We are what we eat. How often do we hear that said? It is mostly used in relation to physical health, and of course a balanced healthy diet is important to maintain the health of our heart, bones, etc, but what about our mind?
There have been many studies on how what we put into our bodies affects the brain and mental well-being – also, on how our mental state can affect the quality of what we eat and drink and in what quantities.
It stands to reason, the better the fuel we put in, the better the performance – just like the engine of a car.
Some foods have been shown to increase levels of serotonin in the gut, where most serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a chemical closely associated with our mood and emotions. The higher the levels of serotonin, the better the mood. As the production of serotonin is mainly in the gut, it is clear why what we put in our digestive system influences serotonin production and therefore our mood and mental state. Foods rich in omega 3, such as oily fish, as well as nuts and seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables and protein-rich foods low in fat, such as chicken are all thought to be rich in the enzymes needed to boost serotonin levels. If our gut is happy, then so are we more likely to be happy.
Some research has shown that sugar can cause heightened levels of depression and anxiety. Studies into the effects of a Mediterranean diet rich in fruit and vegetables, fish and starchy foods compared to a ‘Western’ diet higher in saturated fat and sugar have shown the Mediterranean diet to be linked to lower levels of depression. Some foods high in fat and sugar can cause heightened inflammation in certain parts of the brain which is linked to depressive illnesses. Conversely, foods high in omega-3 can help to reduce these brain inflammations and therefore reduce depressive feelings.
But it is not only the food itself that can be good for mental health. The simple act of looking after ourselves by eating well can be a great motivator and therefore improve mood and mental state. This self-care is key in common mental health therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) often used to treat depression and anxiety. The act of eating healthily can in itself work as a kind of anti-depressant. Further investigation is needed for changes in diet alone to be used as a means of treating depression and anxiety – known as ‘Nutritional Psychiatry’ – but eating healthily can only be a good thing for mental well-being generally and, used in conjunction with other treatments such as CBT and anti-depressants, it can be play an important role in regaining and maintaining good mental health.
We should ask ourselves whether we are eating badly because of a mental health problem or is the poor diet causing the mental health problem? There may be other factors at play too – financial stresses and environment – which can cause someone to eat an unhealthy diet and it is not necessarily a mental health condition causing the poor diet. This is the challenge presented to healthcare professionals when it comes to diagnosing a mental health condition.
If we are feeling low, we can be tempted to turn to food and drink to improve our mood and make us feel better – at least for a short while. If this is done on a regular basis and particularly with the wrong type of foods high in sugar and fat, we can be causing other problems for both our physical and mental health. Poor diet can leave us feeling depressed, lethargic and in extreme cases, lead to overweight and obesity which bring with them other physical health problems.
When it comes to eating and drinking, there are simple things which we can all do each day to keep ourselves physically and mentally healthy:
The NHS website features a number of helpful resources and guidance on eating a well-balanced, healthy diet.