The first study involved 85 people with depressive symptoms who adhered to the Mediterranean diet for at least 6 months. The second study included 67 patients with major depressive disorder who remained on the Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks. In both studies, there was significant improvement of symptoms among participants.

Although these studies were too small and clinically lax to extrapolate on the efficacy of the Mediterranean diet for mental health problems, they do provide some intriguing possibilities for health care professionals

How Poor Diet Can Detrimentally Influence Your Mental Health

Although your brain is distinct from the other organs and systems of your body, there is no doubt that their poor performance will impact the performance of your mind. That is why a diet that impedes the proper function of various physiological systems could seriously undermine your emotional wellbeing.

Some of the key markers of a bad diet include high sodium, sugar, and fat. Commonly referred to as junk food, these foods often fuel obesity, high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions. In general, these ongoing health issues can be linked to a higher likelihood of mental health problems.

One meta-study that examined 41 clinical trials in the U.K., Spain and Australia found that a bad diet did raise the risk of depression. The report concluded that there was a causal link between a poor diet and depression; it went on to recommend that clinicians make dietary optimization a core component of depression treatment.

Another study of 12,000 people in Europe found that those who ate a diet high in trans fats had a 48 percent higher risk of developing depression than those that didn’t consume trans fats. A study by the Australian Healthy Neighborhoods group surveyed 7,114 teens and found that those who ate poorly were consistently more likely to develop depression regardless of other factors like socioeconomic class or family history.

One startling report came out of the University of South Carolina that linked suicide with poor diet. The study examined the diets of 6,803 patients who had attempted suicide and found that they ate less fruits, vegetables, and meat than people who did not attempt suicide.

At least, initial studies suggest that there is some relationship between diet and emotional health, despite considerable debate as to how strong that relationship is. While additional research and studies are needed before mainstream acceptance and understanding of the link between nutrition and mental health, people who are concerned about their mental and physical health should choose more nutritious foods whenever possible.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.